During the last lockdown, just about the only thing that kept me going was my daily walk in London’s Hyde Park. Depending on the paths I took, I could turn my morning potter into a potted history of British sculpture: Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Albert Memorial (1872) in fine Gothic Revival style, George Frederic Watts’s industrious equestrian monument Physical Energy (1907), Jacob Epstein’s scandalising Rima with an inscription by Eric Gill (1924) and Henry Moore’s inscrutable Arch (1980). I’d had my air, I’d had my art – and I could bear the next twenty-three hours indoors.
As we once again dance the lockdown hokey-cokey (you put your lockdown in, your lockdown out…) and as galleries shut up shop, your best chance of seeing any art over the next month is outdoors. Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield, the New Art Centre at Roche Court in Wiltshire and The Sculpture Park at Churt in Surrey have all announced that they will keep their gates open over the coming four weeks.
What is it about sculpture al fresco that so appeals? Perhaps it’s freedom. There’s something about a gallery that says: best behaviour, mind your manners, keep your voice down. But spring a sculpture from its plinth, liberate it from labels, curators, lighting and you instantly create a sense of serendipity and jailbreak excitement.
Seeing a sculpture outdoors loosens the way we look. In a gallery, looking is a duty. In a park or in woodland, each sculpture comes as a surprise. In between installations, your eye is rested by sky, earth, woodland and water and comes keen and receptive to each new piece. While urban sculpture demands attention – I am public sculpture, hear me roar – sculpture in a rural setting is allowed to skulk, lurk, lie low, even stage an ambush.
In the case of a Richard Long or a David Nash, "earth artists" who tread lightly on the land with sculptures that are all but camouflaged, you might not even know the work is there until you’ve practically stubbed your toe. In the case of an Andy Goldsworthy or an Anya Gallaccio, whose materials are ice, bracken, leaves and flowers, the sculpture that was there yesterday might be gone today. Rotted, melted, blown apart or washed away.
That’s not to say a sculpture park must always be subtle or natural. The first time I went to Jupiter Artland on the outskirts of Edinburgh during a rare heat wave, I thought I’d got sunstroke. The place is properly bonkers: sculpture park as Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Here was Marc Quinn’s colossal and psychedelic Love Bomb, Pablo Bronstein’s The Rose Walk, a pair of facing follies – one Chinoiserie, one Strawberry Hill-ish - and Joana Vasconcelos’s Gateway, a blingy swimming pool sunk along historic ley-lines. I regretted not bringing my cossie.
Sun is a bonus, of course. Two years ago, I was adamant that I didn’t want a Hen Party and my maid-of-honour was just as adamant that I did. We compromised on two tickets to the Henry Moore Studios and Gardens at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire. We picked a good day for a Hen(ry) Do. The sun on the bronzes was awesome. How easy his sculptures looked in the landscape. Not forced into museum forecourts, but lounging on the horizon or flocked and bothered by sheep. I feel slightly sorry for a Henry Moore indoors, as you do with animals in cages. Much better put out to pasture. The opposite can be true, too. Exposed to the elements, I always want to get a Giacometti a coat.
Some sculpture parks close in the winter. Seems a shame. I’ve been to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on a filthy morning in spring and on a halcyon autumn afternoon. Whatever the weather, the Hepworths hold up.
One of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been is Naoshima. Not just a sculpture park, but an archipelago of art islands off the coast of Japan. There are spotty Yayoi Kusama pumpkins on the beach, mirrored and mosaicked statues by Niki de Saint Phalle in the gardens and colossal standing stones and spheres by the Korean artist Lee Ufan. The whole place is like a surreal sculptural safari. A close second for sculptural strangeness is the Maeght Foundation in the South of France with its Georges Braque pool, Alexander Calder “stabiles” and “mobiles” and Joan Miro’s Labyrinth. This infinitely Instagrammable maze of terraces, arches and gargoyles is a riot of oddness.
With long-distance travel all but banned, it’s homegrown sculpture parks that will see us through the next month. Social distancing isn’t so difficult when you’ve 10 acres (The Sculpture Park), 60 acres (Roche Court), or even 500 acres (Yorkshire Sculpture Park) at your feet. Do double-check bookings before you set out.
In a statement on their website, The Sculpture Park announced that they will be open for local visitors to “exercise their physical and mental well being during Lockdown 2.” Back in Lockdown 1, when the entire nation seemed to be star-jumping and stomach-crunching their way to fitness with Joe Wicks, I worried about my cultural muscles, my fine art abs. Without exhibitions, films, plays or the ballet, I felt flabbily under-stimulated.
Saluting Watts & Co. each day helped to keep me in shape. A friend developed a similar attachment to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a collection of more than 30 megalosaurus statues created by the Victorian sculptor and natural historian Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Whether it’s iguanodons or Eric Gill, for the next month, rejoice in the great outdoors.
Britain's best sculpture parks
Sainsbury Centre Sculpture Park, University of East Anglia, Norfolk Road, Norwich
All the big sculptural guns are here: Henry Moore, Antony Gormley, Lynn Chadwick, Elisabeth Frink, set in 350 acres of park. Also admire architect Denys Ladsun’s "Ziggurats" (student digs inspired by ancient Mesopotamian temples) and the exterior of Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre. Download the excellent, detailed map before you go. sainsburycentre.ac.uk/
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield
An embarrassment of sculptural riches: Eduardo Paolozzi’s Vulcan, Barbara Hepworth’s Bride and Groom, Phylidda Barlow’s various Boulders, Marialuisa Tadei’s shimmering Octopus… Don’t miss James Turrell’s Skyspace, a former deer shelter transformed by the “sculptor of light”. ysp.org.uk/
New Art Centre at Roche Court, East Winterslow, Salisbury, Wiltshire
Here you’ll find whimsical Michael Craig Martins and statesmanlike Anthony Caros. Look out, too, for works by the once YBAs Gavin Turk and Gary Hume and by the English Pop artist Allen Jones. sculpture.uk.com/
The Sculpture Park, Churt, Surrey
More than 600 works along a winding two-mile trail through ten acres of woodland. Some hits, some misses, some kitsch, some distinguished – and if you see anything you like, you can take out your chequebook and take it home. thesculpturepark.com/