Koons and Co join the country set

It may not sit comfortably next to the gift shop, but contemporary art is making its mark on our stately homes, says Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

Stately homes have not had a good press of late, thanks to publishers and TV producers intrigued by the dysfunctional families that tend to own them. On Channel 4, Country House Rescue focuses on squabbling scions while Robert Sackville-West looks back at battles for ownership of his sprawling Kentish home in Inheritance: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles. To be fair, manor-house occupants are usually more intriguing than the properties themselves, especially when they are dolled up as period show homes.

Such stereotypes are at last being tackled with the arrival of a scheme that brings together the National Trust (NT), heritage-mongers par excellence, and Arts Council England. Trust New Art aims to inject contemporary art into the day-to-day life of NT properties. It's an intriguing prospect. Will its members appreciate modern artifacts interrupting their views? And will it stop them tutting about the Turner Prize?

Not that the NT has been entirely YBA-free. One model for the Trust New Art initiative lies a few miles outside Aylesbury at Waddesdon Manor, the former seat of the Rothschild family. Modelled on a French chateau, with its superb views of Buckinghamshire countryside and exquisite collections of porcelain, textiles and more, this is classic Trust-member catnip. Yet despite bequeathing their home to the Trust in the Fifties, the former owners still maintain an interest in how it is run. Lord Rothschild is a keen collector of modern art, and since the early Noughties has insisted that some pieces occupy the Waddesdon grounds. Now the property has taken matters further by turning the former coach house into a bijou exhibition space.

It was enough for me to break the habit of a lifetime and pay a visit. This summer, the gallery showcases the Brazilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana. The creations of these bad boys of glassware, currently inspired by fabric dolls, are far removed from the dainty objects in the manor. They even attract some tentative punters from the gift shop opposite. "I suppose they'd look quite dramatic in the dark," offers one. Yes, the display is not breathtaking and there are no seats opposite a video screen that explains the dolls' folksy provenance. There's a comfy-looking, rattan-style construction, but I am informed that this too is an artwork.

At least the curators have bravely installed one of the doll lamps in the house itself, pride of place in the blue dining room. Among the gorgeous powder blue walls and curtains, the lamp looks like a Fisher Price toy landing in Versailles. The manor's elderly clientele move on quickly.

Better is Jeff Koons' Cracked Egg (Blue), on loan in the conservatory. Framed by a French window and brocade curtains, this shiny bauble provides a dramatic contrast to the classical statuary reflected in its mirrored surface and deservedly gets more attention.

Out in the grounds stands one of Angus Fairhurst's gorilla sculptures that looks as though it has been moulded out of Plasticine. It stares grimly out over the green fields. And by the ornate aviary stands a typically wry piece from Sarah Lucas; the artist has taken one of those ceramic pieces of a horse and cart that old ladies tend to collect and blown it up to life-size.

You get more families here – the gardens are free entry and provide picnic areas with acres of greenery for kids to explore. Parents relaxing on the lawns ignore the modern works, but the kids are beguiled. The gorilla makes a fine climbing frame, while one girl stops in her tracks when she sees the horse, then makes a beeline for it.

I'm not going to tell her that she's not supposed to touch, and this is where Trust New Art could well succeed. The scheme may fail to reach generations who are already suspicious of conceptual art, but it could appeal to their children and grandchildren. At a time when ministers demand quick fixes, this could be a long-term project worth pursuing.