Issue 206
Winter 2018/19

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Mar 19, 2019

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The Cotswolds come to the Borders

THE ARTS AND CRAFTS are alive and well in the Borders. I'm near Greenwell, erstwhile capital of Berwickshire, wondering how many men it took to plant the miles of beech hedges that presage my arrival at Marchmont House.

Designed by Robert Adam for Hugh Hume-Campbell in 1750, it was later adapted by Robert Lorimer. The eastern approach is nearly two miles down the longest avenue in the country, and was bordered by over 10,000 trees.

Back in 1750, such symbols of status and wealth were all about male power and control over nature and the hoi-poloi, who were kept well away. It's primeval territory-marking behaviour.

The same mindset drove Britain's imperial ambitions, providing the wherewithal for these grand estates. Marchmont only just survived ravaging death duties in the 20th century. Now, thanks to the internet and shrewd investment in an on-line travel website, the Burges have restored it beyond its former glory, furnishing it in great style, supervising every detail, and buying contemporary sculpture for house and garden.

By Chance I Did Rove, with a sketch of Ernest Gimson's cottage at Sapperton by F.L. Griggs RA

Hugo Burge's commitment is to make this 'A Home for Makers and Creators'. Unlike previous owners, bent on keeping Jo Public out, he is sharing all this luxury and grandeur, so you can book for exclusive gatherings, events, and house parties.

More modestly, you can take a tour, as I did. It's a very masculine collection of contemporary sculpture, with the emphasis on the harsh, dark, angular, and cold.

On arrival, I spy a sizeable tree stump, charred black. It's a David Nash, made using chainsaw, axe and blowtorch. Inside, an Antony Gormley, metallic and under-dressed, sans plus-fours or deer-stalker. Peering down on us, no thirteen-pointed stag's head, de rigueur in any self-respecting Border hunting lodge, but a sinister black Henry Moore ram's head.

Cheekily, Hugo has chucked a bowler hat on top. A good move, as now it looks more Magritte, unmasking the surreal theatricality of this place.

There is now a feminine presence too, a major commission of new frescoes from artist and art historian Julia Alexandra Mee. Her murals are inspired by Phoebe Anna Traquair and Robert Lorimer, and combine nineteenth century Scottish mural techniques with Italian Renaissance methods.

Next, a complete surprise. A wonderful collection of Ernest Gimson's working drawings for his rushseated, ladder-back chairs.

Trained as an architect, Gimson and his friends and fellow furniture-makers Ernest and Sidney Barnsley lived and worked together in the village of Sapperton, in the Cotswolds, a century ago. Much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, they eschewed industrial manu-facture (literally meaning making by hand), in pursuit of a different vision.

Gimson's gospel was that of William Morris, of healthy employment making useful, beautiful things, by hand, in harmony with mind and spirit, and using local, natural materials. In Gimson's Utopia people would live in villages, largely self-supporting for food, shelter and furniture, with their farms, wheelwrights, carpenters and masons.

Hugo is enabling this traditional chair-making to continue, working with Lawrence Neal, who has kept Gimson's name and style alive, and re-instating Lawrence's workshop, complete with apprentices, at Marchmont.

Not the Cotswolds, certainly, but better than losing the thread, and, perhaps more important, recognising the importance of reconnecting makers and the made to us, our homes, and how we furnish and adorn them. Valuing the crafts as more than superficial add-ons, mere acquisitions.

As Gimson said, they should reflect the spirit of a place, that genius loci of local materials, traditions and climate. Well done, they are central to the good life, rescuing us from being overwhelmed in a sea of disposable soul-less 'manufactured' (actually mechanised!) sameness and mediocrity.

The difficulty now, as in the time of William Morris, remains how to realise Gimson's dream for the many, not just the few.

There's more. Working with neighbour Jane, Duchess of Haddington, from Mellerstain House, and Will Ramsay, of Affordable Art Fairs, Hugo has helped give the Borders Art Fair a real boost.

If you're reading this before the middle of March, leg it to Kelso to see for yourself! Sixty artists showcasing their work, hands-on workshops and, in partnership with the Royal Society of Arts, a series of high profile lunchtime talks from V&A Dundee, National Galleries of Scotland, and the Scottish Gallery.

Thanks to Hugo Burge and Marchmont, the arts and crafts are doing well in the Scottish Borders.

Marchmont House: and on Facebook.
Julia Alexandra Mee
Borders Art Fair, Springwood Park, Kelso. March 15-17.
Celebration of the life and work of Ernest Gimson – Marchmont - May 11. A short film about Lawrence Neal, Chair Maker, is on Vimeo

The Perfect Gift! New Scotland's Stations - Northern Books

"A wealth of insider information" - Scots Magazine
"Immersive and informative" - The Courier
"This beautifully illustrated guide" - RIAS Journal
"Many great pictures" - Scottish Field

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An extensive new preface by the Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Bunnett, Chamberlain of Duff House