A recent visit to this outdoor sculpture exhibition, in the depths of the beautiful Cotswolds, did not disappoint. The house and its glorious gardens, as well as the wider landscape beyond, offered the perfect foil for an eclectic mix of over 130 works, most of which were for sale.
Other pieces form a fascinating permanent collection that has been built up over the years. This includes a memorial to former Quenington Rectory head gardener Esme Bradburne, who interestingly was one of the founder members of the Soil Association.
This ethereal section of calligraphy appears to float on the trunk of one of the garden’s most majestic trees, reading: “The soul of man resembles the water, the fate of man resembles the wind.” One can almost sense Esme’s spirit in the rustle of the leaves and refreshing sound of the water feature in the mill stream, which runs through the gardens.
This was the first post-Covid pandemic show at Quenington Old Rectory and it opened the same weekend as the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, lending the event an extra festive note. Running from 5 to 26 June, the exhibition was the 15th of its kind.
“After two years of lockdown, our belief has been reinforced that fresh air, gardens and art, both for artists themselves and their audience, are not only beneficial but a necessity,” said art historian and writer Lucy Abel Smith, who with her husband David, an engineer, is the driving force behind Quenington’s collection. The biennial sculpture show was launched in 1992.
We asked Lucy about her passion for sculpture: “I am an art historian and come from a family who encouraged collecting. It was not until we had a garden however that we took an interest in sculpture.
We were known as collectors of contemporary art when Wendy Shales, then at Brewery Arts, first approached us to ‘do outreach’ and have a selling show in the garden under the charitable umbrella of Brewery Arts. That was in 1992. We then set up our own charity in 1997. Yes, it is a private passion.
We enjoy sculptural forms in the garden and think they add in many ways. We were the first to start placing glass in the garden, again to the benefit of both garden and glass.”
The house and its expansive organic garden are located in an area rich in history. “There has been a rectory in Quenington since the time of Knights Hospitaliers in the 12th Century. It belongs, visually, to an important group of buildings which include the church, the site of the Knights’ Preceptory, farm, barns, dovecote, mills and mill race. The last water mill wheel of the local corn mill rests in the garden by the road bridge.”
Quenington Old Rectory’s idyllic rural setting and the proximity of the River Coln, which runs past the garden, supplying the mill race, provide a picturesque and tranquil backdrop for the sculptural works. Water was therefore, quite naturally, a recurring theme in this year’s exhibits, many of which were site-specific. The selection was sensitively and on occasion playfully curated by Stephanie Cushing, who is also a sculptor.
In the wooded area that is accessed by bridges across the mill race from the main garden, more contemplative works explored interactions with water, light and volume offering glimpses of other worlds and pause for reflection, in every sense.
Closer to the house, a more formal rectangular pond hosted a cluster of designs. These included a delightful kinetic sculpture by Richard Creswell that glistened in the sunlight, tinkling its delicately cool sounds, generated by the meditative movement of water. Alongside this, amidst the waterlillies, a flurry of Raku clay fish busied themselves just below the surface.
Wind played its part too, not just in the rustling trees and discreet flight of a blackbird, darting shyly between exhibits and visitors on the main lawn – here a collection of sculptural installations spun slowly in summer’s gentle breath, notably 3 joyful designs by David Watkinson
Elsewhere installations perched high, partially melting into tree canopies and the sky, such as Dans L’Intervale, which used manmade materials, questioning “notions of sustainabilitiy and vulnerability”. Stephanie mentioned this piece when sharing some of the show’s challenges, “Edith Meusnier’s 2m diameter discs, sited in the tall sycamore, despite being a logistical nightmare to both obtain and install, were a valuable contribution to the show – I am glad we persevered.”
In contrast to these aerial manifestations, other pieces were rooted deep in dappled clearings, responding to the evolution of flowers, the woodland vegetation and to both light and movement. Claire Malet’s evocative grouping also integrated recycled materials with repurposed wire and leafy garlands made using plastic milk cartons, imbuing the mundane with mystery.
These thought-provoking works, blended with others, more lighthearted and some purely decorative creations, interspersed with the functional and beautiful such as huts, bridges and benches – all spanning a surprisingly diverse range of materials. Collectively they introduced layers of additional colour, texture, scale and form into Quenington Old Rectory’s cleverly cultivated and artfully presented landscape, framed in turn by traditional Cotswold stone architecture and the quintessential charm of the English countryside.
Although the show has now closed, many of the artworks shown in this review, as well as others that were in the exhibition, remain for sale. The gardens are open for Quenington Old Rectory’s regular Rare Plant Sales. Find out more via Fresh Air Sculpture’s website. The next show beckons, full of fresh treasures – it will take place in 2024, opening on 16 June.
Review text and images © Emma Boden, 2022
Fresh Air Sculpture became a charitable trust, under Quenington Sculpture Trust, in 1997. Alongside the Fresh Air Sculpture show, the Trust runs a comprehensive educational programme for schools, colleges, and adults.
Workshops inspired by exhibiting artists are delivered to primary and secondary children from disadvantaged areas and schools, as well as special schools for children with physical and mental disabilities.
The programme also provides education resources and free visits for local schools and communities. Find out more on the Quenington Sculpture Trust pages.