Burghley Sculpture Garden

by Jan Bright


‘…Burghley has the exciting skyline of Henry VIII’s Hampton Court or the Richmond and Greenwich of the earlier Tudor period.  Its short square towers, ogee-capped turrets, frilled balustrade, and countless tall chimney-shafts in the form of Tuscan columns are unforgettable.  …’
From Pevsner, Bedfordshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough (Pevsner Buildings of England S.ed 2002)

During an especially cold and wintry period in December 2005, I drove across country to Burghley, near Stamford in Lincolnshire.  Despite brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies, the temperature struggled to climb above zero, and the trees and fields glittered with a thick layer of frost.  Somehow, it was a very appropriate way to reach the great fairy-tale house of Burghley, a place I only knew from books, films and photos but had long wanted to see.
The house has featured in many documentaries and films including the recent film of Pride and Prejudice.  It was used for the exterior and interior of Rosings, home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, aunt of Darcy and patron of Mr Collins.  For the last decade, Burghley has had a new attraction, which is producing real and growing interest in its unusual mix of contemporary art, historic landscape, and education.

The Burghley Sculpture Garden provides an exciting setting for a number of dramatic artworks by contemporary sculptors.  Works by Peter Randall-Page, Giles Kent, Martyn Barratt and many others are already in place and further commissions are planned.  The sculptures, varied in style, are all inspired by the garden – and their placement is designed to provoke thought and accentuate the beauty of the surroundings.

All of this was to come as I drove up the long entrance drive to the house to park in the stable area.  Here I met the friendly and knowledgeable Assistant House Manager, Jo Pavey, who was to be my guide.  While Jo wrapped up warm to walk round to the Sculpture Garden, a short distance from the house, I thought about the history of this spectacular place.

Burghley is one of the largest and grandest Elizabethan houses, built and mostly designed by William Cecil, Lord Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I, between 1555 and 1587.  The house is a family home for his descendants to this day.  At present, Mr Simon and Lady Victoria Leatham (well known as one of the experts on BBC Television’s ‘Antiques Roadshow’), occupy it.  After the death of the 6th Marquess of Exeter in 1981, direct ownership of the house and its contents passed to the Burghley House Preservation Trust, a private charitable trust dedicated to the maintenance of the house and its contents for future generations.

To give an idea of scale, here are some figures:

  • the main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors
  • there are 18 State Rooms plus a huge collection of furniture, paintings, porcelain,  tapestries and, of course, carvings by Grinling Gibbons
  • there are more than 80 lesser rooms and numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas
  • the lead roof extends to three quarters of an acre, restoration and rebuilding (begun in 1983) took nearly ten years to complete.
  • Landscape at Burghley

Of particular interest to Garden Trust members is the extensive park and gardens (circa 1400 acres).  As many of you will know, Burghley’s historic parkland was laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, as one of the most important commissions of his career and one that lasted for nearly a quarter of a century.

Although William Cecil was a keen gardener who employed the Tradescants, and it is believed that he created  a wonderful Elizabethan garden at Burghley, little is known about it – and nothing seems to remain. One of the gardens was noted by diarists of the day as containing ‘divers conceits, obelisks of many materials and a lead pond which was pleasant for bathing in the summer, as well as Caesars Heads contained in a circular building with a table made from ‘touchstone”.  Later there was a George London Baroque Garden of 1700 said to have ‘canals, rising flights of terraces, ornamental fish-pools, a maze, vineyard and other conceits’.

All was swept away when ‘Capability’ Brown was employed by the 9th Earl to landscape the Park.  Brown was considered the peak of fashion, both for garden design and architectural design, and was paid accordingly, receiving a retainer of £1000 p.a. for each year of his long commission at Burghley. Brown completely altered the surroundings of the house. He opened up the views, he cleared areas of planting and created areas of landscape garden to give the characteristic wide, open parkland and ‘views’.
He shaped the lake in 1775-80.  By discovering a seam of waterproof ‘blue’ clay within a natural fault in the limestone, he was able to enlarge the original 9-acre pond into the 26-acre serpentine lake that runs behind the house on the south side, and his clever design means it looks like a meandering river.
Brown sited a summer house known as ‘the Temple’ by the lake, designed the famous Lion Bridge and planted trees in the park which include oak, lime, sweet chestnut, Giant American Redwood and Lebanon Cedar.  He also removed the entire northwest wing to open the view of his landscaped gardens, built new stables and other essential offices on the east side of the house, and the Orangery on the southeast.

On to 1994.and the beginning of the Sculpture Garden
In 1994, new plans were put into play for what was called the ‘lost lower garden’, for which there are no records of Brown’s landscaping. The area was reclaimed from weeds and scrub woodland, planted with specimen trees and shrubs, and developed as an arboretum and Sculpture Garden.  This secluded garden is a delightful addition to the open parkland and provides visitors with a tranquil place to appreciate ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscaping.

It now has a permanent collection of contemporary sculptures, each especially placed to draw attention to the planting and the surrounding spaces.  An annual exhibition on a particular theme introduces new work to the garden and allows for ever-changing views of art and landscape.  The sculpture garden now covers 15 acres with more planned.

As Jo Pavey and I began to walk round the Garden, she explained what had happened, and why things have changed so radically over the last few years.
‘Capability’ Brown originally developed this part of the grounds to complement his newly created lake that lies on the western edge of the Garden.  Although the area continued to be cultivated during the Victorian era (when many gardeners were employed), as in so many gardens and estates, it fell into disuse in the early part of the 20th century.  By 1989, the site was completely overgrown, choked by brambles, nettles and elder.
This was when the Burghley House Trustees agreed to establish a project to research and clear the ‘lost lower garden’, and plant it as a natural setting in which to place contemporary sculpture.

In 1994, a small team of gardeners began to clear the 15-acre site, removing load after load of fallen timber and weeds.  Over the years, part of the area had been put to use as the unofficial Burghley dump, a home for all kinds of rubbish, including some scrapped cars.  This rubbish site itself has now been landscaped to form the amphitheatre, an important feature of the new sculpture garden and now the site of some of its most important and striking works such as ‘The 20th Century Head’ (of which more later).

Sadly, the Head Forester says that they found only one oak left of the prize specimens in the area.  Once the clearance was complete, reseeding and a programme of tree planting took place.  Much research had taken place by this stage and they concentrated on planting American-origin hardwood species that were in use when ‘Capability’ Brown laid out the original planting scheme.  Shrubs, species and wild flowers followed.

The area also contained the old 18th-century icehouse, where ice was stored after the winter and throughout the summer to serve the house’s kitchens and tables.  This was restored and is now used for special displays.

As the Sculpture Garden is now open to the public all year round, the planting has since been broadened to provide interest throughout the year, with additional trees and shrubs for autumn and winter colour.  The stream area running through the middle of the Garden contains a mixture of herbaceous plants, grasses and a large selection of water and bog plants such as gunnera and many varieties of primula.

Visual Treats and Treasures
On the day that Jo and I visited, there were several groups of schoolchildren taking a Sculpture Walk armed with workbooks and leaflets, and their interest was keen and unmissable.

burghley2.pngThere definitely is a feeling of being in a ‘secret’ garden.  Sculptures are on the ground, by the stream, in the stream, in the trees, in the lake – big and small and in different materials, from rusting metal to closely woven wicker, from shiny steel to fibreglass or sparkling jets of water.
It soon becomes clear as you explore this Garden that, although the area remains very natural, as you walk through the pathways there is a real sense of adventure and excitement, a feeling of  ‘what am I going to see next?  And where?’

Many of the sculptures are site specific and form grand set pieces – like the Giles Kent ‘Five Curved Oak Trunks’ which actually sits in ‘Capability’ Brown’s lake.  Kent creates sculptures from wood that enhance and elaborate on its natural properties.  He then produces in-situ pieces that ‘complement the natural landscape by responding to lines, shapes and objects found around each particular site’.

Also in the lake is the Matthew Lane-Sanderson ‘Pure Pollen’, a polished white fibreglass piece made from largely recycled materials that seems to float freely near the edge of the lake close to the boathouse.  The artist says of his work at Burghley that it stemmed from his search for more informed information on topics such as genetic modification and air pollution.  The ‘conceptual result has been a combination of the enormous benefits of sustainability and potential risks like contamination, within metaphoric swollen sugar coated pills’.


‘Pure Pollen’

Before visiting, I thought that I might have doubts about some of these pieces (concerns about detracting from the lake or vista? or being artificial in a natural setting? but then how ‘natural’ is a Brown landscape?).  Having seen them in place, I think they look stunning, particularly the Kent.  Other pieces really stood out for me.  The much photographed ‘The 20th Century Head’ by Rick Kirby looms above the amphitheatre, and provides tantalising and changing ‘through views’ as you walk up to and around the huge metal


The 20th Century Head

The visiting children were very attracted to the Peter Randall-Page ‘Turf Maze’, which has become one of the most popular pieces in the garden.  Peter Randall-Page is well known in Cornwall through his work at, for example, Tate St Ives and the Eden Project.  He says of this particular piece that ‘sometimes drawing is simply an exploration of pattern, geometry and what can happen when you ‘take a line for a walk’ as Klee put it.  The maze I designed for the Sculpture Garden at Burghley House falls into this category’.


Turf Maze

Back to the Future.
It was always intended that the garden would have its permanent collection continually added to over time, but also hold temporary exhibitions and an all year programme of education, artist residences and workshops.  However, the success of the garden and programme has led to another new development.

A ‘Garden of Surprises’ is being created next to the existing Sculpture Garden and is due to open in 2007.  This will be a classically designed but modern garden, inspired by the original Cecil Tudor garden, and hidden inside a two-metre high yew hedge.  Features such as the moss house, the swivelling busts, basins of water jets and the mirrored maze have been designed to be accessible to all regardless of age or interest, so the garden will exude a real sense of fun.
For the Sculpture Garden, Michael Shaw, the current curator and an artist himself, has intriguing plans for the future.  Between May 14th and Oct 31st 2006, there will be a new show called ‘Heavenly Bodies: Astronomical and Anatomical’.

Michael says that this will explore ‘a dynamic range of sculptural responses to the notion of heavenly bodies through the cult of the body beautiful and celestial phenomena.  The former will respond to current fashion trends that encourage cosmetic surgery, body art and modification, whereas the more ephemeral .will be depicted by sculptures that use form, sound, movement, and light to investigate the sublime, alchemy, divine proportions and geometry, the stars, moons and interplanetary movements etc’.

Participants already confirmed include: Nick Horrigan, who will construct a giant observatory from timber off the estate.  Laurenz Stöckner will construct spherical bowl forms from copper mined and processed by himself from the dolomite mountains where he lives; and Denis O’Connor, will be constructing a stone tower with a team of dry stone wallers, into which will be inserted various metal motifs including ladders.
As Martyn Barratt, the original Curator of the garden says, ‘the development of the garden is continuing, including the involvement of artists, something which would have pleased ‘Capability’ Brown, surely the most famous of British land artists’.

Jan Bright

My thanks to Jo Pavey, and to Michael Shaw, Curator, Burghley Sculpture Garden.
The Sculpture Garden can be visited all year round.  For more information, please contact The House Office, Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire PE9 3JY Tel: 01780 752451 Email: burghley@burghley.co.uk