WAF Newsletter - Anish Kapoor - July 2020

Anish Kapoor and the House of Walpole

Jeremy Melvin, 17 July 2020

In recent years, Houghton Hall in Norfolk has established itself as a venue for art displays, writes Jeremy Melvin.

In doing so it has offered a completely different setting compared to the bland white box which has dominated gallery design since Max Gordon created the original Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood. The current show (until November 1) features unseen works by Anish Kapoor in various locations in the house and grounds, some site-specific, evoking all sorts of ideas about the relationship between place, architecture and art, one of our themes for WAF/INSIDE 2020.

Site plan of Houghton Hall and grounds.

Houghton Hall is anything but bland. It was conceived by Sir Robert Walpole, who came from an old family of Norfolk gentry and rose, via Eton’ to become Great Britain’s first and still longest-serving Prime Minister (1721-42). It was both a powerhouse where the ‘Robinocracy’, as his ruling clique was termed, would meet to thrash out policy, and as a place to display his continually growing collection of wonderful paintings.

Houghton Hall, west front
Untitled, 2018—20, onyx. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.
Untitled, 1997, Kilkenny limestone. Courtesy the artist.
Rectangle Within a Rectangle, 2018, granite. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.
© Anish Kapoor. All rights reserved DACS, 2020
​Photo: Pete Huggins

Started in 1722, Walpole initially used architects from the government Office of Works but within a few years turned to people like Colen Campbell, James Gibbs and William Kent (then in the process of metamorphosis, via landscape design, from painting to architecture). All of them represented different strands of the architectural avant-garde of the time, from late Baroque to English Palladianism. The original landscape designer was Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738), who stands at the cusp of the move from formal gardens with their origins in the Tudor period to the ‘naturalistic’ designs of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton over the next century or so. Bridgeman’s other works include Stowe, early phases of Kew Gardens and several London parks.

Just as Walpole’s taste in painting set a pattern for subsequent aristocratic, plutocratic and national collections, so his architects helped to establish the English country house as a cultural phenomenon and source of political power. While power may have shifted elsewhere, a hint of Houghton’s qualities was made apparent a few years back following a chance discovery by the current owner, Lord Cholmondeley – a direct descendent through one of Walpole's daughters. He came across a scheme for the original hang, setting in motion negotiations with the Hermitage in St Petersburg to lend key works from Walpole’s collection back to Houghton. They had been in Russia since Catherine the Great purchased them in the late 18th century to form the core of the Hermitage’s treasure trove of old masters.

That exhibition confirmed the Houghton Hall’s qualifications for displaying art of that sort. Curating the contemporary is a different challenge, and Cholmondeley was already purchasing and locating works in the grounds. There are several by Richard Long and Stephen Cox, ‘Houghton Hut’ by Rachel Whiteread, a fine piece by former RA president Phillip King called ‘Dunstable Reel’, and James Turrell’s ‘Skyspace’, which frames the colours, shadows and shapes of clouds drifting across the heavens into living art. There is a Henry Moore ‘Mother and Child’, and ‘Waterflame’ by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein which bounces a flame on a jet of water. This and one of the Coxes are in the walled garden, but most of the others are concealed in the clearings and paths of the Bridgeman landscape which Cholmondeley has reinstated.

Phillip King Dunstable Reel

They bring out the imaginative stimuli inherent in its concept, for Bridgeman combined formal and informal, using straight lines for paths and vistas to divide the space into recognisable geometrical shapes, which are themselves planted to be informal and naturalistic.

Visitors can thus wander from the formality and grandeur of the house, along a powerful axis past a few of the Kapoors, to a circle of slates which make up Long’s ‘Full Moon Circle’. They can then look to the right down a diagonal axis through a square woodland towards a large piece of polished granite, while the main axis continues across a ha-ha into the far distance. This is Kapoor’s ‘Untitled’, and its reflectivity and concave shape give the illusion of it being an apparently random assembly of stones, not unlike ‘Full Moon Circle’. In reality this comes from the reflections its shape picks up of the leaves and branches of the trees. It is beguiling and entices walking along the diagonal, its constant changes evincing all sorts of subjective connections between nature, artifice and personal impression.

View from the west front showing Anish Kapoor’s Untitled and Sky Mirror (in the distance)
Untitled, 1997, Kilkenny limestone. Courtesy the artist.
Sky Mirror, 2018, stainless steel. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.
© Anish Kapoor. All rights reserved DACS, 2020
Photo: Pete Huggins

Untitled, 2018, granite.
Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.
© Anish Kapoor. All rights reserved DACS, 2020
Photo: Pete Huggins

On reaching it at the heart of the wood other vistas open up which, without revealing any of the other works, promise rather more. You wander along, finding openings in the flanking hedges, leading to ‘Houghton Hut’, ‘Dunstable Reel’ and ‘Sybil Hedge’, a serpentine sinew of copper beeches devised by Anya Gallaccio. ‘Houghton Hut’ riffs on Whiteread’s theme of making concrete casts of ordinary structures, but the site specificity here, just where one might expect a garden shed, lifts it above cliché. Nearby is the remarkable ‘Skyspace’ which like Kapoor’s ‘Untitled’, celebrates nature’s changefulness and invite subjective imagination to take over. Nearby is ‘Dunstable Reel’, its pristine yellow and purple geometrical curves complementing foliage shades of green in dappled sunlight.

James Turrell Skyspace

This subtlety is something Cholmondeley likes. To place works, at least permanent ones, close to the house would be disrespectful to its assertive architectural character he feels. They are concealed, leaving them to be serendipitously discovered in their woodland glades. ‘Full Moon Circle’ is an exception, but more or less level with the ground and far enough away from the house, it does not impose on the architecture. Rather it acts as a lure to move away from the house into the landscape, and once reached offers food for contemplation.

Richard Long Full Moon Circle, an appropriately subtle and enigmatic intervention in the Norfolk landscape

At first sight the placing of the Kapoors on the lawn on front of the house goes against this grain. But Cholmondeley and his wife Rose both feel an affinity with his work analogous to his views on placement. Their taste, he explains, tends to the minimal and the natural. ‘I like sky and light and texture’ he says, and finds such qualities in Kapoor’s work, a point Kapoor alludes to in the catalogue, ‘The whole tradition of sculpture concentrates on positive form. The negative in sculpture has relied on a symbolic relationship with the positive. I have been working to try and leave behind form and deal with non-form’. In this goal the setting at Houghton and the tastes of its patrons are an ideal foil.

Richard Long Full Moon Circle

Each of the large outdoor works, on the lawn, within the woodland or in a courtyard, can be seen in relation to this ambition. Most powerful is probably ‘Sky Mirror’, a stainless-steel disc which does exactly what the title says, creating an ethereal connection between earth and sky. Other works are more enigmatic, such as the contorted shape of ‘Eight Eight’, which may allude to figures of eight but just pulls away to elude a definitive interpretation. Each work invites readings and re-readings of the setting as well as itself.

Sky Mirror, 2018, stainless steel.
Eight Eight, 2004, onyx.
Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.
© Anish Kapoor. All rights reserved DACS, 2020
Photo: Pete Huggins

There are also three locations within the house. In the north colonnade are ‘working drawings’, not in the sense that architects would use the term, but diagrams drawn and scratched into plywood that say something about how the works are made, offering insights into Kapoor’s practice.

Across the house is a small room which comes closest of all the settings to a conventional gallery space. Here are several wall-mounted works which though not the most powerful mark the contrast between such spaces and the rest of the sites.

But the grand set piece of the house’s stone hall trumps all the indoor locations. Here, in a conception by Kent of classical decorations, frames and plinths which descends from the century older hall in Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House at Greenwich, Walpole placed busts of distinguished Romans, no doubt to imply that he was worthy to be seen among them. Kapoor has temporarily replaced all the busts except Walpole’s own likeness (though not their labels) with concave mirrors. All but one is gloss finished, and reflect the bold, classical details, especially the cornice and ceiling, rendering the familiar family or ornaments unfamiliar, and so inviting new readings of it and by extension of classical architecture itself. Knowing whose bust would ordinarily be in these positions carries that questioning – but not necessarily in a critical sense – to the whole of classical culture. And these insights might lead visitors to imagine themselves to be in the places of those people the busts represent, staring as they have done for almost three centuries at the same sights, though without the temporary transformative effects.

The Stone Hall, showing four of the Mirror Works and Mollis (on floor)
Cobalt Blue to Apple and Magenta mix 2, 2018.
Spanish and Pagan Gold to Magenta, 2018.
Garnet to Apple Red mix 2 to Pagan Gold to Spanish Gold, 2018.
Spanish Gold and Pagan Gold mix, 2019.
Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery.
© Anish Kapoor. All rights reserved DACS, 2020
Photo: Pete Huggins

Above the bust of Walpole is this inscription: ‘Robertus Walpole qui hasce aedes condidit incolvit illustrativit’. A rough translation is: ‘Robert Walpole, who relies upon this very dwelling, who inhabited it, who made it famous’. Much the same could be said of its current occupant, his descendant, whose art programme has added lustre to one of England’s most magnificent country houses, threading fine contemporary art into an artefact of inscribed British history.

Read other WAFN Articles.

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