Thirsk Hall: Daisy Bell on breathing new life into 300-year-old stately home

Daisy Bell, whose family has held the title Lord of the Manor of Thirsk for nearly 300 years, tells Jenny Needham about plans to turn her ancestral home into a hub for art and culture.

THIRSK Hall has been in the Bell family for nearly 300 years. From the front, it’s fair to say the rather unassuming stately home doesn’t give much away to casual passers-by. Its setting on a main approach into the town centre belies the stunning 20-acres of grounds it boasts to the rear.

Those grounds have largely been the private domain of the Bell family – until now. Daisy Bell and her art dealer husband Bill Gerrish have ambitious plans to reimagine the hall and grounds as an important cultural asset for Thirsk and the wider region. They’ve already opened a sculpture park in the grounds and staged the first Thirsk Hall Festival there last summer. “We are so privileged to live in this incredible house with this amazing green space behind it and if we are able to give the public some more access to it and share it, that is hugely important to us,” she says.

The couple moved into Grade II-listed Thirsk Hall from London just before the first national lockdown along with their their children, four-year-old Dexter and Oswald, two, and the family pets, Stella the dog and Tommy the cat. “My father tricked us into moving to the house in April 2020,” laughs Daisy. “He now lives in a lovely relaxed cottage in the grounds, leaving us to worry about the upkeep of the house.”

Why did you decide to leave London and come up North?

We always knew we were going to move to Yorkshire – as we always wanted the boys to go to school in the country, as we both did – but Covid helped speed up the process. Much to my father’s surprise and delight, both my sisters (Letty and Zillah) and I now live within three miles of Thirsk. It’s great! Zillah and I work together every day at the hall, and Letty runs the farm and her amazing new wedding venue at Thirsk Lodge Barns.

Bill and I both go to London regularly. Bill is an art dealer specialising in modern and contemporary artworks (Willoughby Gerrish Limited) and I co-founded art consultancy firm Cramer & Bell, which I run with my business partner Bella Cramer. We source artworks for commercial and residential projects.

 

Thirsk Hall

Thirsk Hall

 

Describe what it’s like living at Thirsk Hall.

Although it is my ancestral home and has been in the family for 300 years, it doesn’t feel weird living here today. The nature of my family is that we’re all hoarders so it’s been an interesting move; clearing out the attic… we’re still unearthing pieces of history each day. The other day we found a collection of coins from a currency that was invented by one of my forebears from 1664! My husband also found a metal box with the words WW2 Bombs. Luckily, it was empty.

We use all of the rooms as much as we can; post lockdown restrictions, we’ve loved hosting people to stay. We’re mainly found in the kitchen by the Aga as it’s quite cold and Thirsk Hall is expensive to heat.

The house was designed in the 1770s by architect John Carr of York. He added two wings and a further floor to the existing Queen Anne House. Carr’s main commission was the dining room which still has its original plasterwork and commissioned furniture. The Georgian hanging staircase, also by Carr, rises the entire height of the house. On the staircase hangs a huge yellow canvas poster declaring ‘Bell – Advocate for Education’ from the 1840s, when my ancestor John Bell ran for MP. He was an early supporter of universal suffrage, and also supported the abolition of slavery.

The house is unusual in the fact that, once you step out of the front door, you find yourself in the centre of the town, just a few minutes’ walk from the shops; but outside the west door, lying hidden from the road, you’ll find 20 acres of landscaped gardens and parkland which we recently opened up to the public for the first time in 300 years as a sculpture park.

 

Thirsk Hall

Thirsk Hall

 

How much are your plans focused on seeing Thirsk Hall into the future?

We are constantly finding leaks and doing repairs, but that’s all part of deal of living in such a beautiful old home. All of our plans – glamping, Sculpture Park & Gardens, the new gallery, The Stud at Thirsk Hall – one-bedroom holiday lets coming soon – are to finance protecting the future of the building and to preserve it for generations to come. We take looking after this building very seriously. Luckily, I married Bill, who has a Masters in Architectural History, so he knows exact what needs to be done.

Our principal focus is to create a culture hub at Thirsk Hall for everyone to be able to come and enjoy our spaces as much as possible.

 

Thirsk Hall

Thirsk Hall

 

Have you done much to the interiors since you moved in?

We were so lucky as my father has incredible taste – so rather than making sweeping changes, it’s about making small, sympathetic additions. We recently redecorated the sitting room which is now painted in Farrow & Ball Satin Slipper; a great neutral tone that is sympathetic to our collection of contemporary art – all in black and white. We approach our interior design organically, loving to mix old and new.

 

Thirsk Hall

Thirsk Hall

 

Did you inherit a lot of furniture and art with the house?

A lot of the furniture is original, and yes, it is full of art – both old and new pieces. My favourite pieces include our group of Howard Hodgkin prints, the collection of Robbie Fifes and some beautiful etchings by Norman Ackroyd, many of which are of our house and gardens. Also my husband’s collection of 20th Century abstract sculptures.

One of my favourite things in the house is the visitors’ book, which we are still adding to each time we have guests. Over the years, my dad has had many of his friends and artists to stay, and they tend to sketch instead of write comments so it’s filled with little drawings from Norman Ackroyd RA, Chris Orr RA, Jason Hicklin, etcetera. You can see the beautiful handwriting of our ancestors and their friends as it goes back to 1800s.

 

Thirsk Hall

Thirsk Hall

 

Tell us a bit about your love of art.

Having a father who’s a gallery owner and a husband who’s an art dealer, it was inevitable that I was going to be fascinated with art. Zillah Bell Gallery (my dad’s gallery) introduced me to some of my favourite artists; Norman Ackroyd, Katherine Jones and William Tillyer. It’s such a special place to me, as it bucks the trend of a Yorkshire art gallery – you walk past expecting a twee water colour of the Yorkshire Dales, but you are met with some extraordinary contemporary artists, many of whom are Royal Academicians.

I worked at Tate and the Royal Academy so I have been exposed to some of the most beautiful works of art imaginable. From an early age, I was always taken to galleries and encouraged to think. I love the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Dia Beacon in New York and, of course, the RA. It’s hard to pick a favourite painting, but I do love Sargent’s ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’, anything by Howard Hodgkin, Andrew Cranston, and then, of course, Robbie Fife, who is my favourite upcoming artist, and whose work I have been collecting for more than years now. I haven’t picked up a paint brush since school, but I have high hopes one day to get back to the easel.

How successful was your sculpture park launch?

It was great; We had more than 3,000 visitors. We’re dedicated to bringing museum quality artwork to North Yorkshire, and in doing that providing opportunities for the town. We want everyone in Thirsk to take ownership of the sculpture park and get involved. My favourite moment this year was welcoming teenagers from the local school to come and sketch in the grounds. We love the idea of promoting education via art.

What’s does 2022 hold for you?

The garden is open for the National Garden Scheme on May 8, and we’re excited to be offering tours throughout the year. The Sculpture Park starts again after the winter break on May 14 with new exhibitions of the work of Jeff Lowe and Jon Kipps. We’re really excited to open our new gallery space, too.

My sister Zillah is opening Thirsk Hall Glamping later this year, with dome tents, hot showers and campfires. It’s within walking distance of the town centre; Thirsk is filled with lots of independent shops and we’ll be encouraging guests to use the shops and facilities as much as possible.

From August 19 to 21, we’re welcoming back Thirsk Hall Festival, directed by musical genius Ben Ellin. We hosted the first one last year and it was such a huge success. We’ll have five concerts and a fusion of folk, jazz and world music across the weekend.

Also, we’ve just bought a pizza oven. So we’re going to be offering pizza nights throughout the year.

Some locals were initially concerned about the developments we’ve instigated here, but I’m pleased they and the council backed our plans once they saw we’re dedicated to projects that help out the local area and its people. I’m so proud of the team we have here, and what we’ve already achieved. My sisters Zillah and Letty and I make a formidable trio. The Bells used to be called the lords of the manor at Thirsk. It’s ladies of the manor now.

willoughbygerrish.com

cramerandbell.com

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