Grange Park - Arcadia & Beyond
Oil on Canvas 30" x 40" - 76cm x 100cm
The advent of summer in our household is marked by involvement in the Grange Park Opera festival which begins this week. The grand mansion – uninhabited since the ‘60s – has been hibernating since last summer’s festival. Now it opens its shutters once again, blinking and stirring like a leviathan Sleeping Beauty springing to life.
Mary & I have been involved with Grange Park since the beginning of its renaissance in 1998 thanks to the genius ‘must-do’ Wasfi Kani and the eternally ‘can-do’ Michael Moody. That was the year the new Grange Park Opera festival first opened its doors with a haphazard production of Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’. That first ‘Figaro’ won plaudits for its production, not least for the conditions in which it took place; the house was a hollow ruin, the auditorium a derelict picture gallery with a leaking roof, the stage and seating a temporary scaffolding construction, and the wings just mattresses outside the window. The audience picnicked on the hastily mown terraces, high heels sinking in molehills, dinner-jackets marked with grass stains. But everyone loved it for its unusual setting, for its make-do & mend attitude and for its musical brilliance. Today it’s described as “the most idyllic opera festival of them all” as well as “the most chic and socially glamorous of the summer festivals”
I had known Grange Park and its story for much longer. I had first discovered the house as a schoolboy in 1974: empty, partly derelict, a Greek temple – no wait, two Greek temples – standing in the parkland, and this a reasonable cycle ride from Winchester. It was too tempting and with a group of school-friends we would go there to smoke, drink and declaim verses of Troilus & Cressida from the overgrown terraces, startling sheep in the ruinous interiors. “Et in Arcadia ego..”, the Grange was to be a subliminal inspiration for my life’s work from that moment on.
This painting of the month is a rare oil of mine, dating from the early days of the festival. It shows the house from across the lake in a view evocative of the eighteenth-century picturesque; the masculine Greek Doric temple on its Acropolis (now the restaurant) with its delicate feminine Ionic offspring (now the theatre) set slightly behind, all standing demurely in the landscape. The gap between the temples – like a toothless grin – is where a whole range of the house was demolished, and which has now been subtly reconnected by a curtain wall screening the new-built theatre. This is a painting of history which is now history itself. I portrayed the veduto in an Elysian autumn hue, with a gentle melancholy. The lake’s edge has been cleared as I had always wanted to do in reality, and a wisp of bonfire smoke suggests that the clearing continues.
Over the years the festival has evolved in many ways but an Arcadian magic has remained through careful inattention, the avoidance of brash renewal and the careful steering of its delicate spirit into a firmer future. Some opera-goers, enjoying the new theatre, find it hard to understand why the house shouldn’t be restored and why its tatty charm couldn’t be tidied away. But that’s to have missed the whole point: it is a rare treat to dine in a derelict house (unique here at The Grange), salutary to consider the patina of time and to meditate on decay as the sun sets over Elysian fields. That’s the deliberate philosophy which has preserved a delicate miasma of timelessness at the Grange, and will always continue to do so, we hope.
The artifice doesn’t stop at the doors of the theatre, either. From my early festival days spent mowing intricate patterns into the wildflower pasture at the Grange, I’ve been instrumental in helping to keep the house as mysterious as possible. When the house was at its nadir, all the fixtures disappeared – panelling, stairs, windows, the lot. Part of the roof fell in and the floors crumbled. An entire wing was demolished. Today you can sit and eat in your finery and look up through three storeys of fireplaces, one above the other, with crumbling plaster all around. Now, where else can you experience that in peacetime?
To augment the atmosphere, some years ago we installed a series of room-sized hangings on the walls of the restaurant, stage-set semi-transparent scrims depicting interiors of another world, all taken from my watercolours. In one room, glimpses of a chateau in France join a country house drawing-room in Yorkshire and a colonial saloon in Virginia - ghosts of palatial interiors to hint at what was once here at Grange Park. In another dining room I created a complete interior of a Venetian Palazzo with a view over the Grand Canal, again from watercolours.
Perversely though, the success of these ghostly installations in The Grange was reflected in how few of the patrons realised these were more than theatre, much to my disappointment. I had hoped they would generate sales of paintings from which they came, but the magic was clearly strong enough to banish down-to-earth thoughts of commerce and acquisition. Perhaps the absence of price-tags had softened the desire?
For this season I’ve introduced an installation of full-sized facsimiles of my greatest works from private patrons’ collections around the world – hanging to tempt buyers or to encourage patronage – turning the Grange into an art gallery. On the stairs I’ve hung some important originals, with price-tags attached.
This year I’m keen to make it clear that the nurture of melancholy and drama relies on the nourishment of patronage. Music and art both have a price, and both need keen patrons to enable the continuation of our work.
Watch me create an enormous painting
Dining at the Grange
Grange Park - An Old Friend
From the first Grange Park Opera Programme in 1998
The bicycle ride from Winchester was long and tiring. It was also against school rules, as were the sherry and cigarettes in our bag. One of us knew the way, turning left here, right there along lanes that rise out of the Itchen valley, through summer fields swaying with grain. The rest followed along, excited both by the escape from school and by our imminent destination; this was the first secret meeting of our self-styled 'Arcadian Society'.
Cresting a hill, we turned down a farm track, the chalky gravel pinging out from under the bicycle tyres, and plunged deep into the fields. We rattled dustily down towards a great lake, and had the first glimpse of a ruined Greek temple atop its Acropolis on the rising ground ahead. It was The Grange.
The sullen form of the building rose above a bountiful tangle of gardens long forgotten, and dark hollow windows stared at us reproachfully as we pushed our bikes up to the terrace. All around our feet were fragments of history – pieces of carved wood and plaster, shards of mirror and unidentified pieces of iron. A startled rabbit ran away into the drawing room.
Inside the house, time had been banished, with only the long fingers of sunlight piercing the decaying roof as reminders of the passage of time. Around us wallpaper came away in strips, damp panelling slumped off the walls like an old tramp falling asleep and ceilings bowed threateningly over our heads. Everywhere there were relics of domestic mundanity; light-switches, window latches, a washbasin or radiator - but they were different now, released from their duty to Man their creator who had abandoned the place.
By being here it seemed that we had passed into another world, into another era. We were in a place of silence; a place without anxiety, a place of extreme beauty and calm, an embodiment of art and poetry. We were walking with the spirits of Poussin and Turner, Alain-Fournier and T.S.Elliot. It was everything we had been cramming into our heads and absorbing into our spirits at school – both fact and fiction. Here it all came alive as a fusion of reality and the ethereal. We sat in the afternoon sun at the base of the portico and discussed life and death and infinity.
I never forgot that day.
It was 1974. Unknown to us a great tide was turning as we sat there thinking, smoking and learning. Across Britain many houses like The Grange were dying. In London the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition at the V&A shrieked at the nation to stop the demolition: 1,500 significant country houses across Britain had been lost to date. Later, by the mid-'80s the tide had changed. The National Trust was enjoying record membership, Brideshead Revisited was the must-see TV series, nostalgia was becoming big business. The nation prospered.
Years after that first visit, I picked up the catalogue of the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition and it's lexicon of tragic black & white photographs of crumbling mansions recalled my time at The Grange. I realised that on those overgrown terraces I had crystalised many of my inspirations for art and that I had grasped the concepts of our position within a continuum of artistic endeavor. That continuum, I told myself, could only be understood in terms of transience, like a delicate thread easily broken, something whose value was only properly measured when it had been lost.
Those hazy summer dreams of Arcadia at The Grange had encouraged me to step from history of art into art, theory into practice. Long after I left school, and with a few years as a professional artist under my belt, I embarked on a collection of paintings of silent houses, – ruined and abandoned mansions which, like The Grange, had stretched the thread of transience to breaking point.
Instead of simply recording these buildings in paint, I wanted to translate how I felt about them, I wanted to explore their spirit in paintings. It was important to me to show that a place is more important than it may appear to the casual onlooker, to the untrained eye. That is the job of the artist, to augment the vision of others with his own.
This week The Grange reawakens to the sound of opera, to the murmur of conversation and laughter, and the chink of glasses. Life is back at The Grange if only for a brief time in the summer, like those schoolboys nearly 40 years ago. For similar reasons too; namely to be immersed in the comforts of art, of music and poetry, to indulge in the rarity of gentle discourse, and to be revitalized by nourishment both spiritual and prandial. All this under the avuncular gaze of sublime architecture nestling in an Elysian landscape. Grange Park Opera has created a lasting legacy of the spirit of the country house, and a tribute to those great mansions which were not so lucky.
When the curtain falls, The Grange will slip back into silence again until the opera returns, and we, like those schoolboys, may be the greater enriched by our experiences in this corner of Arcadia.
Alexander Creswell 1998