Contemporary art + heritage site
Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800), the Countess of Strathmore and heiress to the Gibside Estate, was an interesting stick. She had a lifelong passion for botany and sent explorer William Paterson to collect rare and beautiful plants from the Cape in Africa. However, rather like being stuck in a plot strand from some Wilkie Collins novel, she was tricked into marriage by the charismatic adventurer Captain Andrew “Stoney” Robinson and her life took a distressing turn. The wealth and beauty of Gibside was squandered as Stoney sold off woods, parkland and property to fund his nefarious activities. Today, the Orangey is a poignant reminder of Mary Eleanor’s passion – where she kept her prized plant collections – and also where the artists Fiona Curran and Andrew Burton have responded to her story.
Curran’s flamboyant work Your Sweetest Empire is to Please, celebrates the role that women played in developing botanical knowledge in defiance of the educational restrictions of the times. She has created something of an architectural folly – a very 18thcentury thing to do – which is modelled on a Wardian Case, a container used to transport plants and seeds by ships. The folly is filled with startling exotic plants bursting out of their confinement.
Burton, meanwhile, has been inspired by a group of urns that once graced the balustrade of the Orangery for The Orangery Urns. He has played with the idea of returning these urns to Gibside and has created a group of gigantic vessels made from red and black clay whose huge size is in keeping with the scale of the landscape. Some of the vessels are inscribed with episodes from the scandalous but harrowing story of the marriage, culminating in the divorce filed by Mary Eleanor, a ground-breaking achievement for a woman in the 18th century. (Photograph of Andrew Burton’s work by Colin Davison Photography.)Contemporary Art at Gibside: Fiona Curran & Andrew Burton, until 30 September. Gibside, near Rowlands Gill, Gateshead. nationaltrust.org.uk/gibside