Neo-gothic mansion reaches new heights of extravagance

Mount Stuart, on the isle of Bute, is well known for its elaborate and ornate architecture. Now, though, thanks to a series of installations by artist Lucy Skaer, the Crichton-Stuart family home is reaching new heights of extravagance

When Lucy Skaer was invited to make an installation for Mount Stuart, the Crichton-Stuart family’s extraordinary neo-gothic mansion on the isle of Bute, she thought she knew what she was letting herself in for. The 38-year-old artist, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art who has exhibited sculptures, paintings and drawings internationally, had previously shot a film in the house. She had also seen other exhibitions in Mount Stuart’s Visual Arts Programme, which promotes some of the most cutting-edge contemporary artists working today.
But whatever she was expecting, it wasn’t what she found there – not surprisingly: “Every time I’ve been here, I’ve been shown another aspect of the place, something weird,” she says.
When Lucy asked if there were any materials left over from the construction of the house (it was rebuilt in the late-Victorian period after fire destroyed the earlier Georgian house), she was directed to a bramble patch. Beneath the thorns were piles of sandstone and the leftover pillars that ended up under the table in the dining room. These were recovered at some personal cost to the artist. “I just went in there in my flipflops. I was scratched to bits.”
Lucy, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2009, is a restless artist. For Mount Stuart, the scavenger hunt was part of a grand plan, to respond to the architecture and the spaces within the building in “quite a sculptural way”, without trying to compete with the vast gothic building itself. “What I’ve done works with what is here already,” she says. “If you tried to overpower the house, you’d lose.”
Among the marble, stained glass and panelling there was, she reckoned, space for her to make an intervention. “The gothic architecture puts the emphasis on the maker as well as the architect. In classical architecture there is just one way of making a column or a capital, but in gothic there’s any variant on any one of these features. You can always add a gargoyle or a few leaves. And in Mount Stuart, that ornamentation is ramped up to an extraordinary degree. In fact, pretty much everything in Mount Stuart is ramped up in that way.
So there was nothing else to do but go for it. “It seemed to me that you could take something and continue it to a point where it turns into something else, but it also ramps up even more what’s already there.”
The rescued pillars, for example, are jumbled under the dining-room table. The effect she wanted to create was “as if they had become a slightly awkward thing. I wanted to have the stonework fall into the social space as if it was playing footsie with you, getting in the way – being over the top to the extent that you can’t put your feet anywhere.”
For several other rooms, Lucy referenced Audubon’s Birds of America.

This is just a taster, you can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 142-147, issue 91.

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Lucy Skaer: A Proposal for Mount Stuart 2013, Isle of Bute, runs until 31 October.
Words Anna Burnside
Photography Keith Hunter Photography