The shape of things to come: Garden sculpture is having its moment in the sun

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The Independent Online

Enter the driveway that sweeps up to the Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire and the first thing you set eyes on is a magnificent, life-sized horse, fashioned from galvanised steel, looking out over the rolling fields.

Turn right into the hotel's car park and you'll pass a rectangular "portal" cut from a hunk of Italian marble by artist Michael Dan Archer. Go to check in and you'll need to side-step a pile of oversized bronze fruit by Dick Buddon placed under a birch tree.

And that's just the beginning, because dotted round the Grove's rather fabulous gardens are nearly 70 pieces of art in a show of contemporary sculpture which opens next Saturday. It's curated by Virginia Grub of Art Contact, a consultancy which organises work for public spaces.

Don't expect hideous gargoyles or dodgy water features. There are two Royal Academicians – Phillip King and Ann Christopher – among the 29 artists on display here. The works may be sat on the lawn or plonked next to the vegetable patch, but that doesn't mean its intention as art isn't highly serious.

"It's an eclectic mix – some figurative, some abstract and some shocking," says Grub. "I think we are becoming a lot more creative and intelligent about sculpture and less afraid of it. Increasingly I see it used to create a statement or focal point in our own gardens rather then relying just on trees and plants."

This is the first time Grub has created a show for a hotel and it's been nearly two years in the making. The Grove is an opulent, five-star destination with expansive golf course just 20 minutes out of London and a favourite with footballers, their wives and other affluent types. It makes perfect sense – bring the art to the customer as they lounge around on the terrace or knock balls around the croquet lawn.

This year is shaping up to be an important one for sculpture. The Royal Academy has just closed the doors on its first major show of British sculpture in 30 years. And alongside the permanent exhibition in the 15-acre sculpture garden at Burghley House in Yorkshire, a solo show has just opened by Julian Wild, a Jerwood Prize shortlister, who has turned a heap of agricultural scrap into brilliant sculptural forms in tones of orange and red. Meanwhile, garden exhibitions nationwide, including the Chelsea Flower Show, will highlight the latest designs incorporating sculpture this summer.

"There has always been a hierarchy in art and some people consider sculpture just doesn't have the same value or status as painting," says Adrian Locke, one of the curators at the Royal Academy. "But I think that is as much to do with the fact that sculpture is a very complicated medium to work with. It's big, heavy, expensive to move around and difficult to display. Our recent show clearly demonstrated that attitudes are changing and the passion we have for sculpture is very much alive."

There are various reasons why sculpture is currently enjoying a resurgence. Locke sites the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, with its rotating series of contemporary commissions, as important for putting sculpture on the map. "And also Anthony Gormley's Angel in the North," he says. "When it went up it caused a huge amount of debate. Now it's a much-loved landmark."

And there's more. Anish Kapoor's 120-metre high steel sculpture, his "answer to the Eiffel tower",currently being built in the Olympic Park, is set to be Britain's biggest piece of public art when it's finished.

Then there is Paul Day's 20-tonne bronze of a kissing couple which received lots of attention in the press when it was unveiled a few years ago at St Pancras. It has also been the subject of much discussion on a gallery level too.

Consider Tate Britain's 2010 blockbuster Henry Moore exhibition, which set about to present him not as a guy who makes curvy statues for parks, but as one of the most important and experimental artist of the 20th Century. Clearly, all this debate is beginning to filter down.

"Sculpture does seem to be something that is enjoyed by more and more people," says Dr Helen Pheby, curator at the 500-acre Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield, where visitor numbers just keep going up and up. "I think people often have a more immediate response to sculpture than they do to a painting. It's something that can be very easy to live with, maybe because of the physical space it occupies."

Last week, Yorkshire Sculpture Park launched its summer programme featuring a remarkable piece called Invasion by Michael Zwingmann, consisting of five huge cylindrical forms which from a distance look a little like menacing, blackened hay bales. Alongside this are the park's permanent works – pieces by some of the UK's greatest sculptors including Andy Goldsworthy and David Nash.

"I think we've also become a lot more open minded," says Pheby, "We consider sculpture to be absolutely anything that isn't a 2D painting."

Unsurprisingly business is bouyant. "The sculpture market at the moment is huge and there are some artists who are in great demand," says Locke. "When we borrowed the Barbara Hepworth sculpture from Battersea Park, Wandsworth Council were shocked when they discovered the value of the work. I think we forget that most sculpture is usually cast in very small numbers so is highly unique."

At the Grove prices start at around £1,000 and rise up to £62,400 which is the tag on an Ann Christopher standing stone made from bronze. It's probably comparable to purchasing art from a gallery, but how practical are they to have in your own home? Colin Rose's rust-coloured rope ball, the size of a small car, which is perched majestically in a huge cedar tree looks amazing in the gardens of the Grove, but required a crane to hoist it up there.

If your garden is a postage stamp yard like mine you might have to rethink slightly. I could just about squeeze in the illuminated limestone egg by Nicholas Moreton, (though where would I plug it in?). Or possibly one of Mel Fraser's slightly sinister masked alabaster heads.

One of the highlights at the Grove is the numerous works by Simon Hitchens. I'd love to bring home the fabulous, pinky resin and cold granite of his work entitled In the Presence of Absence, which is two halves of a whole sitting separately but together make up a perfect cube. Or the more brutal, rectangular granite block simply called Portal which sits a little way away from the rest on the grass towards the golf course.

"It's deceptively simple," explains Hitchens. "Seen from afar it appears as if a section has been cut from the very landscape we are looking at – a portal into another dimension, a visual trick of the eye, created by the crisp and straight edges of this dense, black stone."

Which is one of the most interesting things about making art for the outdoors. The materials – which need to be able to stand up to the elements – work both to constrain as well as inspire. Chris Wood, for example, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, makes work using dichoric glass which has an extraordinary effect when light goes through it, creating prisms of flickering colour. Australian artist Greg John uses corten steel which rusts quickly and so changes in appearance on an almost daily basis. Louise Plant, meanwhile, does things with Italian marble that I never thought possible.

It's an impressive collection and all the better for not being confined within the staid, white walls of a gallery.