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Notes on Camp – how Lady Gaga and Lowther Castle crossed over

Chevalier d’Éon by Jean-Paul Mosnier painting (left)

A few months ago, a telephone call came to the office at Lowther Castle. It was from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

A breathless curator said that he had just discovered that the Lowther Estate owned the original painting of one of the world’s first acknowledged transvestites and could the Met borrow it for an exhibition based on Susan Sontag’s 1960’s essay entitled Notes on Camp? The answer from Jim Lowther, owner of the painting of the Chevalier d’Éon by Jean-Paul Mosnier, was an emphatic yes.

Fast forward to a few months later and there on this week’s news is Lady Gaga, along with the grand and glamorous of New York society, dressed to the absolute nines, dressed to kill.

Suddenly the team at Lowther realised that the exhibition – and this amazing Lowther-owned painting – was at the centre of a heart-stopping extravaganza. Vanessa Lowther, Jim’s wife, who went to the preview of the exhibition with her daughters Matilda and Ishbel, said the whole thing was a wonderful spectacle. “The show was beautifully curated. We were so impressed.”

Ishbel and Mathilda went to the sponsors’ – Gucci – after-party. It was star-studded and they had a ball. Meanwhile that curator was over the moon – in the first few hours of the exhibition being open, 2000 visitors went through. This, a record for the Met.

Lowther Castle – along with its treasures – is currently enjoying a moment in the purple (or should that be pink?). In 2018, it was voted by Cumbria Tourism as its Large Visitor Attraction of the Year. The castle, its gardens, its exhibition The Story of Lowther and the thrust of its offer was thus recognised as an up-and-coming attraction – one that holds interest and treasures for visitors from far and near. Indeed, the Chevalier d’Eon – in replica – is a central part of the exhibition.

The story of Lowther is one of 850 years’ standing. Three principal buildings have occupied the site and today, Lowther Castle – a conserved ruin – is now recognised as a must-see destination for those who love heritage, gardens, the Lake District, the north of England, the history of the UK.

When Lady Gaga stepped onto the red carpet at the Met for the opening of the gala, she stripped off several layers. Hers was a complex and dazzling interpretation of the theme. Lowther too has many layers – history from the Vikings to the Georgians, from buildings in their heyday to buildings salvaged and rethought, from gardens old to gardens new (the latter pioneered by garden designer of the moment, Dan Pearson).

This is a heartwarming story of resilience, glamour and the worldwide power of art. It is also a recognition that in the north of England, there lies one of the world’s great places to visit: somewhere full of surprises.

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