'Trickery' behind Mercer's stunning tribute show to Capability Brown

The stunning centre-piece of Kate Whiteford OBE: False Perspectives, a new exhibition at Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.
The stunning centre-piece of Kate Whiteford OBE: False Perspectives, a new exhibition at Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

The 300th anniversary of Capabilty Brown’s birth may have sparked an explosion of interest in Britain’s greatest-ever landscape garden designer but, as far as this reporter knows, only one public gallery in the north is presenting not one but two new exhibitions devoted to his history and influence.

That gallery is Harrogate’s Mercer Art Gallery.

Landscape garden designer Capability Brown.

Landscape garden designer Capability Brown.

Not only does it have a wealth of archive materials from Brown’s art and life, including a portrait rarely seen out side the National Portrait Gallery in London but there’s also a new exhibition developed in conjunction with Harewood House by renowned artist Kate Whiteford OBE.

Talking to Kate on the phone to her studio, this versatile Scottish-born 'land artist' whose work is in the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery, explains Lancelot Capability Brown may be famous for creating gorgeous natural gardens and vistas but the effect was just that – an effect.

She said: “Capability consciously applied the laws of two-dimensional painting to a three-dimensional landscape. The end result looks beautiful and natural but the perspectives aren’t real ones.

“When you visit places such as Harewood House the landscape is filled with illusion upon illusion and he was doing all this in the 18th century. His ideas are very modern.”

Visitors to Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape and Kate Whiteford OBE: False Perspectives will see the traditional space that is Mercer Art Gallery totally transformed.

Noble Prospects includes a new film by Simon Mercer while False Perspectives sees the artist’s large scale prints inspired by a giant oak tree at Harewood planted originally by Capabilty Brown himself arranged within the Mercer in a way which plays with the building’s own physical perspective.

The result for the visitor who steps through Mercer’s front door is colourful and dramatic.

The first thing that hits the eye is the monolithic image of a giant tree hung from the ceiling at the entrance to the exhibition

Its shimmering red and greens at the entrance to the room seem to beckon the visitor towards a receding horizon.

The effect is as ‘fake’ as Capability’s garden designs, of course.

Kate, 64, who works across diverse media as an artist, said: “I wanted to bring Capability’s ideas into the 21st century. The big tree is the equivalent of doing a double take. It splits the gallery and creates an optical illusion for visitors.

"It’s the sort of trickery Capbility like to do in his garden designs. The Mercer is a lovely space and I wanted the exhibition to use it properly.”

This major project for the council-owned Mercer Gallery is the result of not only good curating but a collaboration with the Yorkshire Gardens Trust with funding by Arts Council England.

Val Hepworth, chair of the Yorkshire Gardens Trust, said: “This a very special year. We are very excited at the activities at Mercer Art Gallery which will encourage more people to visit Capability Brown’s gardens and enjoy his legacy.”

False Perspectives sees Kate Whiteford, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art, recycle some of her simple but striking images from a giant installation of a Chippendale Sofa she worked on with Mercer’s curator Jane Sellars at Harewood House in 2001 under the name Sitelines.

That, too, required an element of playing fast and loose with true perspective.

Who cares when the views end up this good?

Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape runs at Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate until September 11 and Kate Whiteford OBE: False Perspectives runs until September 18.

A series of talks, tours and day visits centred on the exhibitions is also taking place from now until September.

Included is an 'In Conversation with Kate Whiteford' event at the gallery on Monday, August 15 at 2pm (ticket only).