Wrest Park is being transformed by a contemporary art exhibition this summer. A range of original prints and paintings by artist Sally Annett are on display now until 22 July, and will be followed by a parallel exhibition at Bletchley Park. Annett’s idea for the project, ‘Systems of Philosophy –Wall(papers) of Mind’, was sparked by the unique paper-based collections at both sites.
At Wrest Park, it was the site’s collection of rarely-seen wallpapers that inspired Annett’s work. We spoke to her to find out more about her inspiration, and what it was like to delve into the vast collection stores at Wrest.
What attracted you to Wrest Park and Bletchley Park as sites for artistic interpretation?
I realised that they both had incredible collections based around paper – though of a very different kind! I had worked with a curator at Wrest Park before, so I knew the site had an amazing collection of wallpapers. In 2016 I also had the opportunity to see some of Bletchley Park’s collections, which are all about cyphers and encrypted information and the technologies used to break codes in World War One. Paper was another intrinsic part of the code-breakers’ work. I thought the contrast between the two paper-based collections at Wrest and Bletchley was fascinating, but I also saw that the collections were united by the theme of fragmentation – the piecing together of contemporary history from the fragments we have left. That’s one of the themes that I’ve tried to draw out in this joint exhibition across the two sites.
What was it like to see the Wrest Park wallpaper collection? It’s not a sight many people get to see!
Charlie [Dr Charlotte Newman, English Heritage Curator] had a hard job getting me out of there! The papers are incredible – historically, narratively, physically. There are gilded leather papers, Chinese wallpapers, papier-mache designs. And they’re from all kinds of properties – from the houses of politicians to an 18th-century ‘madhouse’. One particular wallpaper has 17 layers, spanning several decades.
I spent two whole days in the stores and by the end I had taken over 3,000 photos!
Were there any particular wallpapers that stood out and inspired your work?
The wallpaper fragments from Brooke House are fascinating. The property was once a grand Hackney residence that became a privately-run ‘madhouse’ in the 18th century. It’s unusual to have surviving wallpaper from such a property – they might not be as fancy or decorative as some of the others in the collection, but they have such interesting stories behind them. In my ‘Verdant Man’ print, I’ve combined elements from the Brooke House fragments with dragonfly and bee motifs from the Chinese papers.
Tell us about the works visitors can expect to see in your Wrest Park exhibition.
On the pear orchard wall I’ve hung two huge aluminium panels, each overlaid with a vinyl print. The pieces are each three metres by one and a half metres in size, and were a devil to install! We’re not allowed to fix things directly on the wall, to avoid damaging the historic site, so we built a special floating timber framework to hang them using some of the hundreds of existing drill holes.
In the Countess’s sitting room inside the house I’ve placed a single framed painting on an easel and in the ante-library I’ve replaced three of the facsimile portraits with framed prints. I’ll be interested to see if visitors realise they’re contemporary artworks or think they’re part of the room dressing.
In the dairy I’ve hung eleven large prints of engravings alongside rolls of sumptuous wallpaper. It looks like a medieval drapery! I’ve also hung origami birds high in the ceiling alcove – I hand coloured the paper and an artist called Elise Haudiquert folded them into origami objects.
What methods did you use to make the prints?
All of the works are made with paper and I’ve used engraving techniques to create many of the prints. I’ve developed a technique of transfer-engraving using rose petals. I use the petals to pick up the ink patterns from engraved copper, zinc and aluminium plates and then transfer it to the printing papers, which has the effect of both fragmenting and re-constructing the original work.
Rose petals have a texture like high quality paper or even human skin. It’s a very specific feel, and they’re very strong so they’re perfect for capturing the details of fine engraving. The colour and smell even bleed into the paper. My studio smells heavenly while I’m working!
Do the rose petals also have a particular significance, or symbolism?
They’re a quintessentially English symbol, but I gathered them in France where I live, so they’re actually the most un-English roses you’d expect to find in an English country house. I like that little irony because both Wrest Park and Bletchley Park have deep international links – neither are as straight-forwardly English as they might first appear. It’s interesting to think about the relationship between nationalism and internationalism in these spaces.
How else was your work affected by the history of these country houses?
I was interested in the lost female voices at both sites. At Wrest Park I learned that Amabel Grey (1751–1833) – a member of the famous aristocratic family that owned the Wrest estate for over 600 years – was herself a print-maker and accomplished amateur artist, but her work has since been lost to other collections and museums. It feels significant to be bringing print-making back to Wrest after all these years.
Friends I know who live in the area have also told me anecdotes about the women code-breakers and signal operatives who worked at Bletchley and elsewhere in the local area. One woman who worked at Chicksands, not far from Wrest, still had nightmares into her 80s about the work she did. Many of these women carried their secrets to the grave.
How can visitors learn more about the themes running through your work, and the collections that inspired them?
There will be three large, hand-bound books at Wrest, which visitors can handle and look through. They contain a collection of images and a text response by Susan Johanknecht, a specialist in book arts and Senior Lecturer at the University of Arts, London. There will also be a catalogue on sale, featuring over 40 colour images with a range of texts and contributions from curators at both Wrest and Bletchley.
What do you hope visitors to Wrest Park will take away from your exhibition?
I really hope they’ll be able to see the site with fresh eyes and explore the space differently. By responding directly to the collection held in stores, this exhibition is bringing rarely-seen fragments of history into view. It offers a very different interpretation of the space than the one visitors would normally see.
Visit the exhibition
The exhibition ‘Systems of Philosophy – Wall(papers) of Mind’ runs at Wrest Park from 16 June until 22 July. Entry to exhibition is free with standard admission, which includes entry to Wrest’s stunning gardens. The parallel exhibition at Bletchley Park runs from 15 July until 28 October. The project is supported by Arts Council England and Alchemy Solutions. More information about Sally Annett’s work can be found at www.sallyannett.com and www.aterlierdemelusine.com.
Discover three other English Heritage sites with ‘writing on the wall’
- In 2015 a team of specialist conservators painstakingly uncovered and protected maps and murals in Eltham Palace’s ‘map room’. Now visitors can enjoy a hand-drawn link to the 1930s and see the world through the eyes of the glamorous, globetrotting Courtauld family.
- Richmond Castle houses a fascinating array of graffiti from the conscientious objectors who were held prisoner there during World War One and World War Two. The cell blocks are not currently open to the public, but visitors can learn about them online and in the on-site exhibition.
- At Brodsworth Hall, conservators have saved the stunning library wallpaper from rising damp and silverfish damage. Visit the place where time stands still, and experience the unique moment of country house’s slow decline.