An art installation inspired by a woman who pioneered the use of vaccines exactly 300 years ago is to be unveiled in Wentworth Castle Gardens, near Barnsley.
The artwork, by Yorkshire collaborators Lenny and Whale, is inspired by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who brought the concept of the smallpox inoculation to England from Turkey in 1721. The practice involved infecting people with a small amount of the disease, to build immunity.
The artwork, entitled 'Colour Forms - straws upon the water', will be officially unveiled on March 18 at the National Trust site. It is part of an Artists in Residence project to explore the stories of Wentworth Castle Gardens, and is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, as part of the Wentworth & Elsecar Great Place Scheme.
The Sun Monument, an obelisk in Wentworth Castle Gardens, was dedicated to Lady Mary by William Wentworth, whose father Thomas Wentworth built the Wentworth Castle estate. William and his three sisters were some of the first children in England to be inoculated against smallpox, after Lady Mary made it fashionable amongst high society circles, including with royalty. Lady Mary’s connection to the area included marrying Edward Wortley Montagu, who came from Wortley Hall.
Lady Mary lost her brother to the disease and later, in 1715, suffered and recovered from it, but was left with extremely scarred skin. One of the deadliest diseases known to humans, smallpox is also the only human disease to have been eradicated by vaccination. The major breakthrough coming some decades after Lady Mary, when Edward Jenner discovered a safer way to protect people against the disease using the less harmful cowpox.
Artist Paul Slater, also known as Fabric Lenny, said: “When we first visited Wentworth Castle Gardens, we were struck by the story of Lady Mary and the sun monument which was erected in her honour. As the project developed it was striking to discover how this early medical intervention resonated with the current research being undertaken in the development of vaccines for the Coronavirus.”
Lenny and Whale studied the shapes and colours of virus imagery, and worked with families from Silkstone Primary School to develop concepts for the artwork. They also took inspiration from the Sun Monument, which is believed to be the oldest monument in the country dedicated to a non-royal woman.
Katrina Whale said: ‘We love making work for the outdoors, and creating something specifically for the Fernery at Wentworth Castle Gardens has been a total pleasure. It is such a beautiful environment with meandering paths and wonderful plant life.”
The artwork, which consists of a series of hand painted spheres, a molecular structure and two bespoke benches, will be situated in the Fernery, accompanied by a specially composed soundscape.
The subtitle of the work, ‘straws upon the water’, is taken from a quote attributed to Lady Mary: 'I am afraid we are little better than straws upon the water; we may flatter ourselves that we swim, when the current carries us along.’
Wentworth Castle Gardens is managed by a partnership between Northern College, Barnsley Museums and the National Trust. It is owned by Barnsley Council.
Cllr Tim Cheetham, cabinet spokesperson for place at Barnsley Council, said: “These locations are really special, with fascinating histories. But I wonder how many people know one has a link to vaccines, which are so important today.
“It shows that we have some remarkable places right here on our doorstep. And when restrictions allow, amazing places to visit and appreciate.”
Ruth Carrington, partnerships and participation manager for the National Trust at Wentworth Castle Gardens, said: “We hope that the installation will allow visitors to discover the Fernery, a lesser-known part of the garden, and be inspired by the artwork in a beautiful and tranquil setting.
“So that everyone can appreciate this artwork, including those who aren’t local to us, due to Covid-19 restrictions, are shielding, or have limited mobility, we will be sharing photos and a short film of the installation on our website and social channels.”
The project is ultimately part of the Great Place project, looking at the shared histories of Wentworth Woodhouse, Elsecar Heritage Centre and Wentworth Castle Gardens.
Following the display at Wentworth Castle Gardens, the artwork will go on a mini-tour, moving to Cannon Hall Gardens in April and Elsecar Heritage Centre in May.
Wentworth Castle Gardens is open to visit for people living locally and must be pre-booked online in advance via www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wentworth-castle-gardens to comply with Covid-19 restrictions.