As we approach the Heritage Open Days period it is worth reminding ourselves that for many, a connection with heritage and culture is something that just doesn’t happen. The phrase ‘it’s not for the likes of us’ is still too commonly used. So, when a festival that aims to change this takes place it’s something to celebrate.
Bank holiday Monday, 28 August, sees the WE Wonder Festival return to the Wentworth Woodhouse Gardens, Rotherham for a colourful day of artistic installations and family friendly performances.
This year’s festival is inspired by Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences exhibition which has been on show at Wentworth Woodhouse throughout August. The exhibition is a series of six large-scale tapestries by the artist. They explore the theme of taste and class in Britain, inspired by Perry’s TV series All in the Best Possible Taste. The tapestries are based on the story of Tim Rakewell, a fictional character who moves from working-class to upper-class, and were influenced by Hogarth’s series of paintings, A Rake’s Progress.
A chance to get creative
The festival itself uses art, dance, circus and music to celebrate local voices, stories and heritage. Featuring amongst others, Mughal Miniatures from the Sonia Sabri company, Theatre Temoin’s ‘Flood’ and a chance to pause, reflect and connect to the beautiful surroundings of Wentworth’s gardens, with the Balbir Singh Dance Company in Raastay. A wide variety of workshops and making opportunities from calligraphy to Pakistani truck art to nature-inspired Kashmiri flower egg painting are also on offer.
Taking over the grounds of Wentworth Woodhouse from 11am until 5pm the late summer bank holiday event is the perfect opportunity to spend the day exploring, listening, creating, dancing and sharing food.
Noor Salih, creative engagement officer at Flux Rotherham has been working with four different community groups from a South Asian background to create site dressing for the WE Wonder Festival. She told me:
“With community at the heart, WE Wonder will bring culture and creativity from every corner of Rotherham.”
For all of us who passionately believe that the arts and heritage are an important and beneficial part of everyone’s lives and wellbeing, it is wonderful to see Wentworth Woodhouse being used in this way. The estate has a long and complex history that spans over three centuries. It was built in 1725 by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, who became the first Marquess of Rockingham, and passed to his descendants, the Fitzwilliam family. The house was a seat of political power and influence, two of its owners serving as British prime ministers.
History of the great house
Wentworth has long had a connection with the arts. The 18th century especially was a remarkable time, when the house was built and extended over four decadesby the Watson-Wentworth family, who as well as being prominent political figures were patrons of the arts. They hosted many distinguished guests, including King George II, Horace Walpole and Voltaire.
This period also witnessed the rise and fall of the Rockingham Whigs, a political faction led by Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham, who was twice prime minister. The house was a symbol of the power and wealth of the Watson-Wentworth family, as well as a testimony to their taste and culture.
The 20th century was a turbulent and transformative time for Wentworth Woodhouse. The house faced many challenges and changes, not least the mining of its grounds by the government in the 1940s, which caused damage and subsidence to the building and the landscape. In 1948 there took place the sale of its contents – one of the largest auctions in British history. The house was then used as a teacher training college from 1949 to 1978, and later as a conference centre and a private residence. The estate was divided among various owners.
£130mn conservation project
In 1989 the house was again sold to a private owner, Wensley Haydon-Baillie, who planned to restore and renovate it. However, he ran into financial difficulties in 1998, after which another private owner, Clifford Newbold, bought it and continued the restoration work until his death in 2015.
The house and gardens were finally acquired by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust in 2017, with support from various donors and organisations. The trust’s aims are to preserve and protect the house and its heritage, as well as to open it to the public and see it used for educational and cultural purposes. A major repair and conservation project is now ongoing, expected to last for 20 years and cost £130mn.
Wentworth Woodhouse was one of the largest private houses in the country with more than 300 rooms and 250,000 square feet of floor space. It features the longest façade of any country home in Europe, at 606 feet. It is a Grade I listed country house and its grounds are now being used to bring the rich and colourful culture of the area’s diverse population to a whole new audience.
Now for all the community
I have a strong belief in the importance of making the arts and heritage accessible to all, and thoroughly endorse the words of Sophie Akbar, creative producer for the WE Wonder Festival 2023:
“As well as being a wonderful day out for the family with the very best of street theatre and dance that the UK has to offer, this event is very much about empowering global majority communities and D/deaf and disabled people to have a voice in local arts provision.
“We want people to challenge perceptions of where they think they belong and break down barriers, feeling as much at home in an English stately home as in their local bazaar or community hall. We hope that visitors will enjoy their communal spaces as one community enriched by difference and inclusive to all.”
Now that must be a heritage worth creating.
For full details of the event visit WE Wonder – Wentworth Woodhouse