Countess of Harewood, Diane Howse: An artist in residence who is also lady of the house

Diane Howse, Countess of Harewood, within the new art space at Harewood House, Leeds.
Diane Howse, Countess of Harewood, within the new art space at Harewood House, Leeds.
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Artist-turned- aristocrat Diane Howse tells Rod McPhee about her plans to turn Harewood House into an arts hub.

Diane Howse grabs one of the red ropes cordoning off a grand library in Harewood House and plonks herself down in an armchair. “Shall we sit here?” she says, rhetorically.

We start chatting in front of a vast fireplace surrounded by walls of centuries-old books, Chinese pottery and Chippendale furniture. Feeling nervous at sitting in the midst of this priceless collection (where a careless crossing and uncrossing of legs could cause thousands of pounds of damage), I freeze, paralysed by fear.

“We use this space more than people think,” says Diane who, to give her official title, is now Diane Lascelles, Countess of Harewood. “You’d be surprised what we do down here – it’s always been a house and a home. You’d never catch me in here in my pyjamas, but you may find one of us wandering around with a mug of tea or something.”

The “we” and “us” she refers to is the rest of the Lascelles family, which she officially joined 23 years ago upon marrying husband David. He became Earl of Harewood two years ago when his father died.

That saw Diane (as she prefers to be known) move from being a conventional middle-class artist from a farming background in Oxfordshire, to being the latest in a line of aristocrats dating back more than 200 years.

Up to 1990 she had led a conventional life as a jobbing painter, sketcher and sculptor. She attended art college in Exeter and, like most fledgling creative figures, took on multiple day jobs to pay the bills.

In some ways, the juggling hasn’t lessened, merely intensified. At the age of 56, she has to be both Diane Lascelles, countess, and Diane Howse, artist-in-residence.

“The juggling hasn’t really had an impact at all,” she says. “The role of countess is really a historic title and position and one which, of course, a number of extraordinary women have occupied over all time.

“For me, it’s juggling my work as an artist and curator with taking on any major organisation, just as it is for The Hepworth or the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. There is a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. But has something radically changed for me in the last two years? No, not really.”

George Lascelles, the seventh Earl of Harewood and first cousin to the Queen, died aged 88 at Harewood House, in July, 2011.

As a keen supporter of all forms of culture, be it highbrow or popular, football or opera, he left behind a legacy and, to some degree, a raised bar for the next earl and countess.

“You always think very deeply about things when they change,” says Diane. “But that’s like everybody, it’s as much about generations – when your parents are there you have a different relationship with the world but that changes sooner or later.”

Diane’s aim now is to bring more of her lifelong love of art to Harewood. To that end, she aims to raise the profile of all forms of art at the stately home, classic and contemporary.

Far from trying to instigate a break from the past, she sees the arrival of more modern pieces as continuing a long tradition of showcasing pioneering creativity in the house.

“It’s always a good idea to build on positive things,” she says. “And with somewhere like Harewood it has always been an arts hub really. If you think about it, it is a very conscious piece of architecture and landscape. Chippendale was commissioned to make all the furniture. So, everything is very carefully considered and put together.

“But you have to remember that the likes of Turner came here to paint as a very young man, I think he was about 22-years-old or something. He’s now considered a ‘classic’ artist, but in his day he was thought of almost as one of the Young British Artists. So, actually, Harewood has always been a home to contemporary art.”

The latest exhibition in the less heritage-focused space that is the Terrace Gallery (an area which Diane has curated for the past 21 years) is an example of the comfortable duality she wants to foster at Harewood.

In Cloud Country sees works by the aforementioned Turner and Constable placed alongside unmistakably modern artists such as Bridget Riley and Gary Hume, not to mention those who could be seen as bridging the gap, like Matisse and Julian Opie.

The subtitle, Abstracting from Nature, sums up the juxtaposition – in terms of setting and the selected pieces – perfectly.

“You have to acknowledge the history of the house,” says Diane. “Harewood was built by fabulously rich people but it was also where people were invited in to enjoy it. The 18th century was a very cultured time and a time to show that off and invite people in. So what we’ve been doing here in more recent years is just a 20th and 21st century version of that.”

But there’s still a circle to square in terms of accessing Harewood – that of money.

Although Diane relishes the idea of drawing in a greater mix of people with a greater mix of art, there’s still the awkward issue of people having to pay to get into the grounds of Harewood House.

This is brought into sharper focus by the fact that, up until 2011, she was one of three artists (the others being Pippa Hale and Kerry Harker) running ProjectSpaceLeeds (PSL) a contemporary arts space in the heart of the city. It was not only open to the public, but open to the public free of charge.

But at Harewood entry can cost £10 for an adult and that will only give a visitor access to the grounds, including the Terrace Gallery. Full access is £14 per adult.

“In an ideal world, all our museums, galleries and resources would be free,” says Diane. “But we’re an independent charitable trust, the house and the grounds, so we don’t have revenue funding from anyone, that’s not any criticism of those places that do, that’s just a fact.

“So, we operate in a self- sufficient way and a component of that, though sadly not the whole solution, is charging people to come in to Harewood.

“I agree (money’s a consideration) because I value the fact that I, anyone, can go to a gallery or museum and see new things. But, if you think about it, in most places you have to pay for a car park, or you get inside and find that the main collection might be free, but the special collection you have to pay to see.

“So, actually, I wouldn’t say we are that different in our operation to a lot of other places, but what we do have is a brilliant education department, one for all ages.

“Within that we have a lot of schemes and, at different times, we’ve found funding to bus people in from different places.

“We don’t just say: ‘Well, you can either afford it or not.’ We do actually attend to communities who might not be able to afford it or know what we do. We do quite a bit of going out and finding people and making sure they can come here. That very important to me, it’s essential.”

There’s a genuine sense that, although she intends to continue with tradition at Harewood, Diane won’t suddenly morph into an aloof countess. After meeting her, you suspect she’ll leave more of a mark on the house than the house will leave on her.

“I’ve never consciously thought about putting my stamp on it though,” she says. “Inside, I’m just me really. Hopefully the same person I’ve always been, and will be. You never know. I certainly don’t anticipated any great change.

“What you just hope is that something of your values will come through. Because, for me, my whole life has been about the arts. This isn’t where I anticipated my career going, but its part of the same trajectory, a strange fate that brought me here.”

• In Cloud Country runs from March 29 to June 30. For more details visit: www.harewood.org/cloudcountry