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Your Sweetest Empire Is To Please

This site-specific commission for the National Trust estate of Gibside in Gateshead, North-East England is part of Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience, a three year (2017–2019) interdisciplinary research project that critically examines the role and practice of temporary visual art commissioning within heritage properties in Britain today. It maps the current landscape and explores the impact of this activity on its producers and audiences. The project approaches this subject from multiple perspectives, bringing together the knowledge and experience of scholars, artists, heritage professionals, volunteers and visitors.

The artists’ brief for the Gibside commission focused on the shocking and unhappy story of the Countess of Strathmore, Mary Eleanor Bowes, who lived at Gibside in the 18th century. The National Trust is celebrating a year of ‘Women and Power’ to mark the 100-year anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement. Fiona focused on Mary Eleanor’s interest in botany and the role it played in women’s education and the gendering of knowledge during the 18th century. Botany was linked to ‘polite’ feminine activities including embroidery and music and seen as a suitable interest for girls. However, women were denied access to university education and membership of institutions like the Royal Society that gave public validation to new theories and discoveries; they were instead restricted to the role of hobbyists or amateurs.

The commission is an architectural folly placed next to Mary Eleanor’s ruined Orangery in the grounds of Gibside. The structure is based on a Wardian Case – a plant and seed transportation box – and houses a series of brightly coloured artificial ‘exotic’ plants defiantly emerging from the sides and the roof. 

 Contemporary Art at Gibside is open from 12 May to 30 September 2018.


The project is delivered by Newcastle University in collaboration with UK heritage partners The National Trust and The Churches Conservation Trust, and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

National Trust