An exultation, an expression of joy, a road less travelled. Art and nature combine at the new contemporary Devon Sculpture Park
The first time I visited Devon Sculpture Park I got lost. Although their web site does give clear instructions on how to find your way through Haldon Forest, if this is unchartered territory a navigator alongside you probably helps. The rough entrance driveway and stumps of a recently felled plantation of Conifers equally adds to the sense of uncertainty and impending gloom. I had come here to look at the sculpture and also the Capability Brown Parkland. To my knowledge I cannot think of any other Brownian landscape that hosts contemporary sculpture. I was intrigued on both counts. We have several interesting sculpture parks in the West Country and many of the major gardens have regular displays of outdoor sculpture, our area is a rich and fertile ground of skilled exponents of this genre.
After the bumpy drive in the view to the east opens up, and any impending gloom lifts. Across the sloping fields the view is of the Exe Estuary. Very large majestic Cedars appear as you round the corner. A small 18th century chapel set alongside sheep pastures and gently curving fields suddenly begins to offer that sense of a classic English parkland, the kind that Capability was renowned for. I now wanted to explore, I wanted to see how a modern sculpture park with aspirations to demonstrate natural climate solutions in action could get its message across. The displays, some of which are intellectually challenging, are placed in and around the Parkland and concern themselves with the problems we face now with climate change and the destruction of our world. The Sculpture Park in its 120 acres has set out to face this challenge by developing expertise in rewilding. With selected animals grazing what was once manicured and artificially controlled, they can find a healthy relationship with the surrounding nature and wildlife. For me a refreshing change from other locations I could mention where gardens can sometimes feel over contrived. In the parkland Alpacas graze alongside 2 strains of Welsh mountain sheep, Tordu and Torwyn. These are conservation grazers which help to gradually make the parkland a more naturalistic and nature friendly garden. When the park and gardens were purchased by Philip and Cara Letts 6 years ago the original Brownian lakes were covered in pondweed. This has now been eradicated by introducing grass carp, a fish which feeds on the pond weed.
In one of the conversations I had with the owner, Philip Letts described to me how the field fences are high enough to keep the sheep in, but not too high to keep out the fallow and roe deer that live in the surrounding forest, which will now regularly come into the park to graze and leave when the morning light comes. I could mention other Gardens that are surrounded by 8 ft high deer fencing. This is one of the dilemmas for professional gardeners like me. How can we express our art and craft in the making of fine gardens whilst supposedly championing the therapeutic benefits of contact with nature. I acknowledge that enormous strides have been made in my industry in recent years, and although many of us subscribed to to the pioneering work of people like Lawrence Hills, James Lovelock and places like the Machynleth Centre for Alternative Technology, our perspectives and understanding have broadened. We now live in an age where Extinction Rebellion is part of the open narrative we share, to have this debate where there is an open statement of practical commitment is refreshing.
I have asked myself and other people what the work of the Devon Sculpture Park can say to us. This is no ordinary setting and it is no ordinary project. It is in its early days, it will evolve, both physically, artistically and intellectually.
There are many levels where what they are doing interact and overlap, and the combination of their efforts to use natural solutions and display works of art that challenge us will lead to some interesting relationships.
The gardens were laid out by Capability Brown 250 years ago. The central part around the Robert Adam Orangery was newly designed and planted by Georgina Langton about 20 years ago in the English garden-esque style often found in the West Country. There are mature tree ferns, large Chinese Dogwoods, giant Gunnera. I am sure I saw a fastigiate Monkey Puzzle, but I am short sighted so will have to have a closer look on my next visit. My visits have as yet only been in the recent autumn and now winter period, but I know that there are many plant treasures that will emerge in the spring and summer. One of their garden volunteers showed me a plant they could not recognise. It could be Arisaema candidissimum, but cannot be sure until it flowers in the spring. In my mind any garden that takes the trouble to grow a plant like this is worth exploring. This alone is enough for a plant and garden enthusiast to want to visit. But what will your died-in-the-wool plantsman or garden enthusiast make of the conceptual sculptures displayed in this classic landscape and attractive garden ? In the Robert Adam gallery there are displays of graffiti art, there is a Tracey Emin hanging on the wall, Philip Letts is an abstract photographer and has some of his large work on display. Throughout the parkland are displays of conceptual sculpture. This is a garden that challenges the norm. It does not set out to conform to accepted conventions. It wants to confront our expectations and offer an example of a commitment to a world where nature can be included within what we do and where we are. Where I live in Great Torrington, an hour west of Exeter, we are surrounded by 350 acres of common land. In the valley is RHS Rosemoor. Both places can learn from each other how we can better coexist with nature. Philip Letts has a great energy and independence of mind, but most of all he is driven by an integrity that defines the place in the world that he has found. A visit to the new Devon Sculpture Park south of Exeter won’t appeal to everybody and if like me you get lost on your first visit you may miss out on an experience. It might not be easy or conventional, it might not be up your street, but sometimes the road less travelled is the better one to try. Or it just might be interesting.
Creative Wellbeing Workshop with Creative Minds Exeter – This workshop is suitable for all levels of art experience. Guided by expert Creative Minds artist Liz Swan, you will spend time sketching en plein air and soaking in the beauty of the park.
Available 2nd Wednesday of the month starting March 11. 10am – 4pm.
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