September 23, 2011 10:03 pm

History meets heavy metal

Britain’s stately homes are adopting radical – and controversial – solutions to attract new visitors

The battlements of Tattershall Castle have loomed over the Lincolnshire fens for almost 600 years. The moated medieval tower has seen kings, queens and conquering armies come and go, but this weekend will see an unprecedented invasion when leather-clad bikers converge on the historic property. But rather than pulling up the drawbridge, the castle’s owner, the National Trust, is laying out the welcome mat with a month-long arts programme to entice heavy metal fans and bike enthusiasts.

Highlights of the Dark Materials festival, which launches today, include a specially commissioned sculpture by cutting edge artist Tod Hanson and an “alternative village fete” featuring “radical crafts”, heavy metal face painting, rockabilly barn dancing and works by “steam punk” artist Joe Rush, who makes sculptures from bike parts.

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It’s a long way from the historical re-enactments, cream teas and garden tours associated with properties owned by the National Trust, a charity devoted to conserving Britain’s heritage, but that’s the point.

The event is the latest in an innovative programme of arts and cultural events laid on by the National Trust in partnership with the Arts Council to target new audiences.

“We need to reach out to new people and show them that we are not just a teacakes and tweed organisation,” says Tom Freshwater, contemporary arts programme manager for the National Trust. “Contemporary art is a new way to get people into our properties and it can help them connect with the property on a deeper level.”

The Tattershall project came about because hundreds of bikers used the car park as a rendezvous en route to the coast, though few were entering the building. But it is part of a wider agenda to bring Britain’s heritage to life in innovative ways. In recent months this has seen the National Trust release a punk compilation album – Never Mind the Dovecotes – and host a Hare Krishna festival in the 18th century grounds of Croome in Worcestershire, which involved music, dance, chanting and meditation. At Attingham Park, Shropshire local artists have been invited to explore the house’s links with animals, with some unsettling results. Among the outlandish installations at the House of Beasts exhibition are macabre miniature dioramas made with dead insects, and taxidermy specimens in surreal situations, such as a magpie perched on a Bakelite telephone.

A male biker, his back to the camera

A new breed of visitor

Freshwater admits some visitors have found the work “challenging”. “If you look at the visitor books, 70 per cent of comments are positive but then we’ll get comments such as: ‘We come to the National Trust to get away from modern life’ or ‘This should be in the Tate Modern’. But we’re not doing this to be shocking. We are taking it very seriously and working with responsible and well-respected artists.”

The National Trust is not alone in embracing the counter-cultural and contemporary to reach new audiences. Across Britain, stately homes and castles are coming up with ever-more creative programming to freshen their appeal, from pop-up cinemas, such as The Nomad which toured historic houses and gardens this summer, to enlisting artists to breathe life into their buildings.

Recent collaborations included designer Vivienne Westwood’s contribution to the Enchanted Palace experience at Kensington Palace, which uses theatre, storytelling and light installations to bring the state apartments to life, and Antony Gormley’s showing of two new works at Harewood House in Yorkshire. Last week, Chatsworth, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, unveiled a new work by Damien Hirst as part of its Beyond Limits sculpture exhibition. Hirst’s Legend, a bronze depiction of a flayed winged horse, will be the highlight of the event, which is expected to bring in an additional 220,000 visitors over its six-week run.

“It’s been hugely successful, with the international art audience and our traditional visitors. And it’s attracted a new audience that wouldn’t necessarily have come otherwise,” says Matthew Hirst, head of arts and historic collections at Chatsworth.

Next year sees the culmination of the three-year partnership between the National Trust and the Arts Council and there are plans to go out with a bang, with 25 events at properties such as Tatton Park, Cheshire, Nymans in West Sussex and Ham House and Garden, Surrey.

Biker festivals, punk albums and dead insects: it’s a million miles from the perception of our stately homes and manor houses as treasure troves of the nation’s heritage. But as Freshwater points out, this is not such a radical departure as it might seem.

“In their heyday, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these houses would have been at the cutting edge of art and architecture. By supporting contemporary artists we are continuing a long tradition.”

‘Dark Materials’ is at Tattershall Castle until October 26. ‘The Alternative Village Fete’ is on October 15 and 16. ‘House of Beasts’ is at Attingham Park until July 15 2012. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk. ‘Beyond Limits’ is at Chatsworth until October 30; see www.chatsworth.org

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