In this exhibition, artist Sam Francis responds to Nettlecombe, a rural estate in Exmoor National Park in Somerset, just a few miles up the road from Watchet. Nettlecombe means ‘valley of nettles’. Famously depicted in Alexander Hollweg’s bucolic woodcut print, Country Dance, from the 1960s onwards Nettlecombe became known for its artistic and creative community, with Hollweg living on the estate and occupying a studio there. Using Hollweg’s Country Dance as a starting point, Francis takes a deeper look at the creative culture and mythologies of Nettlecombe.
Throughout most of its history, Nettlecombe was the seat of the Trevelyan family, whose ancestors continue to live in and run the estate today as a centre of environmental excellence. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to the rare lichen and beetles found there, and a historic centre for the arts. Some of the estate’s wealth is historically tied to the slave trade, and in 2023, members of the Trevelyan family visited Grenada to apologise in person for their ancestors’ participation in the enslavement of 1000 people. This apology was signed by 104 descendants of the owners of Grenada’s plantations.
The Nettlecombe of today and tomorrow has a focus on ‘people, place, and knowledge’, taking responsibility for the past and responding to future issues such as the climate crisis. Nettlecombe Court is home to the Leonard Wills Field Centre, an environmental education charity. The estate continues to innovate with a one-of-a-kind Vacuum Cider Distillery, Nettlecombe Craft School, several artist studios and metalworking business.
Sam Francis’ creative process for this exhibition began with Alexander Hollweg’s, Country Dance, now part of the Tate Collection, which portrays the simplicity and joy of rural life in Somerset. It depicts an idyllic country scene, where artists, writers, and labourers appear to revel in rural tranquillity, celebrating the harvest.
For Francis, this woodcut has served as inspiration, with aspects and motifs associated with the estate and history replicated in the large folk banner that hangs in Gallery 1. A closer look at Hollweg’s Country Dance reveals layers of community, activity and work, which prompted Francis to examine the intersections of art, labour, and the essence of rural life during an extended stay at Nettlecombe where she developed her work. Nettles are known to thrive in the phosphate-rich ground often found near human settlements. Here, the nettle is used as both material and ‘folk art’ emblem, symbolising community and gathering, and serving as a metaphor for place, togetherness and celebration.
Prints of photographs from Hollweg’s albums continue this narrative, capturing real moments from the community’s May Day celebrations in 1974, and images of seasonal land labour such as straw-baling and animal-rearing around Nettlecombe. Also on display is an original Maypole spinner, a relic from the May Day celebrations. Rooted in pagan traditions, May Day festivities evoke a sense of community, dancing and feasting. Maypoles symbolise the joyous return of summer and the season that will bring abundance. The spinners are often decorated with ribbons and flowers. Here, the spinner is adorned with nettles and hung with rope made at Watchet Boat Museum out of nettle cordage which was hand-twisted by the artist and Watchet’s local community during Francis’ time at Nettlecombe.
The exhibition also features nettle-dyed textiles, threaded and hung with nettle twine, a film showing the labour-intensive process of cordage making, and a re-imagining of Hollweg’s Watchet Walk I artwork painted by East Quay studio artist Georgina Towler. An audio piece by Francis, featuring sounds by Steve Kidd, tells a collective story, gathered from family, friends and the extensive, still thriving, creative community at Nettlecombe.
The exhibition’s title comes from artist-jeweller Geraldine Hollweg who has lived and worked at Nettlecombe, with her late husband Alexander, since the 1970s. People Came for Tea and Stayed Forever alludes to the magical pull of Nettlecombe for many who have visited over the years, and have since made it their home or regularly returned. The works conjure the sense and spirit of a place where creativity feels as though it seeps from the red earth of the land.
The exhibition continues upstairs in Gallery 2 with Francis’ film, In Here Dreaming, which was also filmed at Nettlecombe, in 2022. In Here Dreaming, is inspired by a performance piece by fellow Nettlecombe and Somerset artist, Lizzie Cox, called Somerset – A Year in the Life of a Field which was originally performed in 1981. Francis’ film and accompanying installation responds to Cox’s work by connecting to the people who knew her, with costumes by Lizzie featured in the gallery upstairs.
Contains Art would like to thank everyone who has contributed to the exhibition. Our special thanks to Sam Francis, Geraldine, Lucas, and Rebecca Hollweg, Isabelle and Julian Fraser, Albatross Print Studio, Georgina Towler, Watchet Boat Museum, Sarah Cox and the Museum of Somerset, Katie Francis, Alessandra Sormani, Jon England, Rupert de Renzy-Martin, Millie Laing-Tate, Miriam Higgs, and all those who contributed by making nettle cordage.
Audio production support from Eliza Lomas. Sound by Steve Kidd. Flute by Tina Hitchens. The audio piece features the voices of: David Bindon, Richard Calloway, Isabelle Fraser, Julian Fraser, Jeffrey Hart, Geraldine Hollweg, Lucas Hollweg, Rebecca Hollweg,
Lis Kennett, Maggie King, Carol Morris, Michèle Osborne, Pat Wolseley, and Tom Wolseley.
‘Where People Go, Nettles Grow’: An Interview with Sam Francis filmed by Jesse Roth.
To learn more about the artwork of Alexander Hollweg, you can visit Journeys in Art, an exhibition on display at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton until March 9, 2024.
Header image credit: Nettlecombe archives
Exhibition images credit: Jesse Wilde
Film Credit: Jesse Roth