Underground forests and whispering walls: the weird worlds of Lord Whitney

It is hard to pin down exactly what Lord Whitney does. On paper, the Leeds-based artist studio has built music video sets for Nicki Minaj, art-directed promo footage for The Voice, built a fantastical world for Chambord liqueur, recreated scenery from hit Netflix shows and transformed the underbelly of Leeds Town Hall into a forest. Its founders, Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney, refer to themselves as “connoisseurs of make-believe”, but this title is as evasive as our rambling Zoom conversation, during which they discuss reading children’s books, choosing the perfect pitch for a piece of music and playing with ice skates in a stately home.

Until you step into one of the magical worlds they have conceived and constructed, perhaps it’s hard to make sense of what they do. But inch a toe under the dusty half-light of an old gardener’s office at Harewood House, touch the fading documentation peeling off crypt walls under Leeds city centre and breathe in the cherry blossom fragrance wafting through the Great Hall of Chatsworth, and the wonder of what Lord Whitney creates is immediately apparent. Even their studio, a renovated mill in the Meanwood area of Leeds, is a playground featuring a treehouse, an indoor greenhouse and a cabinet of curiosities.

“It really does have quite a profound effect,” says Whitney of being in their immersive worlds. “Even though I understand it all and my head is in it to the tiniest detail, I find it incredibly moving, being in something that takes on all of your senses.”

She is referring specifically to their latest commission, Upon a Christmas Wish at Harewood House in West Yorkshire. The combination of a Christmas brief and an 18th-century stately home does not initially sound very original but Lord Whitney has avoided the traditional focus on festive aesthetics by collaborating with poet Toby Thompson and sound designers Buffalo to drop audiences into an imaginarium of cine footage, fascinating artefacts and whispering walls.

Despite this, they are adamant it is true to the Lascelles family property. “It is really rooted in the building, you couldn’t put it on anywhere else,” explains Lord. “We started looking for a seed of a story in Harewood’s history. Once we started digging through the archive, we found all these little bits of history, and then we started tying that in with all our own references.”

After 13 years working together and with a pandemic (hopefully) behind them, the pair are more certain than ever of the value of their work. Built into the heart of their make-believe worlds is a desire to quell anxiety and stop us in our tracks, inviting us to put down our phones, forget about the shopping list and simply experience the space embracing us. “I personally find sitting down and doing mindfulness really hard,” says Whitney. “I am not very good at meditating; my brain is too busy. In entering immersive experiences – not just ours, immersive experiences in general – it allows your brain to switch off for a while. I think that pause is so, so valuable.”

Valuable for what? “Mental health,” says Lord. “People forget that as much as going to the gym and eating healthy food is important, allowing your mind time to drift and play can be healing as well. I think there are so few opportunities in life to do that. We are used to sitting in front of the TV or maybe going to the theatre, but what we want to do is to take it to the level where you are stepping into a whole other world, so you really come out of it feeling like you’ve been on a journey.”

Whitney then delves into the empowering possibilities of viewing the world with both logic and innocence, and talks about William Blake’s “mythic consciousness”. Later Lord emails me a quote about it, which originated from a project exploring folklore and traditions in the north of England. This is how Lord Whitney work. Or rather, this is how Amy and Rebekah work: together, pulling strands out of the imagined, unseen world and into the daylight. Their method of collaboration is as vital as their ability to wield a glue gun or a roll of gaffer tape. Throughout our conversation they continually refer back to each other, detailing how they overcame Lord’s lockdown creativity drought and Whitney’s post maternity leave impostor syndrome by hopping on Zoom and talking, talking and talking until the new ideas came spilling out.

“I don’t think I realised how much I needed Lord Whitney. It is not just a job it is such a huge part of me,” says Whitney. Bathed under the twinkling lights and dancing shadows of Harewood house, it is easy to see why we might all need a bit of Lord Whitney too.

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