I first visited Blackwell on a beautiful sunny late-summer evening, having been approached and asked if I’d like to exhibit my work there.
It was only my second trip to the Lake District and a fleeting visit between installing a show in Stoke-on-Trent and an artist residency at Cove Park in Scotland.
On my tour of the house I was enchanted by the dark wood of the hall contrasted with the beautiful, light, airiness of the White Drawing Room – with the sun pouring in the windows and the view over Lake Windermere.
As I was shown round, Shannon, one of the learning team, shared a story with me; when the house was being renovated years ago, they had found a tree sapling growing in one of the cupboards in this room. I’m always on the look out for a good story and have an ongoing fascination with the way plants behave when left to their own devices; reclaiming and moving into man-made spaces.
From this tale, I had the idea for the first of my new works for Blackwell – Rowan Tree Sapling, which appears to grow inside a cupboard in the White Drawing Room and I’ve heard is many visitor’s favourite piece.
On this first visit, the house seemed like a magical place; where you could while away hours with a book or the views in one of the inglenooks or play an excellent game of hide and seek (this was further inspired by the Swallows and Amazons exhibition on at the time).
There was just a short turnaround before the exhibition would open in January, but I felt that Blackwell was too special a place not to make some new work inspired by the house and surrounding landscape.
So in November I returned for a four-day research trip. The summer was now gone, but I was lucky that there was still sunshine coming in the drawing room windows. During my reseach trip, I would arrive at the house early before it opened to the public so I could have the place to myself, savouring the serenity and calm – the house is a great place to think as well as observe.
As the visitors begun to trickle in, I would move from the White Drawing Drawing Room up to the Minstrel’s Gallery, above the Great Hall. I liked to think of this as my hideout, like a child in a den. I could listen in on conversations below and fantasise about being a Romanian princess in her treehouse (there is a sketch displayed in the Minstrel’s Gallery of a treehouse designed by Bailie Scott for the Crown Princess of Romania).
This part of the house directly inspired my new piece The Treehouse. Balanced on trunk-like legs, an oak box references the joinery and details of a cabinet in the White Drawing Room and houses a landscape. The box was designed and created in collaboration with my partner Geoffrey Hagger who is a woodworker.
Instead of peering into The Treehouse and seeing a cosy interior, you find a vista reminiscent of both the local Cumbrian landscape and one of fairy tales. Coloured glass (which will be changed intermittently throughout the exhibition) is inspired by the Victorian observation tower directly opposite Blackwell, on the other side of Windermere. Depending on when you see the piece the landscape will appear at different times of day or in different seasons.
During my exploration of the house I studied the colours, particularly those of the stained glass, the light, shapes used in openings of windows, inglenooks and doorways, the views and framing of the landscape through the windows and the carved architectural details inspired by nature.
These all came together to inspire The Treehouse. As well as spending time inside the house, I also explored the surrounding area; photographing and sketching the hundreds of plants that grow from the boundary wall around the house – this inspired two new Stone pieces.
An employee at Blackwell recommended a local walk, and following her instructions I navigated a circular walk from the nearby village of Troutbeck. Climbing up the hill, the vista opened up onto beautiful views of the lake. As I walked I was on the lookout for grasses to inspire some new small sculptures – the grasses I found were drying in golden shades and curling as they dried. Traversing a boggy area of the path I found tufts with many different seed heads and thin grass growing from the verge. Back in the studio I translated the photographs I took into four new Turf pieces, working with a spectrum of clays to try and capture the golden, sepia shades of the grasses.
The opportunity to show my work at Blackwell is such a pleasure. It has allowed me to bring together pieces made over the past two years – from my MA degree show at the Royal College of Art to the new pieces made especially for the exhibition. One of my animations and a digital installation are also on display at Abbot Hall Gallery (until 28. April).
I have responded to the moods and features of the house in the display of the work – placing pieces with coloured glass in the stained glass windows, hiding a small Turf sculpture on a high window in the great hall and cleaning up The Glasshouse, originally designed to be displayed in a large, industrial old ceramics factory, to fit perfectly in The White Drawing room – the proportions of the windows are coincidentally almost exactly the same as the paneling on the walls and the rowan tree frieze is visible through the top windows and porcelain buddleia.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lakeland Arts for inviting me to exhibit my work in such a special place, in particularly Kerri Offord, Head of Curatorial who spotted and advocated my work.
Katie Spragg’s Ceramics exhibition runs at Blackwell until 10 May 2018.
Her digital animations at Abbot Hall Kendal are on show until 28 April 2018.
Learn more Katie Spragg and her amazing work.