Saving the piece for York: A home at Fairfax House

Fairfax House holds an outstanding collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furniture, artwork, decorative arts and horology. The acquisition of the King David Panel would enrich beyond measure this small but highly significant collection, already recognised for its ability to reveal Britain’s truly great craftsmanship during the long eighteenth century and Age of Enlightenment.

The provenance of the panel to Gibbons’ time in York and its connections to the Barwick and Fairfax Families make it an object of unique and deep importance to the heritage of the city and across the region. As custodians of this precious piece of heritage, we would seek to bring fresh interpretation to the King David panel and use it as a key to unlocking multi-dimensional stories about the ‘cultural currents’ in this Georgian centre of northern society. Ultimately we hope to give full and long-overdue justice to a piece that in the words of David Esterly (the world-leading authority on Gibbons) ‘has remained hidden away in a private collection … throughout its life’.

Its home at Fairfax House would bring regional access to those who may not have the opportunity to visit metropolitan-based national institutions and inspire those who might not normally encounter Gibbons’ work through traditional museum routes. Our plans for integrating this object into the visitor experience, along with further scope for future exhibitions combine to create a fertile environment for drawing new groups and wider audiences.

However, simply preserving and holding this object within our collection is not enough. Our aim is that this precious work of art will have a broad base of benefit, and that its intrinsic and inspirational qualities will be a source of learning for talented craftspeople and carvers of the future, as well as offering an unparalleled teaching opportunity across all age groups. We see this piece as a major opportunity to work with local schools so that they can understand more about the richness of their city’s eighteenth-century heritage.

The museum has developed an extensive public programme of events, hosting upwards of 1000 people each year at special talks, concerts, workshops, demonstrations, tours, children’s storytelling and performances, and it is planned that the panel will contribute significantly towards these informal learning opportunities. Although this project is driven by the pressing need to preserve this art work for national public benefit, this project will also beneficially impact on the museum’s sustainability and resilience, helping generate opportunities for greater visitor engagement through exciting installations of high-level material, and enabling it to grow and continue to ‘punch above its weight’.

We see the acquisition as a catalyst for future major developments linked to plans to enhance interpretation and build this around new core thematic subject areas. We envisage that the impact and success of this object will have perhaps subtler but nonetheless important effects around changing perceptions about Fairfax House; demonstrating that it is a non-static, flourishing museum, raising its profile and widening its reach as the centre for the study of eighteenth century urban life and firmly rooting it in the consciousness of the local and regional population.

Above all, our aim is that this testament to the visionary genius of the ‘King’s Carver’ will create a lasting legacy, demonstrating to new generations the extraordinary things that could be created from the medium of wood by the hand of one individual.

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