As Deborah Mulhearn discovers when she explores Britain's glorious abundance of outdoor sculpture parks...
“The sky is one of the things I like most about ‘sculpture with nature’,” said Henry Moore, arguably Britain’s most famous sculptor, in 1951. “There is no background to sculpture better than the sky, because you are contrasting solid form with its opposite space. The sculpture then has no competition, no distraction from other solid objects. If I wanted the most fool-proof background for a sculpture, I would always choose the sky.”
This is perhaps one of the reasons why, after a bomb hit their London home during the Second World War, Moore and his Russian wife, Irina, moved to the Hertfordshire countryside. Clearly they felt safer out of London, but they remained at Hoglands, their farmhouse home in the hamlet of Perry Green near Much Hadham, for the rest of their lives.
Perry Green is now the home of the Henry Moore Foundation, and opened to the public in 1977, the third of a trio of sculpture parks to open to that year. Visitors can wander freely in the grounds among sheep and sculptures, and also see Moore’s studio and inside Hoglands itself, closed off to the public for decades but now open to view. This summer a new archive and visitor centre also opens on the site.
Ever since antiquity we have adorned our gardens with sculpture and statuary. The ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and Japanese all saw gardens as contemplative as well as recreational spaces and decorated them with water features, shrines, grottoes, statues and sundials. Gongshi, or ‘scholar stones’ have been displayed in traditional Chinese gardens for centuries, and the gardens of Renaissance Italy and 16th century France boast some of the finest surviving statuary in Europe.
In British gardens too, statuary and stonework, features and follies have been an integral part of garden design going right back to the 16th and 17th centuries. But sculpture gardens per se, where people go to see the artwork as much as the landscape, are much more recent inventions.
The UK now has scores of outdoor sculpture parks, displaying a multitude of types of sculpture in a multitude of settings, from traditional and figurative to avant-garde and abstract, and as either permanent artworks or changing exhibitions and sometimes both.
Some have been created in the grounds of museums and art galleries, such as the Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture, established purposely to exhibit works that respond to the area’s industrial heritage. Some have a more historic context in the gardens of stately homes, such as the permanent collection at Chatsworth House, which will also hold the biggest sculpture exhibition staged by Sothebys this year, Beyond Limits: The Landscape of British Sculpture 1950-2015. Others are purpose-designed sculpture trails through open countryside, including the 10,000 acre Sculpture Trail in Grizedale Forest, in the Lake District, whose magical and inventive sculptures are being slowly reclaimed by the forest. Some culpture parks are free to enter; some charge and others even sell their artworks, including Broomhill near Barnstaple in Devon, and Sculpture by the Lakes at Pallington Lakes near Dorchester in Dorset.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park was the first public outdoor sculpture park in the UK and displays the work of many high profile artists. It opened near Wakefield in 1977 and covers over 500 acres of rolling grassland around the largely 18th century Bretton Hall estate. The second was Grizedale, which followed the same year. These are probably the two most visited outdoor sculpture collections – the Yorkshire Sculpture Park welcomes more than 300,000 visitors a year.
There’s something liberating, of course, about being outdoors, which goes part way to explain the immense and growing popularity of sculpture parks. “It’s less intimidating than an indoor gallery or a museum, which may be behind railings and a grand portico,” says Stephen Feeke, director of the New Art Centre at Roche Court near Salisbury. “A gallery is by nature institutional, but in the open you are able to see a sculpture in a much more immediate way - in the round, from a distance, or close up, with no one telling you what to do or where to walk.”
The first sculpture parks have retained close links with the sculptors whose careers they nurtured in the early days, such as Andy Goldsworthy, Anthony Gormley and David Nash, and this is a key to their success. The art becomes almost part of the landscape, reclaimed over the years by nature, and this is part of its charm.
“In an art gallery the artwork is static and framed by the architecture around it,” says Feeke, “but out of doors it’s constantly changing. The light changes, the weather and the trees change.” As he points out, something that you line up in January is completely different by spring. It’s moment-by-moment, and also seasonal.
“A sculpture can look stark in winter and stunning in the summer, but sometimes I think that art looks better in winter when you are not diverted by the beautiful flowers and greenery,” he adds. “For example, we have a bright pink 3m tall wheelbarrow and spade by artist Michael Craig Martin. In one way it’s exactly what you’d expect to find in a garden, but in another it’s a complete anomaly. In winter it’s bright and cheering, but in summer it also looks fantastic against a wooded area and bright blue sky.”
Nowadays visitors are more likely to see abstract rather than figurative art.
But choosing the right materials for outdoor work is also essential. “I’ve seen some disasters,” laughs Feeke. “Something that is fine indoors can quickly turn into a soggy mess outside. Birds can attack something that’s too shiny, for example, and an artwork that’s too reflective can also just disappear amongst the trees and shrubbery.”
The Scottish lowlands boast some of the best sculpture parks in the UK, including several gardens of private collectors who open them to the public, such as Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh. Almost all the art here is site specific, commissioned for the setting by owners Robert and Nicky Wilson. Nicky is a sculptor herself and Robert is owner of homeopathic healthcare company Nelsons. Jupiter Artland has works by Anish Kapoor, Cornelia Parker, Andy Goldsworthy and the wonderful curving landforms of Charles Jencks.
Twenty miles south from this exuberant collection is the zen-like calm of Little Sparta, the Lanarkshire garden of poet and philosopher Ian Hamilton Finlay. Hamilton Finlay died in 2006, and his seemingly random (but actually carefully composed) garden is cared for by a trust. Stone, wood and marble slabs, plaques and tablets are inscribed with quotations from famous revolutionaries and his own ‘word pieces’, while visitors can also stumble upon classical statues in wooded glades or along overgrown paths and round unexpected corners.
The most recent UK sculpture park is the Crawick Multiverse, which opened in 2015. American ‘landform’ artist Charles Jencks created it from an abandoned open cast coalmine in Dumfries and Galloway. “It’s an extraordinary part of Scotland and indeed the UK,” says Jencks. “It’s a sacred 5,000 year old site where Atlantic and European traders came and it also had what was probably the first coal site in Britain, four hundred years ago.”
His artworks, which can also be seen at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, are particularly popular because you can run, walk, sunbathe, picnic or play on them with impunity.
At Crawick the scarred landscape has been literally crafted into Jencks’s curving, spiralling landforms. “When I first walked up here and saw this desolate, unpropitious site, I thought there was nothing I could do with it,” he admits. “But then it dawned on me that I could sculpt the landscape using these abandoned, petrified materials, including two thousand half-buried boulders. I realised it was a hidden piece of ecology with spectacular views and this inspired me.”
Being there is very important, he explains. “Once you’re there and you see the far 20 mile view and the 360 degree panorama, you understand it as the beneficiary of this spectacular big sky, which the mounds create such a strong contrast against. It’s a big cosmic view worthy of the ancients.”