Diane Howse on the wild art of Bronte country

Diane Howse.
Diane Howse.
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She opened a contemporary art gallery at a Yorkshire stately home and has staged exhibitions in an empty Leeds apartment block. Now Diane Howse tells Richard Jevons why she is taking on two more landmark venues.

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It’s more than a quarter of a century since Diane Howse opened her first gallery at Harewood House. Back then, most country piles were still rather fusty affairs with the public tolerated for the entrance fees they brought rather than welcomed with opened arms. Diane saw it differently.

Having married David Lascelles, who became Lord Harewood in 2011 following the death of his father, the couple have worked hard to open up the historic estate near Leeds and with a lifelong passion for art, Diane saw it as the perfect backdrop for showcasing contemporary work.

Since then, she has staged and curated hundreds of exhibitions in unusual locations, including a disused Yorkshire apartment block and is now taking work to two of the county’s most iconic venues – Salts Mill in Saltaire and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

“I think we sometimes forget how beautiful Brontë country is,” says Diane on a warm summer’s day, looking across from Penistone Hill. “The world may be very different today from the time of the Brontës, but that beauty and the power they felt on the moors is still very much here.”

That was part of the reason why she wanted to stage an exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Bringing together a group of fellow creative spirits, the Silent Wild explores the sonic landscape conjured by the words of the Brontë sisters.

“We don’t tend to think of language as something visual but in fact we look at words as much as we hear or speak them,” says Diane – she rarely uses her title as the Countess of Harewood. “However, when we look at text on a page or screen, while we might read silently the words on the page have an extraordinary power to conjure a whole world of sound, noise and commotion.”

The main focus of the project is a new 11-minute film that plays on an iPad in the dining room of the parsonage. For the film, an exact replica of the dining room’s floor plan was reconstructed in the roof space at Salts Mill, which is housing a second exhibition. Working with filmmaker Adam Baroukh, choreographer Carolyn Choa, cinematographer Daniel Fazio, dancer Daniel Hay Gordon and architect and sound artist Lemma Redda, the idea was to explore the different threads of the Brontës’ work and lives.

“We were interested in the building, the spaces they inhabited, the sounds they heard around them and their own voices,” she says. “It’s about exploring the nature of the place that housed this extraordinary imagination, but we also wanted to set the parsonage in the context of the 19th century industrialisation of Yorkshire.

“There is also a very specific connection between these two places which is sometimes overlooked. In 1928 Sir James Roberts, the then owner of Salts Mill, and Lady Roberts purchased the Haworth Parsonage and gifted it to the nation, in the keeping of the Brontë Society, as a memorial to the Brontë family. Without Sir James, who grew up near Haworth, and this philanthropic gift the parsonage might not be the public museum that it is today.”

The soundtrack, which can be heard simultaneously in both venues between September 16 and 20 is made up of sounds sampled from the parsonage overlaid with voices reading a passage from Wuthering Heights recorded in 12 different languages. Elsewhere Scottish poet Thomas A Clark has produced five new works for the exhibition, including a laser-etched perspex panel “not a fluttering lark or linnet” which carries words taken from a letter written by Charlotte following the death of her sisters. There are also a number of works by Diane herself, including a simple column of hand-typeset words taken from Wuthering Heights which describes sounds made by the human voice arranged from loud to quiet.

Stuck above the mantelpiece is another of Diane’s works – superficially it’s a simple mass-produced postcard of purple and white flowers and green leaves in the parsonage garden. On the back is the date the photograph was taken – June 4, 2015.

“The image might bring to mind Emily Brontë, who was most closely associated with the garden and who was carried through it to her final resting place after her death in 1848, just one year after her only novel was published under the male pseudonym of Ellis Bell. However, the date might resonate too – as 65 years later Emily Davison stepped out onto Epsom racecourse and was fatally injured in a collision with King George V’s horse on June 4, 1913.

“It’s thought she intended to throw a banner over the horse in the Suffragette colours of purple, white and green. It wasn’t until 15 years after her death and 80 years after the death of Emily Brontë that women finally achieved equality with men in terms of the right to vote.

“The objects in this exhibition might be seen as clues or signs, unassuming in themselves but pointing towards something else. Perhaps they invite you to consider some particular element of the history here in a different way. Perhaps this is what contemporary works in this context can offer.

“One of the pieces, Four Scrolls, is by a young Chinese calligrapher called Gigi Leung. They feature words again extracted from the works of the Brontës, which have been translated into Chinese. Produced in Hong Kong, there is a sense of how the sisters’ work, having travelled around the world, has returned home to the place where they were written.”

Howse has a background of working in out-of-the-ordinary venues. Shortly after graduating from Exeter University with a degree in Fine Art she became the first person to be employed at the city’s then newly opened Spacex Gallery, housed in a converted warehouse. It was the beginning of a career, not only in exhibitions, but also of working with new and different spaces, which eventually brought her to Harewood.

When she opened the Terrace Gallery in the 1980s many grand country houses were open to the public, but they were known for their magnificent architecture and historic interiors rather than contemporary art. Diane, however, confidently ploughed her own furrow and the gallery was the first dedicated to contemporary work to be housed on a country estate.

“When the Terrace Gallery opened I was asked how I saw the future. I said that given the many and various historic sites across the country it would be great if this idea rolled out and other places began to work with contemporary artists alongside their collections. I’m very pleased to say that this is what has happened over the past quarter century. We now have a very exciting arts scene in Britain with arts practitioners working in a very wide range of venues and unusual locations.”

This year represents something of a landmark for Diane. Ten years ago she took over the disused ground floor of a Leeds city centre apartment block on the Whitehall waterfront for an exhibition entitled Appearance.

“The raw quality of the space, with its bare concrete floor and exposed pipes and ducting, gave it a unique character and the following year it led on to a partnership with two other artist curators, Kerry Harker and Pippa Hale, and the founding of PSL [Project Space Leeds].”

Over the next five years together the trio successfully presented a wide range of exhibitions and events in this waterfront space, parting company in 2011 when Kerry and Pippa took over The Tetley as a new home for the organisation. With Diane already having responsibility for one historic venue, she decided to refocus her attention on her own individual projects.

“Art doesn’t need to be constrained by any particular definition or any specific location. Lots of people have ideas about what art is or isn’t, but art moves and shifts and changes all the time. Who can say where and how art will happen? Artists are excited by different or unexpected situations and so is the audience. It’s a mystery tour into the unknown with a lot of people on board.”
The Silent Wild at the Brontë Parsonage Museum is open every day until September 28; the Silent Wild at Salts Mill is open from September 16 to 20.

Thomas J Price: Recent Works and New Rhythms: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: Art, Dance and Movement in London 1911–1915 at Harewood House are open every day until November 1.