A Sculptural Tutorial at The Grove - The Telegraph
27 April 2012
Garden sculpture seems to be booming. Well-established permanent galleries are showing new collections every season, and increasing numbers of gardens are opening as temporary galleries for the summer. Art is yet another bait for the garden visitor, not yet quite as familiar as the tea room or plant stall, but making its presence felt.
Every year at Chelsea the quality of the sculpture provokes disparaging comments and hilarity – it’s easy to deride twice life-size rampant gorillas or Cheryl Cole-style Greek goddesses – but clearly there is a healthy appetite for making a big statement in the garden.
Certain designers do their best to raise the tone. Luciano Giubbilei has commissioned works by Peter Randall Page for his Chelsea gardens, and in 2011 Cleve West imported work by the French sculptors Serge Bottagisio and Agnes Decoux for his Best in Show Telegraph garden. But how it should be done and what we actually like are two very different things, all of which makes sculpture a bit of a taste minefield – and all good clean fun.
The Grove, a five-star hotel near Watford Gap in Hertfordshire, is now in its second year of showing sculpture in the garden. This year’s collection is called Expressions of Movement (May 1-Sept 30), a theme that was chosen with a nod to that other event in town, the Olympics.
Formerly the seat of the Earls of Clarendon, The Grove is surrounded by spacious terraced grounds originally laid out in the 1700s. It was given a Victorian facelift and then overlaid again with a garden designed by Michael Balston in 2005. His modern, unfussy layout steers the hotel guest around a complex layout of spa, golf club, events venue, restaurants, lounge…and safely back to the en suite. Studded with enormous cedars, a long canal, lush borders and crisp, high hedges, this is a landscape of luxury.
Enter Virginia Grub of Art Contact, an agent experienced in sourcing art for public places and the corporate domain. If the boardroom wall looks bare and in need of a piece that might also be a good investment, she is the middle woman with many painters and sculptors in her contacts book.
Virginia had six months to work out how to fit 57 sculptures by 22 very different artists into the hotel’s formal gardens. And now, as a shop window for garden art curated by a knowledgeable eye, a visit to The Grove is a great afternoon’s entertainment, especially if combined with tea or a round of golf: in 2006 Tiger Woods won the World Golf Championship here.
“The garden lends itself to incidental pleasures,” says Virginia. As we stroll from one sculpture to another, she explains a few ground rules. Consider the backdrop, she says: “Either use elements of the garden as a frame, such as this horse’s head [In The Frame, by Judy Boyt, £6,800], which really stands out against the yew hedge, or aim for containment. Many people create an intimate area with a sculpture, and treat it as a corner for contemplation.”
In a garden such as this, with its many carefully crafted nooks, sculpture works to good effect as focal points within discrete areas. “Sculpture doesn’t have to be grand or monumental,” says Virginia, “it can be a little focal point, on a low-key plinth.” I liked how these little moments did not intrude on the rest of the garden or announce themselves too loudly, unlike the more attention-hungry works on the lawn.
Michael Balston, the garden designer, seems to agree: “Sculpture works best as surprises in little unexpected places, where you come across them accidentally. You need a stonking great piece of sculpture for a vast space, but few of us have that.”
This approach also calls for a confident client and a premeditated design. With careful forethought, a sculpture placed on an important axis becomes a destination from all over the garden.
What to buy?
Virginia confirms that there is a growing interest in outdoor art:
“There is a demand for sculpture, but many people are fearful of the commissioning process and how it works. As with any creative process, there can be communication problems. That’s where I step in and act as a go-between so that everyone ends up happy.”
Her experience working at major auction houses and as an independent dealer means she is familiar with the ways of the art world, but also attuned to the sensitivities of a client testing the waters for the first time.
She makes no claims for Damien Hirst-style speculation, though: “Don’t think too much about investment and only buy something if you love it,” she says. “Then it’s a bonus if it becomes more valuable.”
I didn’t come away feeling any more sure of my taste in sculpture. And sometimes the temptation to make jokes at the expense of “modern art” is almost impossible to resist (how we gardeners chortled when Michael Balston compared Pin Ball Wizz by Pierre Diamantopoulo to the work of Diarmuid Gavin). But there’s no question that strolling around a garden and pondering the merits of different sculptures is a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. No wonder it’s catching on.
Joanna Fortnum, The Telegraph Online
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