Absolutely Yorkshire catches up with Jane Marriott, Trust Director at Harewood House, to talk history, education and living in Boston Spa
Can you give us a potted history of Harewood House…
Harewood House was built in the 18th century, on an estate dating back to Anglo Saxon times, by Edwin Lascelles. He commissioned the greatest craftsmen of the day, including Robert Adam, Thomas Chippendale and Capability Brown, to design the spectacular house and gardens. Whilst subsequent generations built up an enviable collection of the world’s finest paintings, furniture, and ceramics.
The house has a difficult history as it was originally built using the wealth his family had made from the Transatlantic slave trade in the West Indies. Since the 20th century, it has been a royal household and a wartime convalescent hospital, until in the 1980s it was handed over to Harewood House Trust, an educational charity, to run for everyone to enjoy.
These days Harewood House Trust manages over 140 acres of beautiful grounds and gardens, a Grade I listed House and museum and a living collection of endangered bird species. In reimagining the country house for the 21st century, we welcome over 250,000 visitors a year, and thousands of school children, with an exciting and ambitious programme of exhibitions and events by contemporary makers, artists and designers.
How long have you been Director of the Harewood House Trust and what originally attracted you to the role?
I joined at the end of January 2017, hot on the heels of several years at the wonderful Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield. My move to Harewood House not only gave me an irresistible opportunity to run a beautiful historic house and gardens, but a unique chance to re-imagine what makes a historic house relevant in the 21st century – to address why we should care that these great houses exist at all! I feel that my 20 years working with galleries and museums from the Tate, British Museum and Royal Academy of Arts, has prepared me for the biggest role yet.
Over the past five years we have opened more of the landscape and house to visitors than ever before; introducing a new three parks circular walk, a new Treehouse and launching a chain ferry to the beautiful walled garden. Not stopping there, we have created breath-taking Christmas installations with talented artists; we have launched a Harewood Craft Biennial and we have tackled challenging conversations on Harewood’s history, whilst looking how we can positively contribute to some of the urgent issues of our day from the climate crisis to our health and well-being and ensuring true diversity and inclusivity. We all truly believe that Harewood is, and must remain, a place that can enrich all our lives.
Do you feel privileged to work at Harewood?
Very much so. Whilst we know we are only one small part of Harewood’s long history, Harewood has been, and remains, a key part of the Yorkshire landscape. We have an opportunity to ensure this place does not remain frozen in time, but rather a chance to create something wonderful and inspiring. A place with such an outstanding collection of art, interiors, gardens and events, that leaves people wanting more every time they visit.
Indeed, thousands of school children come each year and we take our role in education very seriously, wanting to inspire the next generation and giving them the best experience outside their classroom walls. Many community groups take part in our workshops and our cultural partnerships range from Leeds Playhouse, to the Universities, to Leeds 2023, to Heritage Corner and the British Museum. By working with such a rich cultural set of partners in our region and nationally we can have a greater impact. This has been reflected in our awards over the past few years ranging from an ‘Innovation’ award for our Christmas exhibition, to ‘Visitor Attraction of the Year’.
What does a typical day for you look like?
No two days are the same. For example, today I have attended a Finance and Audit committee meeting this morning spanning several hours reviewing how our charitable income is holding up against rising costs and the increasing challenge of the cost of living for visitors and staff alike; followed by a briefing for a national art competition ‘Articulation’, which I am the Judge of tomorrow afternoon at Leeds University; responding to a decision needed urgently on the analysis of our Bird Garden collection and conservation needs; whilst rounding off the day with a discussion on a request for Harewood House to be the key focus a new Channel 4 programme later this year.
What do you look to offer at Harewood today?
In five years, our audience has grown from 160,000 to quarter of a million people and our membership has multiplied to 30,000 people coming regularly to enjoy what we offer. The challenge, therefore, is to ensure we have a constantly changing programme to enjoy, no matter what the weather and time of year. Each year we are improving the site and thinking of new ways to introduce play, alongside quieter, yet equally beautiful gardens to walk in. We strive to work with the best artists in the country to bring contemporary art and craft, both in the house and outdoors, and to ensure we commission artists from many diverse backgrounds and from different stages in their careers. Chris Day is a great example of this, as he was a heating engineer, turned glass artist who created the most beautiful works we had the privilege to show in All Saints church in the grounds of the house last year.
Is the learning programme important to you?
We are very proud of our Sandford award for Learning, recognising a commitment dating back to our charity foundation in 1986. Harewood is a wonderful place to learn, to immerse yourself in history and art, enjoy being in nature, encounter endangered bird species and to feel inspired. The judges of the award stated: ‘Harewood is a treasure house of learning that offers all ages a fantastic opportunity to understand the history of the estate, the locality and indeed the nation. The learning team provide first rate tours and activities that offer children an inspirational bridge to the past and helps them understand the true significance of their historic environment.’
During Covid, our Trustees supported our Shared Vision for Learning to reconnect and engage schools and community groups across the region. We have focused on great outdoor learning offers, expanded our stories and ways to explore the house and sometimes difficult histories, and to enable children and young people to start to think about how they feel and respond to the big questions and challenges of today. However, we don’t just focus on the offer to thousands of school children who visit each year, but how to inspire visitors of all ages in learning more at Harewood.
As we approach the summer season, what can we look forward to at Harewood?
We’re very proud of our current exhibition, Radical Acts: Why Craft Matters, which explores how craft can tackle urgent issues in society today – such as sustainability, conservation, social justice and human connection. The curator Hugo Macdonald brought together 16 wonderful makers who have used their skills to reflect on these questions, and their work is relatable to all of our lives. Radical Acts, supported by the Arts Council of England, runs in the house and throughout the grounds until the end of August.
The summer also has plenty of outdoor events to enjoy, such as outdoor theatre and cinema, vintage car rallies and concerts from global stars Michael Buble and Bryan Adams. We will be hosting the return of Make It Harewood, a chance for all of us to take part in craft and making, to watch great makers at work and to bask in the sounds of live music and taste the wonderful food on offer in the historic courtyard. Alongside this, we continue to offer behind the scenes events and workshops for you to try out new skills, explore new areas out of opening hours and come for late evening openings to enjoy the walled garden or a cocktail or two on the Terrace, eat some wonderful food and listen to live music.
Throughout the year, the changing seasons can be enjoyed through the beautiful gardens, grounds and lake teeming with so much natural wildlife, alongside our incredible collection of endangered bird species, mainly from South America and the Himalayan region. Think penguins; to condors; to snowy owls; to parrots. Conservation is the primary reason for housing such a collection, but this does not detract from making a wonderful day out, being so close to such beautiful creatures.
Do you live close by?
Yes, my family live in Boston Spa, a very beautiful and thriving village only 20 minutes away.
What do you love best about where you live?
I am a city girl at heart, but the opportunity to live within the glorious country setting of a village whilst still being so close to Leeds, Harrogate and York greatly appealed. The Georgian architecture, so typical of Spa towns and villages of the past, looks beautiful, particularly in the warm light of a sunny evening, whilst walking along the river coming across our friends and neighbours helps me to reconnect with what is important in life. Having said that, the great bars, restaurants, and lovely boutique shops do also help with its appeal! It was such a special place to move to after 20 years working in London.
Harewood aside, can you pick out three places you love visiting in the area?
Our ideal weekends have shifted as our children have grown so it’s very hard to pick three. The galleries and museums are wonderful – in particular The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, whilst historic sites such as Bolton Abbey always remain a firm favourite. As the years have gone by, we have started to explore the smaller, but still beautiful, places to visit; the newly opened sculpture garden at Thirsk Hall is worth a visit and York Gate Gardens in Leeds is beautiful. We also went to a fabulous supper club At The Mill, in Stillington recently. Indeed, food and all things connected to locally sourced food, great craft and beautiful art will always remain a favourite past time – so Salts Mill, Staithes and Malton will regularly see me as an avid visitor – with my family in tow, of course!
Looking ahead, what are the biggest challenges for the Harewood House Trust to overcome?
Harewood House Trust must care for its house, the collections and beautiful grounds so that they remain long after any of us. However, the reason we do this is to ensure that it remains a place that can be shared. It can be an escape and a refuge when you need to step out of your everyday life for a moment, it can be a wonderful and social space to spend much needed time with friends and family and it can be a place to explore, perhaps learn something new or get involved with what we do. As we reflect on the trials of the past two years of Covid, the next challenge for us all is how to navigate the next two years, against a backdrop of rising costs and inflation, challenging staff recruitment, fundraising difficulties and much needed investment in the visitor infrastructure on the site. I believe we are in a strong position at Harewood to succeed. We want to continue to grow our visitors and members, using the universal appeal of an award-winning programme of exhibitions and events and to do so on one of the most beautiful sites in Yorkshire. Simon Jenkins, in his book ‘England’s Thousand best Houses’, summed it up beautifully: ‘Harewood is a place of dazzlement, a St Petersburg palace on a Yorkshire ridge’.