This year Dreweatts partnered with Historic Houses to create The Collections Award. This new award celebrates the importance and evolution of the rich collections that can be found in Britain's independently owned historic houses.
The winner of the inaugural Collections Award was the Williams Caerhays Mineral Collection at Caerhays Castle. To make the difficult decision, we were delighted to invite some of the UK’s leading art and design experts to sit on our judging panel.
Desmond Shawe-Taylor was Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures from 2005 until his retirement in 2021. He is widely published and has been responsible for the curation of the Royal Collection as well as exhibitions in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, the Royal Academy and elsewhere. Here he tells us more about the profound importance of historic collections and the recognition the award will provide.
This year I have been privileged to serve on the judging panel of the new Historic Houses Collections Award, sponsored by Dreweatts. The question wasn’t who had the best collection, but who had done most to bring it to life – through conservation, research and presentation. This was a wonderful opportunity to visit special places, meet extraordinary people and think about an aspect of heritage which can lag behind gardens, film locations and the teashop.
Collecting is a passion and a collection is like an extension of the personality of the collector. In a great interior everything works in concert, the items created by artists, the relationships created by the collector. People might now say ‘curated’, but we curators are too rational and historical to have the true flair of a collector. The judges felt that Lady Emma Barnard deserved a special commendation as the inspiring passion behind Parham House, bearing the torch on behalf of so many generations who have made the house what it is.
A collection is a responsibility as well as a pleasure. A recurring theme in our visits was the importance of collection care, not just the transformation of a newly cleaned work but controlling the environment in an old building and training everyone in the rudiments of art handling. In an ideal world curators and conservators paddle furiously while the collection glides gracefully into the future like a swan. But it is holding its own against the current of inevitable deterioration. Sometimes collections emerge miraculously preserved, like the hoard of family costumes brought out of boxes in the attic at Blair Castle. The finest examples of 18th and 19th century elite dress were displayed throughout the state rooms. Documentary research matched the costumes with members of the family and even specific events, like the visit of Queen Victoria in 1844. The history of the family was brought to life as if in a costume drama with real costumes.
Managing collections is a long game. But how to celebrate the achievements of those who had been at it for decades? The Earl and Countess of Derby have been steadily restoring Knowsley Hall to its original splendour; 2022 was a landmark year because of the restoration of one of the many rooms - the library - and its contents. In this case the judges were especially impressed by the project’s commitment to scholarship and the exceptional contribution of Knowsley’s full-time curator, Dr Stephen Lloyd. The Historic Houses award was looking for new ways to interpret and share collections with a wider public. In this respect digital technology is a godsend, especially with the help provided by pioneering charitable foundations, like Art UK and Watercolour World. A partnership with the latter organisation has enabled Knowsley to make available its entire collection of Edward Lear watercolours, topographical and zoological.
The final characteristic of a collection is that it is the repository of knowledge. Sir Francis Bacon regarded a cabinet of man-made and natural wonders as the basis of natural philosophy (what we would call ‘science’). The collection of minerals formed by successive generations of the Williams family at Caerhays Castle was intended to encourage the understanding of the natural world as Bacon advocated, as well as helping to exploit the family’s extensive mining interests. This is a collection extracted from the depths of the earth and then in the last 15 years dug afresh out of the cupboards, attics and cellars of Caerhays Castle. Catalogued from scratch by its curator, Courtenay Smale, it is now coming to be recognised as one of the most important collections of its type in the world. Caerhays Castle fought off some exceptional opposition to win the inaugural Historic Houses Collections Award 2022.
The judging process reminded me of so many issues I encountered at the Royal Collection in trying to do justice to the encyclopaedic potential of great collections. It is commonly asserted that heritage attractions must ‘tell stories’; this is as true as saying poets paint pictures in words, symphonic composers build lofty structures and football games are dramas in two acts. These are not assertions of fact but metaphors. Collections can ‘tell stories’ in this sense, but they can do much more. They can perform some practical function, they can delight the senses, and they can teach (and inspire a desire to learn about) every subject under the sun.
Collections Award 2022 from Historic Houses on Vimeo.
All the collections in Historic Houses member places are unique, priceless, and inseparable from the individuals and families who have brought and kept them together. Each year our judges will choose a collection that best exemplifies the way that those who care for our independent heritage:
We look forward to working with Historic Houses in 2023, exploring and recognising more collections!
Film by Layton Thompson, shown by permission of Historic Houses
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