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At last – a work of performance art we can all savour

3 March 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Performance art usually entails privation. The standard was set in 1971, when Chris Burden spent five days in his student locker; he was one-upped seven years later by Tehching Hsieh, who locked himself in a wooden cage in his studio in Tribeca for a year. Since then, Marina Abramovic has sat for three months in silence at MoMA and David Blaine has tried and failed to stand in a block of ice for three days.

However, a warm round of applause is due for the completion of a new durational performance piece this week – one that blazes a rather cosier trail for the genre. For ten years, Sarah Merker has been on a mission to taste a scone at every National Trust property across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (or at least, all the ones with a tearoom). This Wednesday, she sampled her 244th – and final – scone, while looking out over the Giant’s Causeway. It was, Merker was pleased to report on Twitter, ‘fresh, warm and delicious’.

The project has not been without its hardships, which are detailed extensively on the blog Merker has kept up since 2013. One has been the National Trust’s irksome knack for bringing new historical sites under its protection: ‘In the early days of the project,’ Merker wrote in October 2022, ’I would think “Bravo for the National Trust saving another house/cliff/hill for the nation!” […] But when the Trust announced in July this year that they had just opened Crook Hall Gardens, I’ll admit that my first thought was “please God let it be within the M25”.’ Merker completed the earlier stages of the quest with her husband, Peter, who died of cancer in 2018. ‘It was really important to finish it for him as well,’ she writes.

But of course, at the end of each arduous journey was the pay-off – not an abstract one (art for art’s sake, say), but a warm, crumbly one, with lashings of clotted cream and jam. Each entry of Merker’s blog, while also offering insight into the history of the properties visited, concludes with a scone photo and a ranking out of five. Merker is generous with her star ratings (fives and four-point-fives abound), but every so often a property such as Lyte Cary in Somerset is condemned to a three. Then there are those tearooms which have been named and shamed for failing to serve scones at all, or failing to serve them when Merker visited (Hatfield Forest and Lundy Island). In light of which, your correspondent might modestly suggest to those crusaders against the forces of wokeness at Restore Trust that there is rather more pressing business for the Trust to attend to.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.