Ickworth embraces enforced darkness to spotlight art collection


A 200-year-old Italianate palace, hidden away in the Suffolk countryside and currently encased in more than 270 miles of scaffolding, is to hold an exhibition that is only taking place because it is undergoing £5m of conservation works.

Ickworth, a Georgian estate and one of the most photographed of all National Trust properties, will on Satuday open its magnificent but leaky Rotunda to show off world class works of art and objects which few people know are even there.

But it is only happening because the building has been covered in a blizzard of scaffolding which has plunged the interior into darkness.

View of the Rotunda at Ickworth, Suffolk, without the scaffolding.



View of the Rotunda at Ickworth, Suffolk, without the scaffolding. Photograph: National Trust Images/NTPL/Arnhel de Serra

Rather than just close the building, the trust has installed a new exhibition with theatrical lighting to show off its art.

“I hope we will be giving visitors the wow moments that visitors 200 years were getting,” said the curator, Louisa Brouwer.

The works in the show include a portrait of a young man by Titian; a spectacular and horrifying marble sculpture by John Flaxman; and a luminous self-portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

Self Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun installed in the show.



Self Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun installed in the show. Photograph: Jim Woolf/National Trust

The newly spotlit Le Brun self-portrait, dating from 1791, is particularly interesting because it is so daring. She is staring directly at the viewer, smiling with her mouth open and teeth showing, none of which was mainstream. “It is kind of a come-hither suggestion,” said Brouwer. “She is luring you in.

“It is a female artist painting herself in a very self-assured way, that is what is so powerful about the image. She is self-confident and empowered. She is showing that art is not just a manly pursuit.”

Le Brun was 36 when she made the painting, a version of which is in the Uffizi collection in Florence. She looks barely out of her teens. “Artistic licence,” said Brouwer.

The painting normally hangs in a different part of Ickworth, surrounded by many other artworks – which means its full brilliance is not always seen by visitors.

Downstairs is a colossal marble sculpture, The Fury of Athamas, made around 1790 by John Flaxman, a British sculptor working in Italy.

The new light subtly changes on the sculpture allowing you to see things afresh, to see its beauty and horror. It tells a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and shows Athamas, who has been driven mad by Hera, killing his own son in a frenzy, watched by his wife Ino.

Looking up into illuminated Rotunda dome and glass oculus at Ickworth.



Looking up into illuminated Rotunda dome and glass oculus at Ickworth. Photograph: Jim Woolf/National Trust

Ickworth and its classical Rotunda was the slightly insane dream of the fourth Earl of Bristol who wanted, near Bury St Edmunds, to replicate the amazing Palladian architecture he saw on his grand tour in Italy.

Work started in 1795 and it was still a shell when he died in 1803. It was left to his son, the first marquess, to complete his vision, with the family finally moving in around 1829.

Chloe Woodrow, house and collections manager at Ickworth, said the Rotunda was always intended to display great works of art: “This installation will focus on one central idea – that Ickworth, with all its architectural and artistic treasures, is truly a home of great art both past and present.”

The London design studio The Decorators is responsible for the new lighting. Its director Xavi Llarch-Font said the project was about embracing the darkness which the scaffolding brought.

“Even if you are familiar with this extraordinary place you will see things that you have never noticed before.”



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