Wetlands • Jonathan Wright

Gilded Floating Manor House
gold leaf, composite sign board, recycled PVC board, aluminium angle, red oxide paint

Gilded Floating Manor House
gold leaf, composite sign board, recycled PVC board, aluminium angle, red oxide paint

Gilded Floating Manor House
gold leaf, composite sign board, recycled PVC board, aluminium angle, red oxide paint

Artist's Statement

The paradox created by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is that the London Wetland Centre is a fake landscape, contrived and constructed much like a Capability Brown design; a very apposite irony considering the history of the site.

The hidden politics and intrigue played out in the area over the previous 500 years has informed and affected the current political and physical landscape. The view we now see is, in fact, a tapestry, an interwoven, embroidered view made possible by what is now invisible.

An artificial intervention in the landscape is readily consumed by the forces of nature when it is not supported, whereby it quickly disappears from view. It leaves its mark as a trace or an atmosphere. The substance, the physical remains are gone completely. This is the case at Barn Elms.

The area had a significant role in the history of English politics. The site was occupied before the Norman invasion and was home to a medieval manor house that stood until the early 1700s when it was demolished and rebuilt in a contemporary style. There is no trace of the manor house today. A further paradox is that when the site was reclaimed by water as reservoirs it also became a haven for wildlife, preserving the unspoilt nature of the area.

The most significant tenant of the Barn Elms Manor was Jacob Tonson. He brought the Kit-Cat club with its Whig allegiances and political importance to meet there in a re- purposed part of the manor house, a bespoke meeting place.

The commission for Unravelled asks what may be the future significance of such a site as it falls through history. The club with its bawdy, drinking and carousing was also a hot-bed of political and artistic discussion – a place of high blown intellect, a powerful driving force of change and enlightenment.

It is hard to imagine that no physical trace is left at the London Wetland Centre of such a significant movement. Instead the site has been returned to nature; what we now see is a fake landscape, controlled and contrived – artificial in nature – there is the paradox. The ‘artificial’ has obscured the history of the site. The reservoirs were made to supply water for Victorian Londoners. It was always an unnatural body of water.

This raises questions of what constitutes a natural landscape and what it is comprised of.

The commission aims to show the layers of history in the site more clearly, that the humanity and intelligence of the members of the Kit-Cat club still has a role to play in the present day. History is forever being re-written, it is not fixed but continually evolving like moving sands beneath our feet.

Audio Description Transcript

Gilded Floating Manor House by Jonathan Wright.

Gold Leaf, composite sign board, recycled PVC board, aluminium angle, red oxide paint


As you approach, a glint of gold sparkles in the reeds revealing a red house with a golden roof floating in the wetlands. The house is two stories high with a central pitch roofed structure, flanked on either side by two lower pitched roofed wings.  The house is symmetrical, typical of the classical style, fashionable in the 18th century.  

From the left, a square block with a low pitched roof and 3 chimneys make up the left hand wing of the house.  On the ground floor there are 3 tall rectangular windows with 3 smaller, square windows above.  Stepping up, the central wing is wider and rectangular in shape and its roof is taller.  A triangular pediment below the roof marks the central façade which juts out from the main structure.  A triangular portico sits above the front door like a grand porch. This section has 2 tall rectangular windows on the ground floor on either side of the front door, and 3 tall rectangular windows on the first floor.  There are 2 further windows at ground and first floor of this central wing.  The right hand wing is a mirror of the left, a step down from the central structure and with smaller, squarer windows on the first floor. 

This golden house is perched on a red base with 7 red steps leading up to the front door.  The whole structure sits on a black platform that is anchored into the water with steel bolts and chains at each corner.  


The house doesn’t move; it is fixed in place.  There is a reflection of the house in the water. The water mutes the gold to a beautiful sandstone colour which makes the house look like the reflection of the real house that stood here.  The water here is mossy; the dark green moss is sitting on the surface of the inky water breaking up the reflection.  As insects land on the water, they send ripples through the reflection.

At 2 meters wide by 1 meters deep and sitting 80cm above the water, the red and gold house dominates this corner of the wetlands.  Finding it here is a surprise. Wright’s sculpture recreates Barn Elms Manor House which originally stood on this site and is a copy of the architects drawing from 1712. 

To create the structure beneath the red paint and gold leaf, the artist has chosen materials that won’t harm the wildlife.  Jonathan Wright hopes that the house will be used by the birds, becoming part of nature once more. The entrance to the house is just large enough for hens and moorhens to enter if they like. The clucking and twittering of the birds in the house today mirrors the chit-chatter of the Whig politicians who once came to Barn Elms Manor to drink, debate and scheme.

Jonathan Wright has constructed the house using both machine technology and traditional hand-crafted techniques.  The structure is made using a high-tech laser cutting machine.  The cut boards have been assembled and painted by Wright in red oxide paint.  The gilding of the roof is only achievable by hand, a painstaking process which the artist found to be a reflective one.  Sheets of gold leaf are laid gently onto the surface and stroked into place with a brush.  From afar, it appears the whole surface is one piece of gold, yet nearer the joins between the gold sheets are exposed.  The choice of gold leaf is a considered one:  Gilding is alien in the natural world, but is used by man to commemorate and celebrate.  Gilding both historicises and glamorises any object that it is applied to.   Here, Wright has created a very glamourous, gilded bird house in reference to the recent politician’s expenses scandal, linking his work back to the now lost home of the Kit-Kat Club