The New Lindisfarne Castle — It’s a Wrap
By: Mike Wade
Anya Gallaccio, shod in luminous yellow sandals, is picking her way through the shadows, along a narrow, winding staircase. “The house is a bit batty,” she shouts over her shoulder, “all medieval and Arts-and-Crafty.”
Gallaccio, an artist used to making memorable statements, is leading the way through Lindisfarne Castle, a National Trust property on Holy Island, Northumberland. Built as a gun emplacement by Henry VIII to deter invaders from the north, it owes its grandeur to Sir Edwin Lutyens, who enlarged and converted it into a castle-cum-luxury holiday home from 1903.
Now, as a two-year, £3.3 million renovation project draws to its conclusion, Gallaccio, 54, has been handed an extraordinary opportunity. With most of the furniture decanted into storage, she has been asked to develop an inspiring artwork that com-pels visitors to think again about the character of the castle.
Her track record suggests that she is up to the job. Paisley-born, educated at Goldsmiths, University of London and resident in California, she has won world renown over the past three decades for grandiose works based on natural materials. One of the earliest, a 32-tonne block of ice, was deployed in a London waterworks in 1996; more recently, she filled a room at Jupiter Artland near Edinburgh with 10,000 red roses and let them rot for months.
The wit and wisdom of her work reflects her demeanour — cheerful, funny, optimistic — although, as we make our way through the gloom, she concedes that this project has proved “very challenging”.
She has, she says, been conscious of the building all her life. Aged five, she moved with her parents to London and often trav-elled north by train for holidays in Brechin, where her grandparents owned an ice-cream parlour.
Lindisfarne Castle is one of the great land-marks on the railway journey and often caught her eye. It is set, of course, on an island steeped in history, famous as one of Britain’s earliest and most important Christian sites, a place of pilgrimage. Yet the castle, the most prominent feature, stands aloof in every way and tells a different story.
It saw some action during the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, but over the centuries it has been largely idle as a military base. The most im-portant structural work came at the turn of the 20th century, when Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine, bought it and employed the young Lutyens to create his faux castle.
Gallaccio’s response is to arrange more than 50 coloured blankets around the castle, as if to protect the building during the refurbishment works. Using only vegetable dyes — blues, yellows, reds — her work is entitled Dreamed about the flowers that hide from the light. It draws inspiration from the castle’s small walled garden, designed by the horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll and finished at about the same time as the house.
“Jekyll, I think, came to gardening from a painting and from a colour point of view rather than as a plants person,” Gallaccio says. “She uses colour for contrast. I thought about the relationship between the garden and the house and very simply the idea of somehow bringing the outside world into the inside.”
With notions of colour and material in her head, the next step was the form of her response. The first idea inclined to the grandiose and involved swaddling the castle in blankets, but with the place still covered in scaffolding, that was impossible. An alternative was to consider bringing the blankets into the house to create a “colour field” over all the floors. That solution was ruled out, apparently because it raised the danger of visitors tripping and hurting themselves.
The idea coming to fruition for this weekend’s opening involves combining all the blankets with a set of ten three-sided oak frames, positioned in seven rooms. These 1.5m frames have been constructed by Lawrence McAndrew in Newcastle and are designed by Gallaccio to mimic the crenellations of a castle.
By now, the artist has led us into a tiny room, a bedroom, where one of these “funny C-shaped” frames has been positioned, with blankets strewn over and around it. Here, the Edwardian architectural details delight Gallaccio, particularly four small studs high on the wall marking the position of fake beams.
“Look at the way Lutyens has made a play on the idea of a beam,” Gallaccio enthuses. “Lots of things about the house, I think, are like a game. He plays with the scale, it goes big and little and things like that.”
If the point of her work is to emphasise these details, however, she acknowledges that her own work may require revision. The oak frame makes it a tight squeeze for us to stand in the room together; the light levels are low; the colours on the blankets are dull.
“My ideas are conceptually very strong,” Gallaccio says. “It’s just whether they are visually making sense yet. I need to pull something together.” Suddenly she laughs uproariously. “I keep making traps for myself, don’t I? I should keep my mouth shut.”
In a downstairs kitchen, a few batches of tulips and ranunculus have been piled up, suggesting that colourful additions to the finished work are imminent. These flowers “will dry like paper”, Gallaccio says, and she might add some purple mascari, some branches of blossom and foxgloves. She is still playing with the idea and hasn’t decided for certain. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she says. “If they [the visitors] don’t get it, they’ll look at the castle, and that’s what I want to happen.”
On the landing beyond the bedroom another frame has been installed and covered in yellow blankets, dyed with weld or dyer’s broom. Gallaccio scuttles behind the structure. Look, she says, the frame and the blankets are like a four-poster bed, or the kind of castle a child might make, to play a game of kings and queens and knights.
“I always thought it would be more fun to be a princess than a king, there’s much less responsibility,” Gallaccio says, by now completely hidden from view. “And who didn’t want to play in a castle?”