Modern face of the manor

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Ninety years ago, the lord of a Wrexham estate photographed his staff. This year, pupils created images of those who work there today.

Jonathan Croall reports

They stare out of photographs on the walls of the servants' passage, their poses rigid, their faces solemn. Jane Brown, the housekeeper; George Roberts, the gardener; Harriet Rogers, the cook; John Jones, the coachman; Joseph Wright, the blacksmith; and Lucy Hitchman, the nurse. All caught by the camera in the years before the first world war.

Ninety years on, the present workforce at Erdigg are being recorded for posterity once again. This beautiful manor house and estate, situated just outside Wrexham in north Wales, is now owned by the National Trust. Over the spring and summer, 30 Year 9 pupils from two local secondary schools have been creating a series of relief portraits and sculptures of the NT's employees, under the guidance of sculptor Nigel Talbot.

On the first of their six visits, the pupils, from Queen's Park School, Chester, and Ysgol Dinas Bran, Llangollen, were shown the evocative "below stairs" photographs taken at the beginning of the century. Such visual documentation of staff was rare; Erdigg's then owner, Philip Yorke, commissioned more photographs and paintings of them than of his family. His affection for his workers, his interest in their lives, is shown in his sentimental doggerel verse printed next to the pictures.

Working in groups of four - two from each school - the pupils interviewed NT staff, including the property manager, estate worker, shopkeeper, gardener, a volunteer, and the fund-raising manager. They drew portraits and photographed them, decided what qualities to bring out, and compiled a list of materials they needed. These included leaves, twigs, stones, board, straw, bricks, chicken wire, papier-mache, clay, plaster and more.

"The portraits are not meant to be realistic, although with some you can recognise the face," explains Mr Talbot. "The idea is to capture the essence of their subjects, based on what they told the students about their work, interests and social lives."

So property manager Gavin Hogg, who loves walking and open spaces, sits on a hillside contemplating a stream; estate manager Bryn Williams' head and shoulders are surrounded by images of a chainsaw blade, tractor, and other work objects.

The pupils enthused about the project. Jane O'Donoghue, from Queen's Park, has found the experience liberating. "We have more freedom than at school, and we can choose what materials we want to use," she says. Her classmate, Michael Mohal agrees. "It's good to be working with people from another school, and putting our resources together," he says.

The teachers were equally delighted. "At school we've got small rooms, so doing anything three-dimensional is difficult," says Jan Murray, head of art at Ysgol Dinas Bran. "At Erdigg, the kids have a completely free rein."

"The project has so many elements: working with youngsters from another school, using the house itself, linking up to history through the pictures.

It's an experience that should be bottled," Tony Jackson, her Queen's Park, adds.

The project is part of the NT's three-year partnership programme, supported by pound;150,000 from the housebuilders Redrow and pound;30,000 in the first year from Arts and Business. "We're keen to develop more sustainable long-term relationships with schools," says Rebecca Connock of the NT. "We can't do it with all of them, but where there's an obvious need, and if we can get sponsorship, we will."

Erdigg has much to offer for more conventional school visits - fabulous original furnishings and furniture in its state rooms, and an extensive walled garden. Especially rewarding are the restored outbuildings - bakehouse, laundry, scullery, dairy, stableyard, sawmill, wagon shed, blacksmith's shop - where generations of Erdigg staff have spent their working lives.

Most residencies and art workshops are free; school visits vary between pound;1-pound;3.75 depending on the time of year and activity. For further information, call 01978 315179

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