Through artists' eyes

There's a birthday celebration starting today at Harewood House.Viscountess Lascelles explains why to Stephen McClarence.

They could spend years in meetings. They could set up focus groups. They could launch strategy consultation panels. And PR agencies still couldn't come up with a better advert for Harewood House than Barbara Davis.

As a "volunteer" at the West Yorkshire stately home, she is often on duty, discreet but approachable, explaining the place to visitors: the history, the design, the anecdotes. I bump into her by chance on a whistle-stop tour and tell her I'm writing a piece about "Twenty-One", an exhibition – opening today that celebrates the 21st birthday of Harewood's Terrace Gallery.

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Twenty-one artists, including David Hockney and Mark Wallinger, have chosen something from the house's "collection" that appeals to them or says something interesting about it. For some, it's an object – high art from the public rooms or bric-a-brac from the attics. For others, it's a poignant old photograph, a particular corner of the estate, even a view. A sort of Desert Island Harewood exercise.

"Volunteers" like Mrs Davis spend more time than most contemplating the building and its contents (and its visitors). So what, I wonder, would she choose? "The Diana and Minerva commode, by Chippendale," she says, quick as a flash. "Or some of the Chinese porcelain."

And then comes the bit that the PR people would kill for. "This is my eleventh year as a volunteer, I want you to know," she says. Why does she do it? "Because I love it so much. It's so nice to be surrounded by beautiful things. It feels such a homely place, not too big. People always say it feels like a home."

For one of the exhibiting artists, Harewood actually has been a temporary home from time to time. But we'll come to Sophie Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood's grand-daughter, after a glance round the Terrace Gallery. It's a trim square space, white and with four stout pillars and not much else on the day of my visit a couple of weeks ago, when the exhibition was still being set up.

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Four vintage snow shovels are propped up in a corner; an 18th century Chinese painted-on-glass portrait of a girl and a dog leans on a wall; a tree branch rests on a step ladder; a folio of Portraits of the Female Aristocracy of the Reign of Queen Victoria sits on a bench next to a 19th century birdcage. Hang a chaise longue on the back wall and it could be an Opera North set from the early 1990s. But no, these objects, chosen by the artists, are serving as props for a photo-shoot featuring the gallery's founder and curator, Diane Howse.

Howse is more formally known as Viscountess Lascelles, thanks to her marriage to David Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood's eldest son and heir. An artist herself, she wears jeans and sandals, affects no arty airs or aristocratic graces, and has known the house for more than 20 years.

Setting up the gallery in 1989 was a radical gesture. At the time, no other stately home had a gallery dedicated to contemporary art. "But the thing we all felt was that actually it wasn't that strange to do it," says Howse. "It was a continuing of what has always gone on at Harewood."

She points out that, when it was built, the house adopted "the latest architectural and decorative ideas" and that the Lascelles family has a history of encouraging artists. Turner and Thomas Girtin, his short-lived friend, were young and "contemporary" when they first came here. It's easy to forget that every Old Master was a Young Master once.

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The gallery opened with Images of Paradise, a blockbuster exhibition with an all-star cast of 66 leading artists – Bridget Riley, John Piper, Elisabeth Frink, Antony Gormley, Elizabeth Blackadder, Peter Blake, Andy Goldsworthy, Fay Godwin, John Hoyland, Anish Kapoor. It explored global conservation issues – which, as Howse says, "are very much with us now".

Images of Paradise? You could do worse than the view stretching out in front of us, from the Terrace Caf. Past carved cherubs and stern sphinxes, urns and balustrades and fountains, is an Italianate garden with shrubs trimmed into neat little pyramids.

Beyond that is as celestially perfect a landscape as Man ever created – gently rolling hillsides with tides of trees washing over them, artfully placed sheep, clouds that look hand-painted. Created by Capability Brown, this is Nature tamed and tidied. Swallows swoop, red kites soar – so perfect that they could be choreographed. Just over the hill – and it's hard to believe – is Leeds.

The view is a perfect example of what Howse calls the "Heritage with a capital 'H'" which has become such a British preoccupation. If anything is old, the modern mantra goes, we must strive to protect and preserve it. The danger is that once-living houses can become museums, ossified trophies of past culture.

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"Some places have stopped moving forward," says Howse. "Heritage sites are often seen in the past tense. We enjoy their history but they can be very safe and unchallenging. But everyone here strongly believes Harewood is a living, breathing place and the exhibition programme is very much about re-energising things and suggesting new ways of engaging with the house."

She flicks through a catalogue of the 65 exhibitions staged here over the years – Aboriginal art, video installation, a Sidney Nolan retrospective, Scottish art, digital imaging, art inspired by the bicentenary of the abolition of the Slave Trade, on which some of Harewood's wealth was built.

"Every year we've tried to respond to the Zeitgeist," she says, stressing that it's all been a team effort. "Programming exhibitions is not simply or necessarily a question of personal taste."

Personal taste, however – of the 21 artists – is at the heart of the new exhibition, whether it's Turner watercolours, recently discovered 18th century Chinese wallpaper, the church graveyard, a duster, Lord Harewood's drawing room, the view from the roof, or a photograph of servants posing up there.

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Looking around the gallery, the snow shovels have "an unwitting and rather eccentric beauty" for Leo Fitzmaurice. For Mark Fairnington the glass painting has "precision and stillness". For Neeta Madahar, the Victorian bird cage (with two stuffed finches turned into mechanical singing birds) represents "the desire to collect and contain that which is unusual or exotic... something simultaneously fascinating and macabre".

Sophie Lascelles echoes some of that fascinating/macabre atmosphere when she recalls childhood holiday visits to Harewood. "The kitchen was full of old ledgers and very dark," she recalls. "I remember going down in the basement. There were lots of shrouded stuffed animals and animal heads, and a particularly horrible stuffed emu in a glass case. It was quite a spooky house for a child."

For the exhibition, she has drawn on her own experience of the house as a home and chosen a selection of photographic lantern slides of family members. "I always feel embarrassed when I go round the house with a group," she says. "The guides know more about my family than

I do."

So what would Diane Howse nominate as her own potential special object? "When I first came, there was a wonderful sense of exploration, of not knowing what was behind a door or in a cupboard," she says. "I remember opening cupboards and finding old pots and pans that had been wrapped in newspaper in the 1930s. How do you navigate through this huge plethora of material, the ephemera – a ticket, an invitation, an old toy?

"So maybe I'd choose a compass to navigate a way."

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Back in the state rooms, more "volunteers" nominate their own choices. "I don't know where I'd put them, as I live in a small flat," says Anne Garner. "But if I had enough room, I'd rather like the library steps in the old library."

Raymond Williams chooses a "magiscope", on display last year: "A huge glass lens with other lenses of different sizes. You looked into it and saw hundreds of different vistas of the gardens... absolutely magical."

And house steward Laura Meade chooses a red leather rocking chair made out of gas pipes: "I think it's really inventive.

"You can tell how it's made but that doesn't detract from it."

There's another exhibition lurking in that line.

Twenty-One exhibition runs until September 19. Information: 0113 218 1010 and

YP MAG 3/7/10

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