Tapestry at Knepp Castle

PUBLISHED: 01:16 07 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:06 20 February 2013

Tapestry at Knepp Castle

Tapestry at Knepp Castle

Isabella, Lady Burrell has always supported Fine Cell Work, a charity for prisoners, founded by her mother Lady Anne Tree. This month she is holding an exhibition and pre-Christmas sale for it at her home, Knepp Castle, near West Grinstead

One of the things you notice walking around Knepp Castle, the home of Sir Charles and Lady Burrell is the sheer number of cushions everywhere you look

As well as the sheer number of them, their origin is unusual too. Most of them were made by prisoners working for the Fine Cell Work charity.

We must have 40 or 50 cushions here. We go to these sales every year and we commission pieces. Were lucky, we have a big house we can fill with cushions! said Lady Burrell.

Fine Cell Work was founded by Lady Burrells mother Lady Anne Tree, sister of the 11th Duke of Devonshire. She conceived the idea in the 1960s when she was a prison visitor to HMP Holloway.

The scheme is described as a social enterprise that trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework, undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells, to foster hope, discipline and self esteem.

The idea is to help the inmates to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending.

Lady Anne became aware of how much of prisoners time was completely wasted and that they might do a skilled job in their cell, get paid for it and have the money presented to them on release.

Her idea was that if the work was top quality there would be a market for it. She thought embroidery would be a useful skill as it was easily transported in a kit bag when the workers moved prison.

Lady Burrell grew up with her mothers work on behalf of prisoners. She said that her mother had a passion to help those left on the margins.

She was very passionate and she passionately felt for the underdog and for people that society tended to ignore or brush under the carpet.

She felt that prison was a very uncharismatic subject and people dont like to think of it. She saw prisoners as people and individuals rather than as numbers, I think that was her gift really.

Lady Burrell held a landmark auction in aid of the charity at Knepp Castle in November 2000 when cushions based on designs by well known figures including David Bailey, Jerry Hall, Marco Pierre White and Bryan Ferry.

My mother wrote to Jack Straw who was then Home Secretary and said would he design a cushion for us. He didnt have the time to design one but he sent us a photograph and said you can do something from the photograph.

It was taken up by The Daily Telegraph and The Times I think who started bidding against each other for Jack Straw. They loved this idea of prisoners sitting in a cell sticking needles into Jack Straws face. It was very good humoured of him to do that.

The latest event in aid of Fine Cell Work at Knepp Castle is an exhibition and pre-Christmas sale on Saturday, October 15. There will be the opportunity to see some of the best work done by the charity, the chance to buy some gifts and to find out other ways to help, possibly by becoming a volunteer.

We are borrowing some of the pieces for the exhibition. Hopefully well have the Help for Heroes quilt and some of the celebrity cushions. There will be a pre Christmas sale of cushions and other gifts, Christmas tree decorations and tea cosies. All sorts of things that are hand crafted in prison.

There will be a couple of talks by the director Katy Emck. The day is also for people who might be interested in the charity. If they are interested in sewing or needlework they might want to find out more about volunteering.

Therell be volunteers here on the day. They are amazing. Lady Burrell said the good the charity did was difficult to overestimate.

When you are sewing you are dealing with colour and the thing about prison is its a very, very grey and uninspiring environment and just to be sewing with colour is quite thrilling when youre surrounded by nothing but concrete.

Its almost like kinetic meditation I think if you can sew or knit or crochet. Its very soothing and calming and there are lots of wonderful things about it.

The wardens say it has a huge impact on prisoners behaviour and self-esteem it can change their whole body language. Inmates can start earning money while theyre inside. Its held in trust for them until they leave or they can give it to their family or their children. If youve never earned before, this makes a huge difference.

You think differently if you have a little nest egg waiting for you when you get out, something youve worked really hard for.

As well as the pre-Christmas sale, there is also the opportunity to bid on an online auction for many exciting lots including an etching by Lucien Freud, the chance to share a glass of champagne with Ralph Fiennes after a show and ballooning from Petworth. Visit www.theladyannetreefund.com
The auction is on October 14.

Latest from the Sussex Life