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Hideyuki Sobue’s ACE supported art project commissioned by the National Trust

Situated in the quiet woodland in the Grasmere valley, overlooking the serene medieval village against the Lake Grasmere surrounded by the ancient fells, Allan Bank stands as a key artefact in the heart of the Lake District owned by the National Trust. The house was built in 1805 by the Liverpool solicitor Gregory Crump and housed notable tenants such as the Romantic Poet Laureate William Wordsworth and his family, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the Lake Poets, and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust, with his wife Eleanor. It was a hub of creativity and reform. Wordsworth wrote the first edition of “A Guide through the District of the Lakes” at this place. In the later editions, the poet developed his criticism of the destruction of the natural environment through indiscreet human agencies. Sir Jonathan Bate, a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar, stressed the importance of how Wordsworth’s critical view as an environmentalist influenced others subsequently: John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and social reformer, John Muir, naturalist and advocate of establishing Yosemite National Park, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley as mentioned above, and Beatrix Potter, the children’s book author and conservationist, to name a few. Their collective voice and legacy resound ever louder in the current ecological crisis.

In this art project, I am exploring the themes mentioned above, focusing on Beatrix Potter as an icon of inspiration on many levels. Artist, researcher, celebrated illustrated book author, farmer, entrepreneur, conservationist, and enactor of the ambitions of Canon Rawnsley in the conservation of the Lake District. This was manifested in her financial and organisational agency in acquiring and then bequeathing large estates to the National Trust in its early days, forming the core of its 25% ownership of the present National Park. At the same time, Potter maintained and supported farming traditions, notably the Herdwick sheep breed, which is now a mainstay of the Lake District Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site.

The project comprises a large mural portrait of Beatrix and a two-storey mural of an old ash tree, transforming the internal walls of Allan Bank. The presence of a large mural portrait of Beatrix in Rawnsley’s home will signify a line of continuity between Ruskin, Wordsworth, Potter and Rawnsley in the development of the earliest landscape conservation movement. I aimed to portray Beatrix in her early to mid-twenties, before she reached her full potential in her later years, in quest to immortalise her like a Muse so that her voice echoes in our contemporary society and beyond. Young Beatrix, depicted in a manner no artist has ever portrayed, is also designed to be relatable to young audiences, her burgeoning environmental awareness similarly relatable to the youthful leadership of the modern environmental movement. At the same time, my large-scale mural of an old ash tree symbolises Beatrix’s passion inherited by the National Trust, which will launch a conservation campaign for European ash which is dying. As for the style, I referenced the Japanese traditional paintings, particularly those produced in the Edo Rinpa (School of Kōrin) style by Sakai Hōitsu and Suzuki Kiitsu. The style recalls the Japonisme of the cultural elite in which Potter grew up (a key artefact in the major Beatrix Potter exhibition at V&A is Beatrix’s late 19th-century Japanese tansu cabinet, once part of her Kensington home and transplanted to Hill Top, her house in the Lake District.) The distinctly Japanese treatment – at once architectural and at the same time intensely graphic – will allude to the international nature of wealth, empire and aesthetics that underpinned what on the surface appears to be a deeply local, native and internalised culture of the Lake District villa. This old ash tree is sourced from the one standing at the Cartmel Priory, where William Wordsworth once visited to mourn his teacher and mentor, who died prematurely and was buried at this church graveyard. At Allan Bank, Wordsworth wrote his first edition of ‘The Guide to the District of the Lakes’, and its later edition catalysed the conservation movement not only in the Lake District but also in America. His passion was succeeded by Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who inspired Beatrix Potter about the importance of conservation. This old ash tree symbolises the unbroken chain of ecological movement up to this day. Alongside the mural paintings, I will produce a series of small works inspired by Beatrix’s drawings culminating in a solo exhibition in a dedicated room at the hard opening in September. This exhibition consists of these small works alongside an original drawing and wooden panel painting of Beatrix Potter, double-vision portraits of William Wordsworth and Hardwicke Rawnsley with their preparatory drawings. I have named the project “A Letter to the Earth from Beatrix”, imagining a youthful letter from Potter to herself as an older person and also addressing future generations.

I will complete all works apart from drawings with the unique line hatching technique which I created and have developed over the past 16 years. This line hatching method is a fusion of inspiration from the concept of designo, established in the Florentine School during the Renaissance, with neurological studies, one of which reveals that the human visual brain perceives objects predominantly by oriented lines.

This project is generously supported by Arts Council England and will become part of the interpretation and curation of Allan Bank. The project is also directly linked to the National Trust’s local response to the co-curated National Trust / V&A show in 2022.