Exhibition review: Reflective Histories, Traquair House

SEVEN artists intervene in a stately home to subtly change its environment and provide a deeper experience of the past

Reflective Histories

Traquair House

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Those who own or look after historic buildings are increasingly exploring what may emerge when a contemporary artist is invited to respond to the environment. The potential is already well known at Mount Stuart, on the Isle of Bute, where the artist residency project goes back more than a decade, and at the likes of Belsay Hall, in Northumberland. Now others, such as Traquair, near Innerleithen in the Borders, are getting in on the act.

This Year of Creative Scotland partnership between the owners of Traquair, the Maxwell-Stuart family, ad Edinburgh Printmakers, has a particular set of aims. Seven artists, chosen because they are interested in working with history, respond to aspects of the house and its story, aiming to stimulate visitors to engage with both in new ways.

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Traquair has history in spades. It is “Scotland’s oldest inhabited house”, with the oldest part of the building dating from the 12th century when it was a royal hunting lodge for the Kings of Scotland to hunt boar and bears in the Forest of Ettrick. Never having been “Victorianised” (at that time, the owners didn’t have money for grand home improvements), it feels older and more intimate in scale than many grand houses.

The Stuart family were Catholics and Jacobite supporters, and Traquair claims to have hosted both Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, on whose departure the great “Bear Gates” were closed, never to be opened until a Stuart monarch once again sat on the throne in London. They’re still shut.

It’s not hard to see how Calum Colvin, interested as he is in Scotland’s heroes and myths, was immediately drawn to the figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie. His prints, Lochaber no more, contrast two portraits of the prince, one as a young man, the other much older, reminding us that the dashing young hero grew old, his hopes unfulfilled, and (it was said) could not listen to the tune Lochaber no more without shedding tears.

Through a peephole in a cellar door, we glimpse an installation of objects, a stage set, or a secret shrine: a gramophone, a china West Highland terrier, an hour-glass, a Jacobite rose. It’s a set of symbols, each telling part of a complex story. And if you lean close enough, you might make out faint strains of a ballad – or did I imagine that bit?

Symbols are very important at Traquair, the secret signs of Jacobitism, as well as the more general iconography of historic homes, now all but lost to us. David Faithfull has engaged so wholeheartedly with the idea of secrecy and concealment that his body of work – Oak Interventions: The Art of Concealment – is itself concealed. His interventions have to be sleuthed out on the journey round the house, though the hardest one to find is undoubtedly the honeysuckle (another Jacobite symbol) planted in the depths of the Traquair maze.

Faithfull develops his own set of symbols, built around the oak (part of the Jacobite iconography, and the tree in which King Charles II hid from Cromwell’s Roundheads). But to his oak wallpaper, he adds oak gall wasps, parasites that grow on its buds and leaves. On the chessboard in the high drawing room, he replaces one of the knights with the Scottish unicorn, the Culloden Gambit, and he has designed playing cards showing Charles II as King and Betty Burke (or the disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie) as queen.

Another Jacobite symbol, the moth, is the inspiration for Nicola Murray, who has covered the white-panelled walls 
of the north pavilion with intricately drawn creatures in invisible ink (the kind used today in security procedures). Armed with an ultraviolet torch, the viewer illuminates panel after panel of them, a powerful metaphor for a hidden army of secret supporters for the Jacobite cause in which the Stuarts played a pivotal role.

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Helen Douglas was drawn to the priest room, in the highest part of the house, the secret chapel and living quarters for the family’s priest at a time when celebrating mass was a penal offence. Her beautiful, hand-made book, bound like a missal, is placed on a small desk by the window at which the priest probably sat. It’s an exquisite, tactile response to the objects in the house: books, portraits, textiles, jewellery, and (by implication) stories, to which we are invited to add our own imagination.

More than one artist has noticed the oak panel in the house, dating from 1601, showing the Scottish unicorn garrotting the English lion with its horn. Rachel Maclean’s film The Lion and the Unicorn takes these characters as its starting point, creating sumptuously dressed personifications of lion, unicorn and queen, who speak in the voices of our politicians and monarch. In this sharp, visually sumptuous parody-pastiche, the voices of Alex Salmond and David Cameron haggle over assets and debt while the Queen slices up a Union flag cake and serves it up on Diamond Jubilee commemorative plates.

Duncan Robertson’s digital embroideries pop up in various locations around the house, interweaving the designs from the historic wallpaper with images of weaponry associated with different periods in the history of the house (including the First World War in which four Maxwell-Stuarts died). The splicing of domestic and military, feminine craft with masculine violence 
is vivid, all the more so for its stealth effect – you have to look hard to notice them. Even so, the AK-47 on the fender 
in the lower drawing room still comes as a bit of shock when 
you realise what you’re looking at.

Lesley Logue’s bears – standing sentinel on the lawns beside the maze – are casts of archery practice targets, referring to the house’s past as a royal hunting lodge. Logue is a recreational archer, and each bears the scuffs and dents of arrows – some closer to the target than others.

As well as their interventions throughout the house, each artist makes a print and these are shown together in the high gallery. Some of the artists have made print-making the focus of their practice, others have not, but all explore it here. Many also stretch its possibilities, by making multiples, stamps, casts, working in digital embroidery, book-making, wallpaper.

The result is a body of work that responds to the context of Traquair. It doesn’t feel exactly like an exhibition, and indeed, it might not stand alone without this site-specific location.

So subtle and well thought-out are the interventions that they blend in to their surroundings to begin to alter the experience of a stately home visit. It’s hard to say exactly how, but it’s broader and deeper thanks to the addition of seven artists’ imaginations.

• Until 30 September.