A breath of fresh air
PUBLISHED: 11:27 11 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013
Katie Jarvis meets Lucy Abel Smith, Quenington's queen of sculpture shows as she prepares for this year's exhibition.
Lying amongst the wild flowers and grasses in the glorious Old Rectory garden at Quenington is a curious seed pod: beautiful, tactile and strangely colossal, you can only imagine something Triffid-like in proportions is waiting to burst out. Further on, in a scented arboreal walk, someone seems to have twisted and moulded a rose - a dainty and rambling Paul's Himalayan Musk - into the sort of shape Van Gogh might have dreamed up.
But look again; all is not what it seems. For the rambling rose twisted itself into its fascinating shape without human interference or design; while nature played no part in creating the seed pod: a willow and steel sculpture by artist Rachel Carter. Welcome to a strange and wonderful world, where art and nature cross boundaries, fusing into an organic whole.
The Old Rectory in Quenington has just been declared one of England's finest parsonages in a competition run by Country Life magazine. "My husband David is most put out that it didn't win!" Lucy Abel Smith says. She's joking, of course. Indeed, her wry humour constantly punctuates her entertaining conversation. There's no denying, though, the pleasure the couple take in their beautiful home, where 16th century origins have gracefully accepted additions through the ages, right up to a 1930s extension by the local Arts and Crafts exponent, Thomas Falconer.
She leads the way through the house to the back, where the pretty River Coln meanders unhurriedly on its way to the Thames. "We'll chat in the library," she says, pointing to a freestanding circular Cotswold stone building that puts you in mind of an ancient dovecote... Except that nothing here is quite what you expect. With the flick of a very 21st century switch, the doors open outwards to reveal a book-lined interior. "It's rather like a jewellery box, I always think," Lucy says. Designed by the London architect Michael Gold, it's a witty contribution to this age-old rectory; sit inside and look up, and you'll see the traditional tiles that make up the roof give way to a Perspex dome with a stone finial atop that looks as if it's floating on air.
"When we first discussed the project with the local planning officer, he told us, 'I was expecting you to do something much more cutting-edge'. Michael and I burst out laughing because we'd spent so long trying to match the stone and the slate with the house. It is witty, but it also looks as if it's always been here, which is the skill of the architect, of course."
You can understand the planning officer's confusion, for the Abel Smiths are well known as outstanding supporters of cutting-edge contemporary art. It was in 1992 that they first opened their grounds for Fresh Air, a now-biennial sculpture exhibition that places pieces of art in an outdoor setting. At the time, it was unusual for artists to have such a showcase for their work. Since then, outdoor sculpture shows have become more abundant - but Fresh Air retains its special status: partly because of the outstanding setting, and partly because of the exceptional quality of the pieces that are exhibited. Work by well-known artists such as Anthony Abrahams and the late Lynn Chadwick (a great Fresh Air supporter) is included. But at every event, new designer-makers are introduced, too. This year, Ashish Ghosh, the conceptual artist from Bengal, will be exhibiting for the first time; while Takeshi Nagasaki will even be designing a small part of the garden Zen-style.
"We find our artists in a variety of ways," Lucy says. "We advertise the show, asking people to come forward; partly it's word of mouth; and partly, because we are quite well known, people apply to us, even for two years hence. I have what I rather laughingly call a Committee of Taste, like Horace Walpole did, which include people like Miranda Leonard [a freelance exhibition curator], and various journalist friends who put ideas into the pot. And, of course, there's Ana Bianchi, the Fresh Air curator."
It is a task and a half. The size of some of the pieces means the first time Lucy and Ana see them in place is when they roll up for the exhibition - often on the back of a tractor, courtesy of a generous local farmer. (This year, for example, the Cirencester-based sculptor Miranda Michels is bringing a life-size horse.) Otherwise, they have to rely on visiting studios, looking at websites, or viewing photographs.
But it works. And every exhibition seems to attract many more visitors, who nowadays flock in their thousands. Because of the groundswell of interest, the Abel Smiths set up a registered charity, The Quenington Sculpture Trust, in 1997 that promotes, sells and encourages the commissioning of work on show during Fresh Air. This year, pieces range in cost up to £12,000 with one or two up to £35,000. But alongside these more pocket-challenging prices, ECCO! (Encouraging Children to Collect Objects) is set to run again, where children are able to buy a sketch, donated by artists, for under £60.
"I want to take away that slight feeling of nervousness people can have about going to look at art," Lucy says. "It's something which I still feel myself, going into some of those London galleries - so stupid but I do."
It's a surprising and generously humble admission, for she grew up surrounded by art. Her grandfather, the collector Herbert Dunsmuir, eschewed paintings with a long and proven track record and instead concentrated on contemporary Scottish colourists, alongside French impressionists. As a result, he became the owner of several Lowry's - sadly swallowed up by death duties in the '60s. "The one artist he hated was Picasso; he would never buy Picasso!"
Lucy's brother is the respected writer James Knox, currently managing director of The Art Newspaper. And she herself is an artist manqué. "I tried to apprentice myself to another artist in Edinburgh but my parents disapproved of her boyfriend, so they banned me from doing that! But I went to art school in Florence and that does train the eye."
Indeed, that is well proven as we walk around the garden, where some installations are already in place; others are pieces the Abel Smiths have themselves bought over the years. In the middle of one expanse of lawn is a Rebecca Newnham sculpture, resembling a giant sycamore seed, which the light plays upon and twists around. While hidden in a clearing, busy with the songs of blackbirds and thrushes, there are red circles by Richard Watkins, off-set by rectangular 'jigsaw puzzle' pieces welded onto them.
Some pieces are beautiful, some downright puzzling, such as Taz Lovejoy's blue glass hands, hanging from a tree by the river, or Jane Jobling's steel creation that from one angle looks as if it's a part disastrously dropped by an aircraft, and from another like the unfurling interior of a passion flower.
It can be confusing, as even Lucy acknowledges. "There was something ghastly on the lawn - a squirrel trap, I think - which someone thought was a work of art," she laughs. But it's exciting, and thought-provoking, too.
With the help of grants, Fresh Air forms part of a schools' educational programme, under the auspices of New Brewery Arts in Cirencester. Older students are also taking part: a group from York University and the University of the Arts, London, are setting up a music installation; and undergraduates from the University of Gloucestershire will be showing their final examination pieces as part of the show.
Nor are Lucy's artistic interests confined to Quenington. She's also an expert on Eastern Europe - her Prague travel guide, published in 1991 by John Murray, is still considered a definitive work. The owner of a small farmhouse in Transylvania, she works to promote and conserve local craftsmanship there.
"One of our exhibitors, Wendy Ramshaw, said to me recently, 'We're going to look on ourselves as the lucky generation. We could simply say: I'm going to go off and be an artist! But nowadays the pressure is for people to pursue something academic or to be something which is obviously going to make some money.'
"It's very worrying to see how many art schools are closing certain departments because they're too expensive to run; how the technical colleges are all becoming universities so people like blacksmiths and glassmakers are under threat. I think we're fighting a rearguard action."
But with pieces such as Miranda Michels's life-size horse, Fresh Air is certainly leading a cavalry charge.
"I hope we can show the variety that is out there: we include interesting ceramics, witty pieces of furniture, and glass, which I'm passionate about. Because of the way it looks different in the light, glass is something that can become 100 pieces in one.
"Visitors can meet up with the artist; there's no push to sell; and they can see pieces in a natural setting. My hope is that it will give people confidence when it comes to buying art."
· Fresh Air 09, at Quenington Old Rectory, is open from 10am-5pm every day from June 14-July 5. Admission is £2.50 for adults; catalogues are £5 each. Visit www.freshair2009.com for further information.