As an ex-pat Novocastrian/Northumbrian it gives me great pleasure simply to use the words in the title: there aren’t words in Suffolk with the resonance for me of these Northumbrian place-names.
Here, this ‘Highgreen’ is a manor house near a small village called Tarset, on the banks of a tributary of the River North Tyne. It is high up (c300m above sea level) on the moors between the Kielder Reservoir and the A68 not far south of Carter Bar and the Scottish border. Apart from modern plantations, there are almost no trees, and an extensive area of largely unenclosed moorland is sparsely populated by humans while providing good pasturage for thousands of summer sheep (see next post). ‘Highgreen’, a large house with farm and agricultural out-buildings behind, is almost hidden in one plantation, approached by a single-track road across the open moorland:
Highgreen: the setting of open moorland and plantations, looking north. The house is in the trees dead centre; the road runs across this view left to right immediately in front of the trees
Our visit co-incided with a remarkable spell of fine weather: it really was a cloudless blue sky, as on the photograph, hot and almost windless, a quite amazing combination of meteorological factors day after day for this part of the world. ‘Ah’, but you will say, ‘I see a bank of faint grey clouds along the horizon.’ Such was indeed there; but it was the remnants of a great pall of smoke blown westwards from a big moorland fire on the MOD’s Otterburn Ranges. They couldn’t call on the army to put it out because, so we were told in what was doubtless a lovely rural myth, the army had itself started it by firing live ammunition on to the dessicated moor.
Why were we at this remote and near-empty place? Well, it wasn’t empty, not quite, and we were attending the ‘VARC Exhibition Weekend’, a collaboration between two projects, Visual Arts in Rural Communities and Highgreen Arts. A more unlikely place for an art exhibition might be difficult to imagine; but if you want more information, use www.greatnorthumberland.co.uk, www.varc.org.uk and/or www.highgreen-arts.co.uk.
My concern is with the art rather than the organisation; though, frankly, I was rather out of my depth with some of the former. The rear part of Highgreen manor house, the service and servants’ quarters, had come to be unoccupied for several years and was then made available to three artists to work in and with. Karen Melvin, Claudia Sacher and Grace Warde-Aldam reacted in different ways to this unusual opportunity, one , for example, using the space to contain new material, another using the extant material such as peeling wall-paper to create new art in situ. It is difficult to convey an accurate impression so diverse was the output in successive rooms; yet there was cohesion in that each different ‘performance’ was a response to a common factor, an uninhabited house so recently occupied that you could almost sense the presence of its former inhabitants.
Part of the exhibition was called ‘No. 3: Stories in a house retold.’ Here are two examples of what there was to see; but of course the visual is only part of the story, the message and the inspiration. Behind each image is a story; each story relates above all to This Place, whether it be this room, this house or the great open spaces outside.
The room full of hanging clothes in plastic dust covers, for example, ‘works with one woman’s immaculately and lovingly kept collection of unworn pastel-coloured negligées and infants’ clothing dating from the 1950s and 60s, donated last year to a local charity. They had belonged to a woman of the post-war period who was financially comfortable enough not to have to work and who had never married nor had children, and yet compulsively bought clothes for a life she never had …. Shown in this space, [the installation] acts as a memorial for an unlived life, an unfulfilled dream. The woman died in 2016.’ (quotation from the exhibition hand-out). But, as is obvious, this is not the sort of art you buy and hang on the wall at home; and even though a gallery might well acquire it for display elsewhere, displayed elsewhere the installation would lose half its point for it is essentially of this place here.
Another striking part of the exhibition could hardly be displayed elsewhere unless, Banksy-like, a wall or two were removed and transported to another place – which rather defeats the the point of a series of murals, painted and drawn on to slightly damp-looking walls, created for this space only. Here is part of the frieze:
Called ‘Die Erde’, this, says the artist, ‘is a charcoal and pastel mural reminiscent of Grecian friezes or Egytian temple paintings, where abstracted archetypical figures and elongated shapes walk around the room as in a mysterious and timeless merry go round.’ Whatever the artist intended, this is very dramatic art indeed.
At first glance very different, but actually sharing this quality ‘of this place and this place alone’, is the work of Khosro Adibi, a multi-talented artist who enjoyed a Residency at Highgreen – and stayed. He has his own self-built studio and work-place, with evidence of his creativity all around. Outside are stone sculptures, mostly in the local sandstone:
And beyond, Richard Long-style, are works out in the wide landscape – which gives us a good reason to return since we did not visit them on this occasion.
Two other works here also caught my eye but I illustrate them in the next post about sheep. There was much else at this remarkable exhibition which I have not even mentioned. Overall it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed, even though I’m not sure I ‘got’ all of it. To visit was to be part of a performance, all the more vivid for being in a way so unexpected in such a remote place; and yet this place was the essence of the art: it could not have been created anywhere else and yet, in being at heart a series of responses to a particular environment, it touches on big issues and poses difficult questions across a wide field of human experience.
And ‘Black Middens’? – they sound dark and squelchy but, though not part of the Highgreen exhibition, are part of that same local story, here so close to what is now the Anglo-Scottish border. One roofless house still stands in what was a small settlement; remains of other buildings are clearly visible. The house is a bastle, that is a fortified, defensive structure in which people and their cattle could protect themselves when the reivers raided across the moors, questing booty and beasts – and perhaps looking to settle a personal score or two – rather than acquiring land. When more peaceful times evolved during the 17th century after the Scottish and English Crowns merged, bastles became redundant, though several are still in use in the Tarset area. The ‘Black Middens’ house is now maintained by Historic England as a public monument, much to the benefit of the local sheep sheltering in the shadow of its windowless northern wall on another sweltering, cloudless day.