Not far from Helmsley, in North Yorkshire, are the dramatic ruins of a Cistercian abbey. Named after the valley of the river Rye in which is sits, Rievaulx Abbey is backed by a huge wooded cliff which rises high above the stonework. Look up and you can just see a glimpse of a classical temple, one of two which ornament the curving grassed terrace which overlooks the abbey.
This terrace was constructed by Thomas Duncombe (1724-1779) of nearby Duncombe Park in the middle of the 18th century, and echoes the terrace by the house built by his father a generation earlier. The Rievaulx promenade was newly complete in 1759, and soon became an attraction for the genteel tourists exploring England.
Whilst the temples on the terrace by the house were open, those overlooking Rievaulx were covered in, and ‘convenient rooms in which to dine or drink tea.’ As Duncombe’s guests strolled along the terrace they would find vistas cut into the woods on the steep cliff, allowing carefully composed peeps down to the abbey and village
The round Tuscan temple has one small room, perfect for taking tea. At the other end of the terrace the Ionic Temple (top) is a country house dining room transplanted to the lawn. The grand upper room has a superb painted ceiling, a fine fireplace, and could sit a sizeable party. Underneath is a room which once housed the kitchen that catered for the picnics and parties.
It is here that The Folly Flâneuse found an intriguing new installation called A Tale of Two Sketchbooks. This is the work of artist and sculptor Fiona Bowley and is inspired by the meeting of two 18th century women artists. One is Ann Duncombe, daughter of Thomas who built the terrace, and the other is Effie Silver, a child of the Foundling Hospital who now works as an assistant to an artist.
In 1777 Ann and Effie meet on the terrace and find common ground in their love of art. Much of their history, and even their very existence, is fiction, although the historical background (researched by Rachel Ormerod) is real, and the two are skilfully entwined. The resulting story is beautifully told through words and objects.
Bowley is particularly known for her carved sheep; they are something of an obsession she happily admits. For Rievaulx her new work includes two sheep that sit by the entrance to the Ionic Temple in the manner of Coade stone sphinxes of the 18th century. Like Mrs Coade, Bowley came up with an ingenious alternative to natural stone. You will have to visit to find out what it is.
Sheep have of course featured at Rievaulx for centuries; the Cistercian monks were great farmers and kept sheep for their meat and their valuable fleeces.
A lamb features on the crest of the Foundling Hospital, where Effie Silver spent her early years and Bowley’s installation explores themes of motherhood and nurture: aristocratic Ann pregnant with her third child and Effie handed to the Foundling Hospital in the hope of a better life.
Well done the National Trust for inviting Fiona Bowley to create this detailed and intriguing experience. You’ve got until Sunday 29th September to explore it for yourself.
The Rievaulx Terrace has been in the care of the National Trust since the 1960s https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/rievaulx-terrace
Fiona Bowley is based in Thornton in Craven in North Yorkshire https://www.fionabowley.com and her studio will be open over two weekends in June as part of North Yorkshire Open Studios https://www.nyos.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/NYOS-2019-BROCHURE.pdf