The Thinking Behind Lawson Park

Lawson Park is situated in an elevated position on the Eastern side of Coniston Water, in grounds of around 6 acres. With parts dating back to the medieval period, the main building has been a charcoal-burning hut, a farm, a hostel and a hunting / holiday lodge before becoming the headquarters for Grizedale Arts in 2009 after a complete refurbishment to create 4 artists live/work spaces and a warden's cottage.

In 1999, new director Adam Sutherland had arrived in post to find the organisation of Grizedale Arts based within the Forestry Commission's Grizedale Forest Centre, whilst artists lived at Summerhill, a 'Bed & Breakfast' style house at Hawkshead Hill, some 20 minutes drive away. Workshop and studio space - by now rather tired - was provided at the Centre, reflecting the historic link with the Forest as a primary site for the artists' output.

Summerhill B&B

With a strong sense that uniting all aspects of GA's activity on one site was the way ahead, Adam surveyed recent artists-in-residence in 1999, to ask their opinions on better accommodation for their needs.

As one artist put it:
"(Summerhill) is a bland tourist accommodation, both in location and style, it doesn't make for an inspiring experience and doesn't seem to fit in any way with the ambition of Grizedale"]

By 2001, artists were already less active in the forest, and demonstrated changing needs and expectations of the organisation. This change was reflective of changes in the forest, which was moving away from timber production towards the more culturally complex leisure industry. The artists were creating a diverse body of work reacting to this local cultural and social change. Live and engaged activity was evolving as a core strand with work such as the web cast 'The Festival of Lying' (by Anna Best, Karen Guthrie, Nina Pope & Simon Poulter) and Lorrice Douglas' 'Lakeland Variety Show', Jenny Brownrigg and Sarah Tripp's curated 'Mountain Biker Audio Trail' and Grizedale -initiated projects like the Pantomime and the Country Shows.

Adam Sutherland interviewed in January 2008:


So, what were you looking for in the new GA headquarters?

We were looking for a new site where we could amalgamate the residential base and the office alongside the working context. Few artists were needing physical studio space, they all wanted artist office space, somewhere to plug in a computer. The subject had changed from the forest environment to the wider context, the political and economic position, in short - the meaning of the forest.

The landscape and land use, the relationships between communities, the many axis and juxtapositions - local to global, urban to rural, work to leisure all became the underpinning for a new programme.

We were conscious that the site needed to be a working environment that would encourage activity and work. The experience of - in effect running a B&B at Summerhill - had not been ideal. The Lake District is so associated with holidays that it is often hard for visitors/artists to consider their time here as work.

So during the search for a new site we looked at several 'pleasure palace' style buildings, mainly the Lake-side residences of Victorian captains of industry.

The Lake District has very few grand historic houses prior to mid 19th century; all the older properties were farms and not very rich farms at that. The grand building came with the leisured class, a strange juxtaposition still just visible today and certainly very apparent in other parts of the world, the rich enjoying the aesthetic of the poor. Leisure aping work, horses, sailing, off-road driving and - most predominantly in the Lakes - people pretending to be mountain shepherds - like hill walkers with crooks.

In the end we felt that a farmhouse and barns offered the right potential - typical of the area, iconic and at heart a working building - although long integrated into the country fantasy.

I like the somewhat uncompromising names these farms often still have despite the loss of actual purpose and their subsequent 'sugar coating'. You see popular artist prints having to live with titles like 'Stool End farm - Langdale' or Brown Tongue - Scarfell Pike' I am guessing that many such names have been lost on conversion to B&B: I mean who's going to stay in a farm called Breasty Haw or Cocklick - no stop me, I'm so juvenile....

A typical Lakeland property - a farmhouse, lavishly extended in the 19th & 20th centuries

So how was Lawson Park selected?

Well, Lawson Park was a long abandoned farm on the edge of Grizedale Forest where we were then based (in 1999) - and it had at one point been considered by the founding director of GA - Bill Grant - as a possible base for the artists. However, Bill eventually opted for something a little more do-able, it had just seemed too remote and too hard to tackle - in retrospect he was probably right.

The building was last used as a farm in the 1950's and, we recently found out, had a longer history of leisure use having been a Liverpool dentist's holiday home between the wars. It had powerful cultural resonance having become a part of John Ruskin's estate, albeit at the very end of Ruskin's life, but much visited by Ruskin.

I personally first came across Lawson Park in 2000, it was at the end a lease to Liverpool Community College and in rather a sorry state, I immediately felt it was an extraordinary place, a rare unconverted high hill farm in a remote (i.e. off the road system) location.

I personally leased the building and after a little remedial work, I moved in. The farmhouse, land and barns soon began to host artists and their projects.
Juneau/projects, Marcus Coates, Emily Wardill, Jesse Rae, Clio Barnard
and many others made significant works on the site and we hosted and promoted new works from the programme at screenings and dinners, proving the site could work even under the constraints of the existing building.

Artist Emily Wardill's 'black dinner' at Lawson Park in 2004

And how did the practicalities of securing the building for GA advance?

Initial approaches to the planning authority established that a conversion continuing the current use as a hostel was possible and the Forestry Commission agreed that they would be happy to lease the building on a 99-year basis. The brakes were then put on by the National Lottery (who had funded the purchase of Summerhill as the artists' base) - they found they had no mechanism to allow the sale of one asset to enable the development of another!

So, fast forward 4 years and a torturous period of negotiation ensues with the Lottery, Forestry Commission, Arts Council and possible funders. Over the period GA undertook 2 consultancy studies into organisational development, a series of workshops/think tank events, endless discussions with funders, site visits, meetings, advocacy work and of course reports and applications.

Alongside this work, a more practical strand of advocacy was developed by focusing the programme on the subjects that related to Lawson Park as a site - the environmental, agricultural, community aspects of contemporary art , the idea of an arts organisation having no fixed gallery space, being peripatetic, developing a web interface with the public, engaging the audience in a participatory way.

Lawson Park was finally approved as the new headquarters by GA board of directors in 2005.The Lottery agreed the virement of funds in 2005 and The Northern Rock Foundation completed the funding package in the same year.

We continue to try to raise money for the project and continue to attempt to persuade many of the sceptics that the project is a valid and relevant activity for a contemporary arts organisation; that it is worthwhile to work in a rural location, that the role of the artist can expand, can be relevant to broader contexts and have positive direct effect on society and cultural evolution. It continues to be hard.

Lawson Park pictured from the wildflower meadow

You didn't worry that the site was too remote to be workable?

Well, the farm had long been seen as offering an 'escape from the modern world' and that had previously been thought to be an ideal to aspire to. For the new GA position - artists integrated into community - this was at first a bit of a problem I admit.

However, over the past few years the site - though remote - has increasingly become a busy visitor route with at least 25,000 people (bikers and walkers) passing through the site annually, so this remote fantasy idea had become less a reality and therefore less problematic. We've been obliged to 'deal' with a broad cross section of the public and things like the Honesty Stall -that sells our surplus produce - have come into being because of this traffic. Really the project would be unworkable for me without this visitor component, the visitor, their aspirations, ideas, reaction to the project and so on are a vital part of what Grizedale is about. It shouldn't in any way be seen as an escape, it is if anything an intensified experience of living.

We do get quite a bit of hassle from deliveries and visitors wanting car access, but we want to make the lack of access a part of the experience, the idea is that it should not be so easy, that by even coming here you are making a commitment. But all that does make it hard, funders, especially public sector ones, like to drive around in smart cars and they like to park very close to the office door.

Architect Charlie Sutherland

Can you outline the biggest practical challenges of the project so far?

The architects Sutherland Hussey - who have a long term involvement with Grizedale Visitor centre and Grizedale Arts - were appointed to develop an architectural interpretation of the ideas of the organisation, the local culture, the variety and range of that.

Their scheme had to take in the absurd constraints of the Lake District Planning Authority which meant no change to the exterior of the building - although for sure the local planning 'visionaries' would have accepted a representation of the building as an idealised Victorian farm - in common with the rest of the redundant local farms. It's funny really that a Victorian farm is better appreciated than a 16th century version, I guess it looks more like a farm. It seems that to make a new, active, innovative farm is seen as an impossible outrage and insult to the natural beauty of the area!

But aside from my rants, you did ask me for the challenges, and sadly challenges are so often petty, we've certainly had our share. The big challenges are to do with how culture is perceived, understood, how to change embedded and negative culture, bad habits like narrow mindedness. I find the Lake District and the rural culture to be horribly reduced, these half ideas of nature and naturalness, that to be beautiful is enough, it's like being a good looking person condemned to profit from your looks for ever, otherwise known as prostitution. To me the challenge is to make the rural culture express it's full richness, to bring it back into cultural discourse, relevant, dynamic and I am afraid that is an uphill battle with a great deal of backsliding, not least by the arts - always ready to revert to type.

Parkamoor, Lawson Park's sister farm

What was the bigger vision for Lawson Park beyond simply housing the artists and the organisation's team?

The bigger vision is to do with generating activity, to be relevant on an international stage, engaged with the world culture. The site is so unique and has so many possibilities with regard to many of the key contemporary issues. The way we have developed the organisation allows for this networked approach to creative activity and allows the organisation and the artists it works with to re invigorate through exchange of ideas and experience.

We do have a more traditional retreat type option in Lawson Park's sister farm Parkamoor - a partnership project with the National Trust and an idyllic refuge from the modern world. The building can be used by anyone who has a plan, a project, a plan of work, ideally in the creative field but not exclusively, but definitely not a holiday spot, so a kind of uncurated project space. I imagine the 2 farms operating as a kind of illustration: Parkamoor of the aesthetic art for art sake ideal, and Lawson Park being the art with a social and moral purpose - This was the subject at the centre of a very public lawsuit between Ruskin and Whistler, back when - Whistler won but to no benefit to himself (he was awarded a farthing in damages) or - in the long-term - to art.

Parkamoor offers 18th century living conditions, that's like upgraded from how it was before, kind of 20th century camping. Artists Dan Robinson and Bryan and Laura Davies have worked there a fair bit improving it and developing their ideas, but we're always looking for new proposals for new ways to use it.

The Honesty Stall selling excess produce at Lawson Park, summer 2007

So can you speak about the aesthetics of the refurbished Lawson Park?

The ambition for the building is that it would reflect its farming heritage on the outside and its new composite purpose on the inside; that the site and the interiors would reflect the wide demographic of aesthetics of the local area, its communities and its historical and contemporary mores. These aesthetics/philosophies are, in order of popularity:

Bed and Breakfast/small hotel/pub style - a faux expression of the Victorian farmhouse...with floral patterns, exposed wood, fitted carpets, ceiling roses, dado rails and mantelpiece ornaments and of course farmyard bygones like old ploughs, threshing machines, even spades or idiot sticks as they are known locally.

National Trust style - Basically the same as the bed and breakfast style, but with old and more expensive stuff all underlined with Farrow and Ball heritage colours - national taste.

Working farm style - Practical considerations first, Rayburns, stored junk, incidental furniture and fittings all covered in animal hair.

Corporate business style - Black furniture, chrome and glass fittings, fitted grey carpets, with little pink and blue detailing just to show there is a human side to this super efficient business machine.

Local craft post-hippie style - craft objects, natural finishes in shades of brown, natural flotsam, ethno tourist items from specific locations around the globe (Bali, Goa, etc).

And finally Contemporary Modernist style - 20th century design classics, whiteness, minimalist art - IKEA style, I guess that's art home style much as I would rather it wasn't.

Lakeland ideas and ideals, as expressed in local signage

So what's the point, what do these styles mean?

The aesthetics reflect general philosophies with regard to the rural, a bleeding of boundaries means that a farm aesthetic might also incorporate a fantasy of the farm.

I once lived in a revolting armpit of a remote rural cottage which - though in Scotland - had over the fireplace a print of an equally revolting picture of a rural slum (actually Stool End Farm - Lake District) rendered as the dream faux Victorian country retreat. Look closely at a Landseer painting of a croft and imagine it for real - this was the equivalent of images of kids living on rubbish dumps as idyllic visions of untroubled rural bliss for urban stress monkeys.

But the point is really about cultural hierarchies, an idea of how this stuff fits together, an expression of the relationships between them. This idea of a mix of styles also came about through a concern about renovation of gallery space, the experience of seeing so many Lottery funded projects that basically converted themselves into very culturally specific places, focused on the middle class. Basically the buildings adopted the style of the directors and staff, and that was contemporary classic, and in most cases the IKEA version. This is so reductive, an art world centred on social status enhancement, not exactly in line with the strategies and philosophies of the funders, government or in fact the organisations themselves.

Ideally anyone working or visiting Lawson Park will instantly find objects they can relate to, understand and feel comfortable with, as well as much they are not familiar with.

But to get back to this idea of aesthetics and what they represent, the connections weave through all these aesthetics. I think the principle strands of thought here are; A notion that nature is a beneficent mother that has been abused by a thuggish husband/mankind - the hippie aesthetic

That natural, original, traditional, wild, are synonymous with goodness and pureness - B&B and National Trust

Less is more - focusing on little you can understand/profit more - minimalist and business aesthetics

Nature is here to serve and benefit man - farm style

They are all more or less equally true and untrue, misunderstanding and understanding, hypocritical and genuine, maybe there is some sense to be drawn from these notions as a whole, in relation to one another.

Architect's visualisation of the refurbished Lawson Park main space

Can you explain the thinking behind the layout and design of the Lawson Park building?

The design for the building draws from all these styles and ideas, and juxtaposes the aesthetics in both building interiors and exteriors. The layout of the spaces draws from the heritage of the 'big house' and the 'Mains' farmhouse with the principle space establishing a great hall, a kind of semi public space, social interaction and mixing of landowners, site users and workers.

Architecturally the principle area of design is this great hall, utilising the big hay barn to create an open plan arrangement of working, leisure and study areas, with through-views and open, readable circulation leading to bedrooms and access to gardens and outdoors.

The intention is to give residents a 'front door' of their own, a direct response to he survey of artists all those years ago, an option of privacy. These live/work spaces connected to a generous social space designed for multiple use, social, work, public, research and discussion. This percentage of bedroom to social space must be unique in the Lake District where every building has been exploited to the maximum bed night delivery - a previous scheme for Lawson Park offered 20 bedrooms, whilst the scheme being implemented has 6!

Connecting the building with the outside has also been a challenge with few existing openings and no further openings allowed - as the Lake District Planning Dept. officer said 'Why do they (artists) need to see out?'

The solution was to link the contents of the garden and the contents of the house through a common policy - the Collection's policy - in brief a series of rules that govern what is relevant to the site and its use, so these rules reflect and express much of what I have been talking about here.

A few of the domestic items in the Lawson Park Collection