Harewood House is offering heritage students a magnificent case study, while re-inventing the stately home visit, reports Kevin Berry
ANYONE who has grumbled after a visit to a stately home, having paid a lot and learned little, should meet Mary Sara of Harewood House.
"When people say, 'I never knew that!' it makes our work really worthwhile," she says. "They thought that they knew Harewood but we have taken them into the layers of history. I feel privileged to work here, with beautiful and fine things, and we are sharing that privilege."
Ms Sara leads the Open House initiative at Harewood in Yorkshire. Her team encourages visitors to learn more about the things they see. One visit to this stately home is simply not enough, she argues - it can only be an introduction.
The Open House tours take young people and adults through the corridors or the sweeping meadows with experts, looking at the landscape or a painting with the help of the expert's eye. Workshops in drawing, painting and photography use what is in and around the house..
As well as casual visitors, Harewood is committed to long-term students. There are students working towards qualifications or pursuing an abiding interest in one aspect of this magnificent house.
Harewood is the ancestral seat of Lord Harewood, the Queen's cousin. Situated seven miles north of Leeds it is a grand house in an equally grand country setting. Turner painted views of the estate, Robert Adam was responsible for the interiors of the main house and Thomas Chippendale, a local lad from nearby Otley, made some of the furniture.
Mature students from the Leeds School of Continuing Education follow a course titled The Making of a Stately Home, which uses Harewood as a case study. The course sprung from a suggestion by Harewood staff and weekends there are a course requirement. Students can build up credits towards a degree, but not all of them want a qualification, they just want to pursue thier interest.
Horticulture students from Askham Bryan, an agricultural college near York, spend time in the estate gardens as part of their two-year City and Guilds course. Students on the prestigious diploma course at auction house Christie's also come up from
Lodon to spend intensive weekends.
"The Christie's course attracts students from all over the world," explains Ms Sara. "They will have opportunities to examine and catalogue items of furniture, pictures and silver and describe them as if they are professionals already. When they qualify they might work at Christie's, in galleries, in publishing and so on."
Ms Sara and her colleagues often wander the corridors for impromptu sessions with casual visitors, sometimes carrying something interesting. "We will say - let's do it today!" she explains. "We will go into the gallery when it is crowded and, with some preparation and thought, engage visitors in conversation, talking about what they are looking at."
Ms Sara's particular interest is art. There are many art clubs around Leeds but club members rarely get the chance to work with first-rate tutors so she has Open House art days when enthusiastic amateurs can work at the house, or in the landscape, with top-flight artists.
Open House began because Harewood wanted to build on its award-winning education work for youngsters to include the adult generations. There have been initiatives to attract the under-25s, involving fashion design based on the house collections and dances inspired by the tapestries. The house stays open late on summer evenings, whenever there is a special exhibition, to catch commuters on their way home.
All this innovative work has won the Open House scheme an education award from English Heritage.
Student Susan Kellerman, started by attending Open House days and is now on the continuing education stately home course. She has a passionate interest in Victorian follies and garden buildings. Harewood has had some interesting garden buildings, but some have long since vanished, and others were designed but never built. Ms Kellerman's research is adding to the knowledge of Harewood's staff. In fact Ms Sara has included her in the organisation of an Open House Folly Day in the autumn.
"Museums and galleries can be remote institutions," says Ms Sara. "But here the staff are not just titles, we are people and we care that people are getting some thing from their visits. They should be taking something of Harewood with them."