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Houghton Hall unveils new sculpture exhibition




I have driven numerous times from Dersingham out onto the back road through Sandringham and Hillingdon towards Fakenham and passed the sign for Houghton Hall, a country house in the parish of Houghton and the residence of David Cholmondeley 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, writes JENNY BEAKE.

Driving past I used to see the big signs about art exhibitions at the house, always saying to myself - I must visit there one day. I always thought it was an interesting concept showing abstract artists’ work such as Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor in a stately home and its gardens.

The next exhibition is by the sculptor Tony Cragg, winner of prestigious awards, which opens soon. Spanning his work over the past decade focusing on his most recent works, including new sculptures never before shown in public.

Over the years I've been to a few art exhibitions at the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery, the John Paul Getty museum in LA, and at the Alhambra Palace in Granada Spain. All of those experiences have stayed with me so it really was a great opportunity to visit Houghton to see Cragg’s artwork in the sweeping lawns and landscaped vistas right on my doorstep.

Art as a subject often has lots of differing views, opinions and interpretations, all of which are valid and unique. Some believe art should only hang on the wall, or should only be in a gallery.

Black and white thinking is not always helpful. Art isn’t right or wrong . It is what it means personally to me. I believe art is all around us and it is the feeling and the emotion that art brings that is the most important thing to me. Art is a matter of taste after all.

I grew up with the illustrations of Quentin Blake in children’s books, then framed posters by Salvador Dali in my teenage years. I was once asked at a dinner party what art I have hanging in my house - I have prints by Mark Rothko, Gustav Klimt and some watercolours that are Japanese. But I also have pictures drawn by my niece and nephew and my god daughter. Art has many forms - but for me it is a gift. I have learnt to say thank you when I am given a hand-drawn picture - rather than question what it is or say I don't like it. Because for some one to create and give that creation, from my point of view it is a kind gift.

I am not a connoisseur of art, I spent at least five minutes staring interestingly at what turned out to be a fire extinguisher. Hey, it was hanging on the wall so I was on the right track.

Joking apart it was a really interesting tour not only of Houghton Hall and the spectacular grounds with wild white deer roaming free before happening across a huge sculpture made by the artist and learning about Tony Cragg. I went there with no preconceptions and only with an open mind. As I said, I believe art is about connection and feelings about the world around us, and this was the opportunity to see through the artists’ eyes of Tony Cragg.

We walked around the grounds of Houghton led with expertise by Amanda who is a trustee to see the outdoor works. I felt it was almost like an Easter Egg hunt when suddenly happening upon a huge sculpture. These are huge bronze or onyx sculptures made from casts and they weigh tonnes. The process of making them was explained and I think they were made in a similar way to Easter Eggs. The artist uses many different materials in a masterful way using his imagination and making art through the mind’s eye.

There is one sculpture called Tommy, which represents the artist's son and made from bronze and exudes emotion. It resembles a twisting torso which in Italian is called contrapposto, meaning counterpoise and a technique using the visual arts to describe a human figure. In Cragg’s words, “Sculpture gives us new forms, new ideas and new emotions. It literally gives things meaning and opens new perspectives.”

The sculptures really stand out against the landscape of the natural grounds and represent how we relate to the world around us. What you see in them is what you see - some are unnamed so it really is down to my own interpretation.

The bigger outside sculptures that are named suddenly make sense - one called Runner and in it I could see movement and fluidity. One huge stainless steel sculpture called It Is It Isn’t, completely contrasts a hard urban material and sense of decadence with the simple natural beauty of the countryside.

Moving from the gardens and into the house and one of the indoors sculptures called In Frequencies, has faces in it and changes colour as you walk around it, from dark browns and blacks into bright purple. Naturally the mood of it changes with differences in lighting and weather.

Another indoor sculpture called Spring, is red in colour but against the light of the reflecting green from the grounds, literally springs to life.

The chameleon qualities of the material have a lightness of touch mirroring stillness and balance with change.

It was great to meet Lord Cholmondeley who is clearly passionate about art and making it accessible.

He explained: "The exhibitions started organically and are wonderful.”

He said that he is particularly grateful to Tony for the chance to show his sculptures in Norfolk. Tony curated the exhibition himself - many Zoom calls I imagine due to the logistics of bringing the pieces over to the UK. Sharing contemporary art and making it accessible is an important reason the exhibitions continue.

One of the unseen sculptures called “Mask” is a recent sculpture which makes setting the modern pieces against the traditional house even more relevant. A lot of the sculptures reflect a juxtaposition of sculptures in an intimate space and stillness with the edge of balance. Extreme contrast with sculptures and nature draws you in - these are touchable and reachable sculptures, filled with a childlike quality and yet sometimes ambiguous.

I was really inspired by the visit and my own understanding of art was broadened by Lord Cholmondely giving access to the artist Tony Cragg so it’s a big thanks from me. It is accessible to families and a valuable introduction to viewing art for young people.

Art is as accessible as the modern selfie - the ultimate self portrait. It is all around you. Art reflects life and it was a nice opportunity to also reflect. So next time don’t drive past - look in!

Tony Cragg at Houghton Hall 19 May-26 September 2021 selected days. £18 per adult, under 18s free of charge, students £10. Book online



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