Stately homes, cream teas … and an indie band: countryside opens up to crossover culture

Guillemots members are among the exhibitors at National Trust's Nunnington Hall, one of the UK's most unlikely cutting-edge galleries

Two miles from the nearest B road, one of the UK's leading indie rock band members pauses, hammer in hand, below a 17th-century roof beam, and admits: "I'm scared."

"I mean, can I really put nails into the walls of a National Trust house dating back hundreds of years?" asks Aristazabal Hawkes of Guillemots, the band that has taken over the ancient manor's top floor.

Busy with his own staple gun and a tough stretch of Yorkshire oak, the manager of Nunnington Hall, Simon Lee, replies: "Sure. Bryan Adams did, and Mary McCartney. Why not Guillemots as well?"

It's an exchange that highlights the extraordinary growth of one of the country's most unlikely cutting-edge galleries, spread across miles of stately home and cream tea country on the edge of the North York Moors.

Not just Nunnington, but an entire, delectable slice of North Yorkshire countryside has joined the contemporary circuit for critics, collectors and anyone interested in "crossover culture" – musicians who paint, artists who sing, sculptors who write and many more.

"It's an exploration of the nature of creativity," says Lee, one of a string of arts commissioners who are bringing well-known names from across the world to nooks such as Nunnington and the former home of Laurence Sterne, nearby Shandy Hall. The curator there, Patrick Wildgust, hosts New York poets, South American intellectuals and European artists at the world's first Centre for Non-Linear Narrative, inspired by Sterne's erratic masterpiece Tristram Shandy.

"There seems to be something restless about creativity," says Fyfe Dangerfield, founder of Guillemots, which has been nominated for Mercury and Brit awards. He is equally busy with tape and glue as the band's exhibition goes up in a corridor and two rooms at Nunnington. "Some people argue that it can be narrow – a well-developed ear, for instance, may mean less visual awareness. But we find that music, doodling, taking photographs and making films all play a part in what Guillemots wants to do."

A noted classical music composer as well as Guillemots' lead singer, Dangerfield was talent-spotted for his drawings by Lee. After increasing Nunnington's annual visitor numbers to 65,000 with photograph shows by Adams and McCartney, as well as Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and Andy Summers of the Police, Lee was surfing Guillemots' website and clicked on their gallery of artwork.

"I thought: this is good stuff and very much in our line of discovering other creative sides to people known for one talent," says Lee. "To put it crudely, if you cut off a guitarist's hand, what are the odds that they would find another medium to express themselves?"

Guillemots members were initially fazed by the invitation. "I thought it might be a wind-up," said Dangerfield, "but then I suggested extending it to the whole of the band, and it's fascinating what's come out."

Hawkes is exhibiting family photographs and collages of concert wristbands, backstage passes and the like; MC Lord Magrão screens a 10-minute film noir; and the fourth band member, Greig Stewart, who says his closest public brush with art was being hugged by Damien Hirst at a drunken Groucho Club bash, has clay sculpture and wall-hangings.

Visitors to the hall keep dropping in on the hanging sessions; with one demanding the "disgusting music" to Magrão's film be switched off, but others intrigued by the crossover theme. Retired teachers Judy and Eric Murphy from Sheffield chimed with Dangerfield's 'restless notion', saying: "We've always liked Guillemots and got their first album, but this looks as though it's going to tell us a whole lot more about them."

The exhibition runs from 14 June to the end of July, after which Lee will Polyfilla and revarnish his attics while planning Nunnington's next contribution to the wider countryside gallery programme.

"There's no problem getting busy or famous people to come here," he said, "because it's one of the loveliest parts of England. And they appreciate being asked. If anyone says, 'Who do they think they are?' or 'It's all rubbish', the answer is that we invited them; they didn't push to come."


Martin Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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