Discovering the wonder of modern sculpture in historic gardens
Sarah Pitt takes a sculpture trail through the lush gardens of Edwardian manor Coombe Trenchard.
Sarah Marsh was initially a bit worried when her son George suggested staging a modern sculpture exhibition in the grounds of her Arts and Crafts Edwardian mansion.
George, a fine art graduate with a passion for sculpture, was keen to share his enthusiasm with others among the woodland glades and sweeping lawns of Coombe Trenchard in West Devon.
"Knowing George's love for contemporary sculpture, I was concerned when we held the exhibition last year about how it would sit within this environment," says Sarah.
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"I was also concerned what people visiting the gardens would make of it. In fact, though, we had amazing comments from people about how much they liked it. So this year I felt a lot more confident."
From a vantage point of one of the sculptures in this year's exhibition, an unusual wooden bench by South Devon sculptor Carl Hahn, Sarah and George are looking down on the woodland part of the garden, which she and her husband Philip have spent the past five years restoring.
Below them, in a natural hollow, is a sculpture by Julian Wild, a jagged tangle of pink metal which formerly graced the concrete modern space of Spitalfields Square in central London. Amazingly, it looks quite at home among the red campions and dappled light through the trees.
"We had to install this one using a tractor," says George.
"George's poor father was the one driving the tractor!" adds Sarah. "It was a case of moving it a bit, then moving it again. It was a little while before we were quite happy with it!
"When I saw the photograph of this one in Spitalfields I couldn't imagine it here, but George said 'it will be great. And he's right, it works with the pink of the campions; nature does have those vibrant colours too."
Just a short distance away, still within the canopy of the woods, is another quite different but no less striking sculpture, kind of like a wigwam without a covering. But lie on your back within the structure and you soon see what Chris Amey's sculpture is all about – for the interlocking branches form the shape of a star illuminated by light coming through the leaves.
Its title is Six and Twelve, A Spire to Be. Made from Douglas fir, it also seems to chime with that popular idea of a woodland canopy being like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral, leading the eye to the heights.
George has spent many months selecting which pieces of work to show, and then travelling down each weekend to work out where to place them within the garden.
The idea is that visitors – the exhibition is open every weekend throughout June and July – will "discover" each piece as they follow a route through the gardens, starting at the Bothy Gallery, where smaller sculptures are displayed.
"A lot of consideration has gone into placing each piece," says George. "In some sculpture gardens, all the pieces are grouped together, but I wanted them to be revealed gradually as you walk around. I think it is important that they do have their own space.
"Because we are fortunate here to have different styles of garden within the grounds, I am trying to place sculptures so people can imagine how they might work in their own spaces."
The sculptures often reveal something new when they are viewed from a different angle.
The female torso created by celebrated sculptor Paul Vanstone, who grew up nearby, has a particular intriguing back view, viewed across a stream on the edge of the Coombe Trenchard woodland.
Made of Indian rainforest green marble, it is as sensual to behold as it is cool to the touch.
"It is almost as though she is walking away from you, one foot in front of the other, it is quite a seductive piece, isn't it?" says Sarah.
In the yew walk, a striking part of Walter Sarel's Arts and Crafts design of the garden, you can admire a dice mid-roll. New Orleans, fashioned by Devon sculptor Dave Woodhouse, is stamped along its edges with homilies about the evils of gambling.
Like many of the sculptures, it has a bit of a story attached to it – the lead it is made from came from salvaged lead from a local church roof, pinched then abandoned by thieves, which the sculptor bought to make his work.
Also fascinating are Walter Bailey's sculptures made of redwood, scorched by the fire of a blowtorch, and carved with a chainsaw in his Sussex studio. There are several around the grounds, as well as a couple of smaller pieces inside the Bothy gallery.
Here, too, out of the reach of the elements, is a very special sculpture, with a cool elegant wooden form that suggests a cello – or perhaps the female form – in wood that has been crafted into curls at its edges. Into the Light – crimson was created by Keith Rand, a talented sculptor who died aged just 53 a short time before the start of the show.
George will himself be on hand to answer visitors questions through-out the show, which features a fresh selection of sculptors from the exhibition at the venue last year.
Seeing the sculpture as part of the experience of enjoying the gardens made the whole experience less intimidating, he says.
"People, especially children, can feel that it is OK to touch the pieces and ask questions about them. A lot of people are scared of modern art in galleries, but seeing sculpture in this setting breaks down the barriers."
Sculptural 2013 is open each weekend during June and July at Coombe Trenchard from 11am-5pm. Admission is £5, and under-14s are free. The gardens are also open for charity through the National Gardens Scheme and, with a personal guided tour of the gardens and tea, as part of the Invitation to View scheme (next date on Wednesday). Visit www.combetrenchard.co.uk for full details.