Study Tour to Cresswell Crags, The Harley Gallery and The Portland Collection

Wednesday 30 May 2018, organised by Catherine Brophy

The timeline of this historical study day started 50,000 years ago and ended with us browsing through a private collection of paintings and some absolutely contemporary artwork.

28 YPS members started the trip at Creswell Crags, which sits half-and-half in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, to see the prehistoric cave art and other remains on show there. Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge honeycombed with caves and smaller fissures where stone tools and remains of animals found in the caves by archaeologists provide evidence of life during the last Ice Age between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. Not only do the animal finds paint a picture of how creatures lived and died at that time, but also how humans co-existed with them. Did we know that humans hunted mammoths by driving them over the cliff edge so they could be butchered at leisure? No, but we do now! The caves so far discovered – there may be more, as yet uncharted, deeper in the hills – have yielded a fascinating set of cave art that was only discovered in 2003. The carvings and decorated bones and antlers are on display to the public, as we saw either in the exhibition centre in the case of portable artefacts like small bones, or inside the caves if they were carved into the rock. The artwork is unique in England, and very few examples exist in the rest of the British Isles – such as in the caves at Weymss Bay in Fife.

We had time to browse the displays and be treated to a talk by a curator before visiting the caves themselves, complete with hard hats. We entered Church Hole cave and saw evidence of birds and animals engraved high on the ceilings and walls 13,000 years ago by England’s first artists. Fortunately, there was a viewing platform that raised us up to a comfortable height rather than having to peer from ground level. Other caves on site have also yielded finds but time did not permit us to visit more than one. The largest – known as Robin Hood cave – was being used for youth education about life in the Ice Age. The Crags museum and education centre deals with 10,000 students annually and is open for most of the year, although space on the tours is limited. What makes the museum special is that it now displays artefacts originally found in the 19th century and taken to other museums, which have loaned them back to Creswell. The exhibition centre cost £7m and was mainly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with additional contributions from EMDA, the East Midland Development Agency and – perhaps just in time – the European Regional Development Fund. It’s a unique place to visit.

We then went across to the nearby Harley Gallery on the Welbeck Estate to look at two exhibitions of contemporary art – “Half in Shadow and Half in Light” being a display by Clare Twomey of lithophanes, which are 1mm thick smooth A4 ceramic sheets with photographic images on one side – these look almost three dimensional when illuminated from the rear. This was complemented by a different exhibition, “Loud and Clear” curated by the National Glass Centre in Sunderland which showcased original art work by 17 different designers. These exclusive glass exhibits were for sale, but at £500 – £7,000 each there were no YPS buyers!

After the Harley Gallery was the final event of the day, a private viewing of the adjacent Portland Collection, which only opened to the public in 2016. This collection is a series of modern galleries displaying paintings of the various Dukes of Portland, who lived at Welbeck, along with displays of family silver, interesting household goods and other artefacts which showcased how the Dukes lived. One article of especial interest was a Cartier tiara that was accidently squashed when a Duke sat on it but which shows no sign of damage. Perhaps the same could not be said for the hapless Duke? Another item of interest was a garden design proposal for Welbeck by Humphry Repton, a landscape gardener active in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These design proposals became known as Red Books as he always used that colour backing for them and are also distinctive in that they show a ‘before and after’ view of how his design would look, based on a paper page overlay. This early form of comparative imagery predates computers, PowerPoint and graphics packages by almost two hundred years!

Report and photographs by Peter Wheatcroft