The Bridge Interviews
The biennial on form sculpture exhibition has become a regular feature of life in the Windrush valley since it was established in 2002, happily alternating with the Burford Festival. This June sees the start of on form 18 so The Bridge went to meet Rosie Pearson, châtelaine of Asthall Manor and co-curator of the exhibition, who was in the throes of organising the event. For those who haven’t been previously, it is a seriously big exhibition. In 2016 there were 268 sculptures on show and 7,000 people came to see them. This year’s promises to be even bigger.
Rosie was born and brought up in West Sussex. After reading English at Oxford she worked in London as a journalist for The Independent and The Economist, specialising in home affairs, including trade unions and education, and this led to her taking a postgraduate course to qualify as a teacher. From 1988 to 1997 she lived in Jamaica where her daughters, Annie and Dora, were born. Annie now lives in Amsterdam and Dora is in London. While in Jamaica Rosie founded a school for her daughters and other children and taught there for a while.
In 1997 she and the girls moved back to the UK but she has returned to Jamaica a number of times since. For a time she had a home there but it burnt down in 2005 after being struck by lightning. She still has a small house there in a green, lush valley which she feels has something in common with her present home.
She didn’t want to take her daughters to live what she saw as a grey life in London. She knew this area a little from her time in Oxford and from some time spent house-sitting for friends in Kidlington. She then rented a house in Standlake for a year. From time to time she looked down at Asthall from the A40 and thought “Wow! What a wonderful place to live!”. It was the village that first attracted her rather than the house, which could not be seen from the distance. She had read about the house being for sale and at first thought it was too much of a project and too far from Oxford, but eventually decided to buy it.
The lovely 16th century manor house is noted for its association with the Mitford sisters. It features in Jessica Mitford’s autobiography Hons and Rebels and, lightly disguised under the name of Alconleigh, in Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love. However, Rosie points out that they only lived in it from 1919 to 1926. They then sold it to the Hardcastle family who lived there from for seventy years and did very little to the house. The last Hardcastle lived as a virtual recluse and died in 1997, after which the house came on the market.
Rosie spent a couple of years restoring the house with the aid of the architect Robert Franklin, who amongst other things designed a large bay window with a view of the garden and took down an undistinguished extension. The garden was created by the eminent designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman whose other credits include Highgrove, Arundel Castle, Waddesdon Manor and the 9/11 memorial garden in New York. “The Mitfords were proud to be philistines. There were some good mature trees but most of the garden was grass with a few spring bulbs and one rose bed. The front entrance did not exist and the whole of the back was tarmac”. She shows us a folio-sized book produced by the Bannermans containing drawings and photographs setting out their proposals for the garden. “With a prospectus like that, how could I refuse?” She accepted most, but not all, of their recommendations, which included creating a structure for the garden and a parterre on a sloping back with the letters A and D for the two daughters in it. “The Bannermans were wonderful. They did most of the planting themselves. It is no good putting Alchemilla on a plan if you don’t make sure it is positioned properly”.
The result is one of the best gardens in the Cotswolds. The gardens (including woodland) cover six acres running down to the mill leat, which used to power the hydroelectric turbine, installed by Lord Redesdale, on which the house ran until the 1960s. There are also twelve acres of land let for grazing. Rosie has two full time gardeners and (usually) two part timers. She also gets help from students via World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. (wwoof.org.uk) who work as volunteers for five hours per day in return for board and lodging (check it out if you need help with your garden). “They have amazing skills”. She likes bringing the sense of one place into another and the garden has Caribbean touches. “I respect different traditions without being hidebound by them; I like to create a sense of surprise and open-endedness.” She enjoys, and is inspired by, places like Kettles Yard in Cambridge and sculpture exhibitions at Quenington, Chatsworth and Gloucester Cathedral.
Part of the work done was to create a new entrance to the front of the house from the road. Rosie commissioned the sculptor Anthony Turner, an old school friend, to make the distinctive finials which can be seen on top of the gate pillars. “Anthony and his friend Dominic Welch installed them and they later said ‘What an amazing place for an exhibition’ so I decided to give it a whirl. Anthony and Dominic brought a big group of sculptors from Devon and Linda Bailey in Swinbrook brought another group. We got into the gardens section of the Telegraph and it was a big success”. That year the sculptures were not all stone but Rosie decided to try it again and make it the only exhibition dedicated to stone sculpture.
How does she set about organising the exhibition? “We invite applications with a deadline of the end of July the year before, and we also seek out new and exciting artists who might not apply to us. For this year's exhibition, we had about 100 sculptors to review. We keep it to a maximum of 40 sculptors as we like to form a relationship with them and to meet them. Also, we like to have a substantial body of work from each artist, because this makes the exhibition coherent. Around September we are busy talking to them about how it would work, looking at photographs and meeting them. At this stage the sculptures may not have been made.
Rosie and her co-curator Anna Greenacre have three tests in assessing work. The first is quality. The second is diversity and originality. The third is what she calls the X factor – “You look at it and go ‘oomph!’ ”. There is a mixture of established and new artists. Regulars include Helaine Blumenfeld and Peter Randall Page, both internationally renowned, and their work is expensive, but she stresses that in 2016 prices started at £120. Because they charge visitors (£10) to come to the exhibition, they are able to keep their commission on sales down to 20% to benefit the artists, which is just being increased to 24% because of the new VAT liability. Most of the sculptures were sold in 2016. “It didn’t help that the Brexit referendum came in the middle”.
In the spring they make more studio visits to agree exactly what each sculptor is bringing to the exhibition. Next comes the tricky but hugely enjoyable task of putting the works in their places, Rosie and her co-curator Anna plan on a huge map which takes up an entire wall of the on form office. Rosie compares this with making mosaics, another interest and creative output of hers. “You put one piece in and see how it works, and then you decide what to put next to it. We plan the garden around the exhibition and the exhibition around the garden. There is no set route around the exhibition so everyone gets a different experience”.
Installation itself takes place in May. A lot of paraphernalia, from tractors and wheelbarrows to 2-tonne crane assemblies, is needed for getting the sculptures into position. “It was fun when the children were at home. They would look out of the window in the morning, see an enormous sculpture that had appeared overnight and say ‘Oh, I love our life here!’ ” The works are put around the outside of the house, in the garden, in the wildflower meadows and even in the adjacent church. “Sometimes I wonder ‘What will the vicar think of this?’ but he is very understanding as long as we don’t put anything on the altar”. This year the church will also be used for a slide show and a concert.
There will be two concerts associated with on form 18. One will be by the Voicebox Choir from Witney and the other will be the launch concert for the Oxford Chamber Music Festival. There will be a performance of The Winter’s Tale by the Oxford school of Drama and the Scary Little Girls commissioned by the Chipping Norton Theatre will be back. The six actors in this group will each play one of the Mitford sisters in different parts of the garden. Visitors will go to each in turn for a reading from the sisters’ letters to each other and some ad lib performance. Separately one of the actors will put on a literary salon where she will read from the writings of various radical female writers including Jessica Mitford.
Rosie is keen to use the house for other events between exhibitions. There have been yoga and painting classes and an “Asthall's Grand Day Out”, a mini festival day which raised £7,000 for four participating charities. Future plans include a writers’ retreat and performances by the Mandala Theatre, an Oxford-based theatre group working with young people on plays exploring place, identity and belonging. She tries not to hold any other art events as she wants Asthall Manor to be identified with on form without being confused with other exhibitions. Rosie’s overall vision is to “…provide something a little bit different without frightening people too much”. In between all these activities Rosie has been writing a novel based on her experiences in Jamaica.
What sort of things can go wrong? Not too many it seems. One year, installation coincided with an extreme storm, and sculpture began sinking into the ground. Occasionally sculptures get broken, although that is usually in transit rather than on site. Once an over-sensitive sculptor tried to remove his work on the morning of the private view because he thought it wasn't good enough. A few visitors express disappointment that the place is not a shrine to the Mitfords. (One of the rented apartments has a mural painted by Nancy Mitford but there is not much else as evidence of their occupation). Dogs are a risk in case they do what dogs do against the sculptures. For that reason dogs are banned, but people still turn up with them and ask if anyone minds them going in. (Rosie herself is “between dogs” as her beloved dog died last year aged 18 after being there for every previous exhibition). Various remedies have been tried including having a dog station where they can be left under the trees and having volunteer dog walkers. So, if that is your sort of thing and you want to have some fun, do get in touch. And in any event make sure you don’t miss the exhibition.