‘An agreeable surprise’ – the country house and garden sculpture

Statue - Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Statue – Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

The country house has long been at a nexus of art, display and tourism with the treasures, mainly statues, collected by the owner shown in a grand gallery which often formed one of the main staterooms.  Whereas the house provided the setting for the art, outdoors, the gardens and parkland provided a setting not only for the house but also for the many sculptural works they had acquired – a trend which continues today, though often with a necessarily more commercial edge.

The first country house owners to place statues in their English gardens were the Romans.  However, as homes became castles, gardens fell from favour and with them, the ornaments to decorate them.   The trend for statuary only really returned with the Tudors and their love of the outdoor space as an extension of the symbolism they incorporated into the architecture of their houses.  One of the earliest collectors, and most acquisitive, was Thomas Howard Arundel, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who, as a youth, had been at the excavation of the Roman Forum, which had sparked a live-long passion for antiquities.  Arundel amassed one of the greatest collections of the age, rivalling that of the King, including a famed selection of Graeco-Roman statues found in Turkey, which became known as the ‘Arundel Marbles‘. These statues were then displayed at both their town and country seats, both indoors and out – though later, by the mid-17th-century, as a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War, John Evelyn found the Marbles “…miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house.”.  The statues were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum where they remain today.

The later rise and popularity of the Georgian grand tour firmly embedded the desire to purchase statues along with the requisite paintings. They provided a visual clue as to both the learning and wealth of the owner and so were displayed prominently, especially indoors where they might be shown in the entrance hall where guests would inevitably look at them as they waited. Some of the most famous dedicated indoor galleries include those at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (though sadly now not as shown in previous link as it’s now a wedding venue).  Other notable galleries, though now lost due to dispersal or demolition, were those at Clumber Park, Ickworth House and Hamilton Palace, the latter described as “…peopled with bronze statuary on Irish black marble bases polished to such a gloss that they reflected the pavement like a mirror.“.

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Outside, the display was no less formal – symmetry and structure dominated.  However, by the 1730s, the more formal display of statues outdoors gave way to a more naturalistic style whereby they became almost secreted amongst a more informal – but no less planned – landscape.  One thing often forgotten now is that we see gardens after over 250 years of growth, but when first planted they would have been much sparser giving the ornaments greater prominence.  The return of the Roman influence can be closely linked with the rise of Palladianism and the influence of Lord Burlington and his circle; most notably, the brilliant designer William Kent. Other notable influences include Batty Langley, who published his ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728 and Stephen Switzer’s ‘Ichnographica Rustica‘, published in 1718 – the latter of which was the first to show serpentine walks and streams. Life also imitated art, with the popularity of the Arcadian visions of painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicholas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa also inspiring those who collected the paintings to attempt to bring them to life.

Temple - Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Temple – Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The more secure and rising wealth of the 1730s enabled owners to create larger estates and so giving them more space to indulge their plans.  However, no stream will rival a raging river so to create a sense of theatre, the landscape was used and moulded to create a series of views which took advantage or distant landmarks or by introducing elements such as statues, temples and obelisks.  Often these gardens were designed to entertain the knowledgeable visitor with allusions to myths and noble virtues – though in one lesser known example, the owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London, built a darker memento mori‘ garden at Denbies, his home in Surrey.

However, the main aim was to delight and to stimulate emotions. One of the most famous Georgian gardeners, Philip Miller, wrote in his 1739 edition of his ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’:

“In laying out these walks through woods there should be a great regard had to the neighbouring country, so as whenever there are any distant objects which appear to the sight, there should be openings to which the serpentine walks should lead, from whence objects may be viewed, which will be an agreeable surprise to strangers…”

Bridge - Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)
Bridge – Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)

These principles were translated according to the whims and finances of owners across the country, leading from the sublime creations of Stowe, Stourhead and Studley Royal to many lesser known and private gardens.

The statuary could sometimes cause the odd drama. Dallam Towers, Cumbria was archly described by Pevsner as “…undoubtedly the finest Georgian facade in the county; but what the visitor may not realise is that, behind all the stucco, there’s the finest Queen Anne facade in the county.“. Between the facade and the landscape once stood (or perhaps still stands) a line of statues standing guard between the garden and the ha-ha. Yet this line is slightly marred by one of the statues being headless – the unfortunate outcome of a 1820s dinner which led to a very ‘well-refreshed’ Lord Milthorpe.  Thinking he had seen a poacher, he grabbed a rifle, and despite the protests of his guests, he duly dispatched the ‘poacher’/statue; a loss for the world of garden ornaments but perhaps a gain for the forces of law and order.

With such vast quantities of marble scattered out the gardens, occasionally a prized statue may slip slowly into obscurity. This can lead to discoveries in the same way that an Old Master may be found in the attic, so they can also be found in the shrubbery, such as this rare Chinese Ming tomb horse or the lucky owner of a castle somewhere in northern Europe who had a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Adriaen de Vries.

The tradition of sculpture in the gardens of country houses is certainly alive and well today and has developed beyond the more formal Roman statuary towards a decidedly more contemporary ethos – though perhaps more commercial than for simple pleasure.

'Huge Sudeley Bench' by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)
‘Huge Sudeley Bench’ by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)

At the beautiful Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Christies are holding their selling exhibition of contemporary sculpture from luminaries such as Marcel Wanders, Marc Quinn and Pablo Reinoso.  Over in Sussex, the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, hosts a regularly changing line-up with a focus on supporting emerging talent along with the more established artists such as Lynn Chadwick and Anish Kapoor.  One more recent venue is the Jupiter Artland at Bonnington House in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh.  The vision the Wilsons, who own the house, Jupiter Artland features large-scale works such as the monumental ‘Life Mounds’ by Charles Jencks’ who specialises in landscape art that I suspect would appeal to the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown if he were around today.

These are just some of the examples of contemporary schemes which are taking place across the country. Each is enlivening the grounds of a house and again maintaining that artistic thread which has been spun out over hundreds of years, linking country houses, an owners’ taste and some of the best art in the country.

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More wonderful examples of works available outdoors can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library collection.

This blog post is a little off my usual patch so I’m grateful for the research of David Stuart in ‘Georgian Gardens

Empty walls? The sale of contents to fund the house – Althorp House

Althorp House, Northamptonshire (Image: Andrew Walker @ wikipedia)

For hundreds of years the political power of a country house was in the ownership of the house, and most importantly the estate – acreage equated with power even if the land was mortgaged to the hilt.  The paintings or furniture which furnish these houses were not only decorative but assets which were easy to sell off when financial circumstances demanded that money be raised.  An upcoming sale at Christies highlights how this is still the case today – even if the strength of the art market means that fewer works now need to be sold to raise the totals required.

Althorp House in Northamptonshire has famously been the home of the Spencer family since the 16th-century and sits in a 14,000-acre estate.  The family fortune was founded in livestock and commodities which enabled John Spencer to purchase the red-brick Tudor house at Althorp in 1522.  It was this house which the 2nd Earl Spencer commissioned the architect Henry Holland to modernise in 1787-89, encasing it in white brick and tiles and remodelling the interior to create the grade-I listed house we see today.  The Spencer family then built up their connections becoming politically influential but also extensive art collectors.

Today, Althorp is in the middle of a £10m project to put the house on a sound structural footing.  One major task, along with repairing the ornate stonework and the external tiles, is to fix the roof – an undertaking which is taking nine months and requires over 50-tonnes of lead.  Globalisation means that commodity prices have been rising strongly on the back of growing demand from countries such as China meaning the cost of the project has proved too great to be borne through income.  So the 9th Earl Spencer has been forced to put a selection of art, considered ‘non-core’ to the collection by the trustees, up for auction.  However, the flip side to globalisation is the massive wealth creation and more well-funded collectors chasing the best works.  In this case, the quality of the paintings and the robust prices being achieved at recent auctions, it is possible to raise enough money with just a few works.

The highlight is ‘A Commander Being Armed for Battle‘ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens which is expected to fetch between £8-12m which should cover the restoration bill for the house with the other works, including ‘King David‘ by the Italian Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino, providing some financial breathing space.  Ironically, the current Earl publicly criticised his stepmother for selling off four van Dycks and a Stubbs in the 1970s and 80s but this time the difference is that the proceeds will be re-invested in the house and estate rather than just simply for running costs.  It’s a fact of life that ownership of a country house is a constant battle against physical deterioration and with grant aid from the public bodies in such short supply it is unfortunately the artistic heritage which is once again being sacrificed to ensure that the family seat remains intact.

Full story: ‘On their uppers: The great aristocratic art sell-off‘ [The Independent]

Auctioneers: Christies – The Spencer House sale will be on 8 July 2010.