In the last couple of years Harewood House Trust has made a point of working with some of the country’s most talented artists and designers.
It started in 2017 with the Victorian House, created by award winning film and television set-designer Sir Michael Howells, and was followed last year with artistic director Simon Costin’s Dreams of the 1920s.
This Christmas they have teamed up with acclaimed multimedia artists Davy and Kristin McGuire, from Studio McGuire, who have created a series of brilliant and intricate audio-visual projections.
Christmas at Harewood: A Night at the Mansion, which runs for the next four weeks, takes visitors into a Harry Potter-esque world of gossiping paintings, chatting crockery and singing porcelain statues.
Davy and Kristin’s work is hard to pin down, combining as it does paper cutting, film, theatre, animation and projection, with storytelling at the heart of the whimsical worlds they create.
At Harewood, their projections and installations are spread across a dozen or so rooms. “Each one has a nice surprise,” says Ed Appleyard, Harewood House’s director of engagement.
A doll’s house borrowed from Ilkley Toy Museum is brought to life featuring a naughty footman and maid. “One of the beautiful things they’ve managed to achieve in some of the rooms is playing with scale to a level we’ve never attempted before,” says Ed. “One of the daunting things about Harewood is how big everything is and going minute can have such an incredible effect. And everything they’ve done is rooted in Harewood’s heritage.”
What they have created is a beguiling world of digital wizardry that leaves you mesmerised as you walk from one room to the next.
The couple took their initial idea from the Night At The Museum films. “We wanted to bring each room to life,” says Kristin. “And rather than bringing art in we wanted to bring to life what’s already here, because there’s so much to see and it’s so beautiful.”
They spent several days living and working in the country house putting everything together. I suggest to them that there are worse places to be holed up in. “We’re going to try and stay a bit longer and claim squatters’ rights,” Davy jokes.
The project took months to put together and required them to bring in a scriptwriter, composer and several actors, while they perfected the technical side of things. “With some of the installations we’ve played safe in a sense that we’ve used similar techniques before, but there are two or three where we wanted to take a gamble, and it’s worked. And what’s really nice is we’ve been able to push the boundaries of what we’re doing,” says Kristin.
Old portrait paintings can sometimes seem a bit stiff and prosaic, but here in one of the drawing rooms they have used projectors to bring them to life. “Each one is either a character from Harewood or has visited here,” Kristin explains. “We weren’t sure how real they would look but when we first projected them people were really surprised.”
Some of the projections are playful or funny, while others are more reflective or melancholic, which creates a slightly different mood in each space.
Kristin says they are constantly bouncing ideas off one another. “It’s always really hard to trace back the idea because they build on top of each other and sometimes they change as we go along.”
They both come from artistic backgrounds – Davy studied devised theatre and Kristin studied dance. They met in the Netherlands in 2003 when Davy was working as an exchange student. “I needed to make a duet so I asked him, and the rest is history,” she says, laughing. “We gelled professionally over projections. Davy had just done a projection piece and I’d worked with a lot of lights and overhead projectors and that’s become a thread through our work ever since.”
Davy enjoys creating optical illusions and playing visual tricks. “There’s just an endless stream of ideas that come out of projection. There’s something you can do with a projection that you can’t do with anything else in the same way. If you do a play you often know what’s coming but with a projection you can make a wall fall down. There’s an element of surprise and an uncanniness to it.”
Over the past decade they have developed a reputation for their impressive and innovative work. This includes the world’s first projection mapped pop-up book, The Icebook, an atmospheric stage adaptation of a popular fantasy novel, and window displays coming to life at Barney’s Department Store in New York.
In addition, their renowned projection mapping installations have been exhibited and screened internationally and their theatrical projects have toured to more than 60 different countries.
The couple moved to Hull from Bristol last year following the success of their hugely popular Micropolis installation which formed part of the Land of Green Ginger series of shows during Hull’s stint as UK City of Culture.
Given the fact they have such global recognition, Hull might seem an unlikely choice for pioneering multimedia artists to make their home.
“When we said we were moving to Hull some of our friends looked at us as if to say ‘why are you doing that?’” says Davy.
But serendipity intervened and it has turned out to be a shrewd move. “The building in Bristol we were in was being turned into flats, and at that point we’d been in Hull and met a lot of people and producers and it just seemed like a good time to make a fresh start and it’s been brilliant,” says Davy.
Kristin agrees. “Hull’s been very welcoming to us, and people are very friendly and in terms of art they’ve been very supportive. We contact people with ideas and they seem enthusiastic about them.
“We also have a lot of people in the city who we work with directly now. Hull has a rich theatre scene so finding actors is quite easy.”
They are also in the enviable position of having a network of galleries around the world that know their work so if they make a piece they know it will generate some interest. They already feel at home in Hull and Davy says there is a growing appetite for art and culture. “There’s a lot going on. During the City of Culture if there was an event happening people came out to show their support, they seemed to be hungry for it.”
Kristin also thinks it’s an ideal base for artists because it’s cheaper to live there than a lot of other places. “That’s important because it means you can take risks without worrying about getting a big commission so you can pay the rent. It’s paid off for us because it’s allowed us to experiment a lot, and for an artist that’s really important.”
This spirit of experimentation is evident in what they have created at Harewood House. “As well as enjoying the funny and entertaining stories, I hope people get a sense of the history of the building and imagine what it might be like to be certain people in the house,” says Davy, “but most of all I hope they get a sense of wonder.”
A Night at the Mansion is on at Harewood House until January 5. For more information about tickets and prices go to www.harewood.org