In planning what to focus on for this issue's art discovery, a sculpture installation by the artist Gavin Turk in Bexley's Hall Place attracted my attention – and gave the impetus for a long-delayed return visit to this historic house and its fine gardens, accompanied by a friend equally interested in art and gardens. The site is listed Grade II on what used to be called the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, renamed The National Heritage List for England following the recent re-organisation of English Heritage. Since I was last there in 2001, a Heritage Lottery Fund grant has enabled a transformation of the house and grounds, whose long history dates back to early Tudor times. A visitor centre and café are among the new facilities, and the formal gardens, already spectacular, have been beautifully preserved and extended, and include a series of distinct garden spaces, herbaceous borders and fine trees.
Gavin Turk's sculpture, ‘Self-Portrait (Fountain)’ (2012), is visible from the garden through an archway in the south front of Hall Place, installed in the inner courtyard as part of a temporary exhibition that runs until September 2015. Titled 'Watershed – art, play and the politics of water', curated for Bexley Heritage Trust by Artwise, the exhibition includes works by 15 contemporary artists that, in one wav or another, celebrate water, with humour, thoughtfulness, political acuity and insight. Most of the exhibits are housed within the building, but Gavin Turk's and one other exhibit, Susie MacMurray's ‘Flood’ (2012), are sited outdoors. Turk's life-size bronze figure holds aloft a hose, which every 10 minutes or so floods his head with water that quickly turns to steam due to a heating element within the sculpture – the nearby plaque ponders whether this signifies the artist's brain burning with ideas. The work also refers to an earlier ‘Self-Portrait as a Fountain’ of 1993 by the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, itself a parody of a 1966 performance photograph by the American artist Bruce Nauman. Susie MacMurray's sculpture sits on the water's edge of the River Cray that flows through the grounds south of the house. Made of deconstructed corrugated water hose, it takes the form of an enigmatic black ball, its surface tension suggesting it might explode from its neat shape at any moment.
Also in the grounds are a number of permanent works of art. The first we discovered was ‘Nest’, suitably located near the wildlife corner and the bird hide overlooking the river. A site-specific stone seat designed by Kim Campbell, it was made in 2013 by members of the local mental health arts charity Centrepieces, with children from The Annex School in Swanley. The adjacent plaque explains its aim was ‘to be in harmony with its natural surroundings’ and ‘to make comment on aspects of protection and refuge’. Then, in the more distant informal grounds, beyond the river and a flood channel cut in a serpentine path through the landscape, we were directed to look for another work of art – a granite monolith punctuated by a circular void, a perfect eye-catcher. Sculpted by Dominic Ropner, it was installed here in 2010 as part of the new PlayBuilders Scheme in Bexley and will eventually be surrounded by a grass maze. Sculpture in the gardens at Hall Place will continue to flourish, and in August this year Laura Ellen Bacon will be making a new site-specific work as the first artist in residence here, funded by WWF-UK.
The final art intervention – arguably the pièce de résistance – dates back to the time of the last private resident of Hall Place, and also the early days of the public park, and takes the form of some remarkable topiary. In 1935 Lady Limerick created a series of chess pieces on the lawn to the west of the house; in 1953 they were joined by the Queen's Beasts, planted in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation, a year after the house and gardens opened to the public. Modelled on statues in Kew Gardens, these 10 living sculptures include The Greyhound, The Red Dragon and The White Horse. As we sat nearby enjoying topiary, sandwiches and sun, we noticed there was a gardener watering the floriferous border adjacent to the house, immediately recalling Gavin Turk's sculpture just the other side of the wall!