Happily, two recent events bode well for the future. The first was last week's unveiling of David Mach's Train, a giant brick locomotive emerging from the hillside by the A66 in Darlington. At 40 metres and 185,000 bricks, it is the largest single sculpture in the country, and thanks to a healthy collaboration between the public and private sectors it will now be a permanent crowd-pleasing fixture in the landscape of the North-east.
The second event, less lasting but equally encouraging in the long run, was last week's inauguration of Dulwich Picture Gallery's grounds as a show-case for contemporary sculpture. Their combination of large gardens with the backdrop of Sir John Soane's architecture makes it an obvious venue for outdoor exhibitions, and the choice of Stephen Cox for the first of these summer shows is an inspired one.
Cox, who increasingly looks like one of the finest sculptors of his generation, is also showing at Goodwood, 50 miles south-west of London, on the 20- acre estate which has over the past three summers established itself as a platform for the best of contemporary British sculpture. It is a fantastic concept, beautifully realised, and last weekend it celebrated its third birthday with the publication of a new volume devoted to the current selection of work and the unveiling of the most recent commission: a giant throne by David Nash, sanding 17-feet tall and carved and charred from a single piece of oak found on the estate. Oddly, given Goodwood's setting amidst woodland walks and glades, Nash is the only artist in this year's show who works with wood: the other 40 or so sculptures are in a mixture of bronze, steel, lead, various forms of stone and, in the case of David Mach, 3,600 galvanised wire coat-hangers and a Chrysler jeep.
Goodwood is the grandest of the outdoor venues that have appeared over the past few years, but it is by no means the only place to look at sculpture in the open air this summer. The New Art Centre at Roche Court, near Salisbury, first opened its doors, or rather its grounds, in 1990, initially by appointment but it is now open to everyone every day of the year. Like Goodwood, everything is for sale, at prices from a few hundred to a million pounds, but unlike Goodwood (which charges pounds 10) entrance is free. It's a wonderful place with lovely views and trees and cows and, of course, some fine sculpture.
Its current exhibition concentrates, loosely, on the 1950s with work by Hubert Dalwood, Reg Butler and Bernard Meadows (although less than half a dozen of the 87 works on show are from that decade) and there is a good selection of more recent things, including Antony Gormley's Learning to Be I: a spindly figure well placed amid a grove of equally spindly trees; and a newly commissioned work by Alison Wilding. Among the other highlights, and there are many, is a simple stone monolith by Barbara Hepworth, pierced by a single hole with a painted pale blue groove and, when I visited in the rain last week, a streak of bird shit down one side - one of the hazards of putting art in the open air.
Birds were also a bit of a problem at Wimborne in Dorset, where the vicar's son spent the past month keeping clean the 52 sculptures that were scattered in the grounds of Deans Court, the staggeringly beautiful 18th-century house which recently hosted "Sculpture in the Garden 1997". Their favourite perch, by all accounts, was William Turnbull's bronze Idol, one of several distinguished works included by the organisers to add weight to an exhibition chosen predominantly from open submission, some of which, such as Maria Marshall's Pod, teetering on the edge of a long fish pond, and John Maine's sandstone spiral on the main lawn, looked so good in the landscape that it's hard to imagine how the gardens will manage without them. The exhibition has just ended, but on this year's evidence the next biennial instalment, in June 1999, should be an event worth putting in the diary.
The Wimborne venture is one of a number of locally organised shows that have sprung up in recent summers in the gardens of English country houses. One of the best of them, "Fresh Air", in the grounds of the Old Rectory in the Gloucestershire village of Quenington, opened recently with a mix of established names, including Lynn Chadwick and Sophie Ryder, and numerous lesser knowns. Worth watching among the latter are the considerable talents of Emily Young, Craig Murray Orr, Richard Bray, and, if bridges are more your thing than sculpture, Richard la Trobe Bateman, designer and maker of a fine suspended footbridge.
Not surprisingly, these summer shows which rely on the efforts and enthusiasms of individuals, rather than on the resources of places like Goodwood or Roche Court, are less rigorous in their selection of work and less ambitious in their aims, yet there is something to be gained by their lack of professionalism. The great strength of the Quenington show, despite the undeniable beauty of the Old Rectory's riverside gardens, is its lack of grandeur. The scale is less imposing, more domestic, than at many of the more organised venues, providing a rare opportunity for sculptors to show their work in a way that relates to more ordinary living spaces and ordinary lives. The subtext of the Quenington exhibition is that art can and should play a part in our everyday worlds.
As indeed it should wherever we live. It's a long way from the riverside gardens of Quenington to the side of the Thames at Battersea, but something of the Quenington spirit could come in useful in SW11 in the course of the next few years. Last week's announcement of the proposed redevelopment of the 35 acres of wasteland around Battersea Power Station (not to mention the even bigger Millennium site at Greenwich) seems like a great opportunity for a London exhibition, along the lines of the Sculpture show that dominated the South Bank during the 1951 Festival of Britain, celebrating the recent achievements of British sculptors.
The powers behind both schemes could do worse than take all those involved on a day trip to Goodwood to see how genuinely inspiring sculpture can be once removed from the restrictions of a gallery or museum. Of course, the natural beauty of Goodwood, or anywhere with long vistas of trees and fields, will help any sculpture, whatever its merits, to look its best, but, as Henry Moore put it: "I would rather have a piece of sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in the most beautiful building I know."
In the right hands, the open skyline of a Thames-side site could easily become an urban equivalent of the open-air experience and a lasting tribute to one of the great strengths of British cultural life at the end of the 20th century.
Sculpture at Goodwood is open Thurs-Sat, 10.30am-4.30pm (01243 538449); The New Art Centre, Roche Court is open daily 11am-4pm (01980 862244); `Fresh Air', Quenington, to 18 July, Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm (0128 5750 358)Reuse content