How Harewood House is transforming itself for a new generation

Harewood House is an imposing symbol of aristocratic influence redolent of a lost England - but now the stately home between Leeds and Harrogate is looking firmly to the future.

Harewood House
Harewood House

The ancestral seat of the Lascelles family, earls of Harewood and cousins of royalty, has reinvented itself as a popular visitor attraction - and one that is looking to evolve and grow to meet the expectations of the modern visitor.

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Lindsey Porter is senior communications manager at the Harewood House Trust, the charitable organisation which manages the house and is run separately to the family-owned estate.

Harewood House

She works under director Jane Marriott, who joined Harewood two years ago and is from an arts background, having previously worked at the Hepworth Gallery and the Royal Academy.

Under Jane's stewardship, Harewood has modernised - working to widen its appeal to new audiences and increase its cultural significance.

"I think in the past the house had lost its way a bit. There were a lot of large-scale events, such as the Peppa Pig shows, but no consistency.

"The Harewood House Trust is not a huge business - there's a misconception around it. The house is separate to the estate and all profits are invested back into the preservation of our collections.

Harewood from the rear terrace

"We are working on how to define Harewood and to lay down a cultural marker. We're working with some really high-profile partners now and are re-defining what it means to be a country house while making ourselves more relevant.

"We've done a lot of research into our audience and we will target and respond to our visitors. We want to reach out to new people - there's a lot of familiarity with Harewood and people come at different stages of life.

"We're only six miles from Leeds and we want to attract younger, upwardly mobile visitors."

This year, Harewood took a collection into the house's attractive gardens for the first time as part of the Seeds of Hope exhibition.

Sweeping views of the estate from the terrace

"It was themed around the end of World War One, what came next, and resilience. We did some heritage planting, there was storytelling, and hired young, vibrant art directors from Leeds. The greenhouse was planted with sunflowers, each one representing a soldier who has convalesced at Harewood when it was a military hospital. It was hugely popular with different people."

The current exhibition in the house is Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters. Within each room are examples of artisan craftsmanship from designers all over Britain, from ballet shoes to jeans to umbrellas, all arranged to tie in with the room's original use.

"The craftsmen who made Harewood, such as Thomas Chippendale and Capability Brown, were very modern at the time - they were brash and flash. We brought in current designers to make a bold statement - it's a movement against mass market products . We don't want to be predictable. Harewood is full of eclectic people and that is reflected in the collections."

Harewood's staff are bursting with ideas for how the house can continue to develop to suit current tastes.

The gardens at Harewood

"There's a lot to get excited about - things are changing.

"The playground and bird garden are both quite old now and we're looking at renewal. It's the 50th anniversary of the bird garden next year so we will be looking at telling its stories.

"The gardeners' bothy was restored and opened last year, and there are plans for a circular walk around the walled garden and a new bridge near the stepping stones. We want to restore Princess Mary's rockery and return it to prominence.

"There are more exhibitions planned - this summer there is Pleasure Garden, an interactive soundscape in the walled garden. This autumn we will be marking 30 years of having a contemporary art gallery. We were the first country house to get a permanent gallery space - now houses like Chatsworth have them and it's quite common, but we were pioneers.

"For Harewood at Christmas, we have chosen our set designer - it's going to be a twist on the traditional Christmas and it will really spark people's imaginations."

The house enjoyed a fillip after it appeared in the first two series of ITV's Victoria, and later this year it will be on show in the Downton Abbey spin-off feature film. Part of the estate, although not the house itself, also features in this month's new BBC period drama Gentleman Jack, which was shot at locations all over Yorkshire. Staff are often approached by TV production companies interested in filming behind-the-scenes documentaries focusing on the house's working life - there are over 200 volunteers - but requests have so far been declined,

"Filming is great for our profile, although it does present challenges with things like closed sets."

Last summer the grounds hosted Classic Ibiza, an evening of outdoor live music featuring top DJs and a orchestra. The family-friendly event was a sell-out and will return this year.

"Classic Ibiza was brilliant and it was aimed at families. The brand association for us was great. We have more outdoor events coming up - the Lunar Cinema outdoor screenings are coming back and they're also showing children's films in the daytime this year.

"We've got three craft markets a year now, and opening up the chain ferry for visitors has opened up the areas across the lake. Dogs can use the ferry now too.

"The experience of Harewood doesn't stop with the house and the play area. You can spend all day here and fill every hour."