Art and the Landscape

 In Garden Design, News

“I first came across Oliver Hawkins, director at Marshall Murry, when I created my garden ‘Beneath a Mexican Sky’ at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2017. Oliver came and had a quick chat with me and asked, if it would be ok for him to bring two groups of 30 or so people to the garden for me to give a talk. Oliver has an incredible energy and a brilliant perspective and passion of art within the landscape. I love his approach and wanted him to share it with you so I approached Oliver to be a guest blogger to share his passion”.

I believe that the way that most of us approach and value art in the landscape is a little limited. Understandably so, given the way in which art has been sold, discussed, and written about for centuries. If you’ll allow me a few moments, I’d like to propose that art can do so much more than look beautiful or appreciate in value. There’s enough out there written about both. I’d like to discuss some of the principles of what we term Progressive Curation and why curation isn’t something that only the very wealthiest among us have a need to consider.

Oliver is a master of curating pieces in the landscape. I noticed this recently at the Chelsea Barracks development. The elevation of the sculpture drew my eye to the landscape beyond. Particularly to the church steeple.

For a very long time the difference between art and ornament has been a line defined by a network of establishment entities, major galleries, auction houses, major collectors, and academics. The value of works is largely driven by these players who, for understandable and very sensible reasons, portray art in a frightfully serious light that is appropriate to high end luxury. Austere, pristine white rooms illuminated by spotlights, white gloved men holding pieces with reverence, academic prose on the significance and meaning behind pieces, all create the appearance of a simple objective truth.

Namely, that there is such a thing as “Good Art”, we know what it is and where to get it

Furthermore, Good Art should be mounted to draw attention, to be fully visible, to be kept indoors and lit both intentionally and well. Plinths, downlights, mini recreations of the galleries and museums from which it came.

Artist: Ben Barrell.
Poldhu Point. Bronze 2019
This stunning piece appeared in the Wedgewood Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2019, designed by Jo Thompson.

All of which is fine! I’m certainly not taking aim at this way to buy or display; I love pottering around galleries and reading the work of experts discussing artists as much as the next person. However, I also believe that art can do far more for us and especially when considering sculpture in the landscape.

A client of ours once asked us to solve a problem. Their beautiful and very grand house had a side access path that looked a little unloved. As this was the main access for parties when they’d entertain (they were a very fun and social couple) they wanted some sort of artistic intervention to distract people so that the sudden reveal of the garden at the end of the path was more spectacular. Beyond this they gave no notes.

Photo Credit: Alistair Veryard

Paloma Plasticide by Jason deCaires Taylor in white concrete was playfully placed at the edge of the water feature that runs along the main avenue of the Chelsea Barracks. The little girl looks like she is about to dip into the water. An eye-catching feature which could not be missed by passers-by. However, this sculpture was originally created as political statement by the artist for companies to help stem the flow of plastics into our oceans.

I then went off and researched the history of the local area and, upon learning that Robert Frost lived and died nearby, had a series of sculptures commissioned. Each bore two stanzas of The Road Not Taken, sculptures that were then set into lush planting of woodland perennials and trees that flowered yellow, then had the path contoured to now split into two at the end. Resultingly now “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and, knowing I could not travel both, long I stood…”. Visitors would then read these lines as they walked, drawing the eyeline upwards until they reached the garden. Some might draw the epiphany of a connection between poetry, place, and garden, from which the realisation would draw pleasure and appreciation. Others would only see a beautiful installation and move on. The point is, I first appreciated the way that art can achieve more than the aesthetic.

This sparked something in me.

I then started thinking about other ways in which I might intentionally drive behavioural change in viewers. I began to propose partially hiding sculptures behind trees or planting, piquing one’s curiosity to encourage people to walk to the piece to see it. Rotating sculptures so that only the back was visible from the house, forcing viewers to stand in a particular position and look in a specific direction. This led me to realise how one can draw the eye towards particularly gorgeous views, or away from less desirable ones.

Saima Kivi in steel 2017.
Artist: Ekkehard Altenburger

The artist has created this sculpture from a 3D scan of a stone he found in the snow in Finland in the depth of winter in 2015.

Landscapes are four dimensional spaces, the fourth being Time. Gardens are constantly in flux, from morning to afternoon, season to season, year to year, our spaces look and feel different almost every time we look at them. So why shouldn’t art? I began to play with the gradual decay of metallic pieces slowly rusting, wooden sculpture slowly greying and blending in with the landscape, light art pieces only visible for a few hours in the evening. It was as though a light had switched on in me.

It seemed to me that the traditional gallery model had it all wrong. What might look perfect when lit in a monochromatic display in a West London gallery may not translate to a cottage garden, an urban contemporary office, or a rustic home by the sea. Where galleries’ focus landed no further than selling a piece of art, I felt that the Where and the Why were equally as important as the What.

This installation is set up to silently encourage viewers to line up the frame in the foreground with the torso to the rear, which happens to be the most beautiful view of the property and often overlooked. Sculpture can be used to engage and control people to see what you want them to see.

In the years since we have worked alongside some incredible garden or interior designers, private clients, public spaces, and corporates in changing the way they see art and think about what art can do. We’ve installed pieces on the brows of hills that were backlit perfectly by the setting sun for clients who only visit the property for certain key months of the year, ensuring that this lighting effect was optimised for their visits. We’ve hidden art in trees so that it is only visible for those winter months in which the leaves have dropped, a visual treat in a season that needs it. Coloured light can change how calm, aggressive, or exposed we feel – so how might light art optimise various office areas? Circadian rhythms can be positively impacted by elongating shadows as though one were outdoors, how might art solve for this?

Torso in carrara marble, 2016
Artist: Ben Dearnley

The art that helps solve these, and countless other problems, need not be super-expensive. Hiring someone to help you source art is usually no more costly than buying art in the normal way; the advisor will usually charge for their time then net these costs from a sale. Or you may wish to buy from an artist directly, in which case why not ask them whether they would suggest pieces to suit your purpose? Who cares if it is Good Art (whatever that is) or something by a young art student trying to carve out their name? If you love it, then it is good art.

Sculpture placed in the landscape or in the garden does not always have to be obvious straight away. It can be subtle, creating an element of surprise in the garden .

Sculpture can be both creative and practical as seen here in these sculpted boulders that are placed among the setting of this Mediterranean style garden. The boulders can be used as seats to perch on.

What might make a huge difference is the thought process you go through prior to making a choice.

Why am I buying? Do I care about monetary appreciation, or am I buying to be inspired?

Where am I buying for? Perhaps the end of my garden, perhaps I want something to bookend my favourite view or match the shade of flowers in a summer border?

When will I look at it most often? Does it draw the eye while I cook, look impressive when I entertain outside, reflect the evening sunshine back across my terrace?

These, of course, are purely a few suggestions. You can and will come up with a far more comprehensive and personal list of your own. No two projects are the same as no two clients are the same.

We can, of course, offer help should you need a little. The market can feel daunting and intentionally opaque. We have many years of experience that has given us a broad network of artists which is useful. If I had one piece of advice it would be this – do not be afraid to go out to find art, you love and buy it. There are no wrong answers.

Photo Credit: Alistair Veryard

The super talented Oliver Hawkins director at Marshall Murray who has been responsible for curating all the sculptures in the luxury development at the Chelsea Barracks

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