A flying swan in the dining room and golden apples in the orchard house are just two of the new wonders to be seen in a house of wonders.
Six artists were commissioned to contribute to Lux, an exhibition of contemporary art at Cragside, Lord Armstrong’s Rothbury home which became famous in Victorian times for its pioneering mod cons.
The exhibits went on show yesterday as the baking sun made a nonsense of Armstrong’s central heating and electric lights.
The five artists present – only London-based Jem Finer, whose camera obscura resides outside the visitor centre, couldn’t make the preview – explained how they had been inspired by the achievements of Lord Armstrong, who paved the way for the 20th Century that he wouldn’t quite live to see.
The National Trust, viewing Lux as a way of drawing more visitors to become aquainted with the extraordinary domestic arrangements of an engineering genius, gave the artists free rein.
Imogen Cloët, from Newcastle, was delighted to be offered the Cragside dining room whose historic carpet was being removed for renovation. She then asked for some of the paintings to be removed, too, and replaced them with mirrors in gilt frames.
“I always do lots of research and there are so many stories here,” she said. “I thought first of lakes and hydroelectricity. It’s quite extraordinary to think of central heating and hot and cold running water even in the servants’ quarters.
“I wanted to create a sense of magic because that’s how guests must have felt when they saw these things for the first time.”
Undoubtedly she succeeded. Above an enlarged dining table covered in reflective steel hang 54 heritage lightbulbs and a magnificent swan with outstretched wings.
There are 54 bulbs because that is how many there were during the second phase of the installation of electricity at Cragside when it was new. The number would rise to 97 in phase three.
The swan, whose beating wings are heard on a soundtrack along with faint factory sounds to evoke Armstrong’s works at Elswick where his fortune was made, recalls the industrialist’s friendship with John Hancock who set up the Hancock Museum.
Imogen said she had to work hard to find a taxidermied swan. Eventually this fine specimen was found at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Caerlaverock, Dumfries.
Next door in the library visitors will find Source, Bob Levene’s video portrait of her arm, subtly illuminated.
“I’ve always been interested in quietness and stillness and I got really excited about installing a really slow moving, subtle piece among the paintings,” said the Sheffield-based artist.
“I feel the piece has found its natural home here and I like the idea of people just stumbling across it.”
Bob, who is artist-in-residence at Sheffield University’s faculty of engineering, made a soundtrack to accompany the work which some might recognise as the crackle of a burning match.
Outside in the ornamental gardens visitors will find Catherine Bertola’s beautiful piece called In the Pursuit of Perfection.
Catherine, who has a studio in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley, explained how Lord Armstrong’s gardeners would rotate the pots in the orchard house every day to ensure the fruit trees grew straight.
Her slowly rotating apple tree bears a crop of gilded bronze apples, recalling the exotic Cox’s Orange Pippin which was a novel delicacy in Victorian times.
Nearby is Dan Fox’s Harmonica Botanica, a beguiling audio-visual work perhaps best summed up as a musical plant.
It’s a laurel in a pot, displayed beneath a bronze dome, whose growth is monitored digitally and translated into gong-like sounds which, yesterday, contrasted sweetly with a nearby fountain.
Dan, who is based in Ulverston, Cumbria, has a second work in the house, a sound and light installation called Filharmonic.
Lord Armstrong, you couldn’t help feel, would have been intrigued and delighted with these innovations and also with Andrew Burton’s Light Vessel, a bottle-shaped sculpture made of 40,000 glass bricks recycled from an earlier work at the National Glass Centre.
Andrew, who is head of fine art at Newcastle University, said he was inspired by the shape of some of the early light fittings at Cragside. He hoped the piece would catch the sunlight filtering through the trees.
Lux can be seen at Cragside until November 2.