Monday, 6 October 2014

Balancing Stones

Slightly off-topic today, ie not actually about plants...  back in June, one of my Clients told me they'd enjoyed a visit to Asthall Manor, just northwest of Witney. They hold an annual sculpture week, during which they open the garden to visitors and display over 200 sculptures, most of which are for sale.

Now, I am not in the least bit artistic, but the garden sounded lovely, and it's not otherwise open to the public, so I trotted along and gained entry under false pretences: although when I bought my entrance ticket, and confessed that I'd actually come to see the garden not the sculptures, the lady on the desk said that I was far from the only one!

The gardens are, I have to say, lovely: a perfect combination of pleasing formal gardens by the house, and informal areas leading down to the stream.

They even had a wildflower meadow, and I can tell you from experience that it is not a trivial undertaking.

This one contained a very balanced mix of red poppy, lilac Agrostemma githago (a favourite of mine), blue Cornflower, wispy grasses, and white Ox-eye Daisy (my least favourite wildflower).

I suspect that they shave it down to nothing each winter, and sow it with a proprietary mix each spring. It's the only way to achieve this balance.

 Then I came across something I hadn't seen before - using the wire of the tennis court to support the sweet peas!

A clever and interesting idea: you can still play tennis on it, but it screens off the less-than-lovely court from the lower part of the garden.

I suppose it also affords a feeling of privacy to anyone playing tennis, as well.

Closer to the house were the formal gardens, very much to my taste: here, a novel twist on the usual box hedging parterre, which occupied a steeply-sloping bank running alongside the house.

I'm stood at the top, looking down.

The gardener - I always stop to have a chat with a gardener if I can - was working his way round, clipping the box, having not had time to get them all done before the opening.

When you install over 200 sculptures into a garden, apparently it makes a lot of extra work: not only having to create bases and plinths for them and mow around them, which you would expect, but it can also necessitate pruning and reshaping to create a suitable backdrop or frame for each piece.

Here's another section of the parterre, looking down on the main lawn. Each section of hedging was filled with a different selection of plants, some - as the gardener told me, with a sigh - more successful than others.

Personally I didn't envy him having to clip in such narrow channels between the hedges - I like room to get my feet down comfortable.

But I can appreciate the point that a narrow channel means you don't feel compelled to grow anything in it, and you can leave the clippings where they fall, as no-one can see them!

Elsewhere in the garden, there was a pretty little stream, a somewhat stagnant pond with sculpture in, on and around it: and a rickety-looking but very tempting bridge:

 I managed to resist going over it, just about.

Well, ok, I had no real inclination to try it!

Lovely construction, though.

Almost worthy of being labelled as a garden installation, wouldn't you say? *laughs*

Talking of installations (which is apparently a pretentious word for sculpture) - oh, I've just looked it up, and installations are generally indoor "art", whereas outdoors ones - or "outdoor interventions" as they are super-pretentiously called - are "often called land art".

You live and learn.

OK talking of the land art *restrains the urge to snigger* I suppose you might expect a post about a sculpture garden to have at least one picture of the actual sculptures?

Well, these are the only ones I actually liked, a series of five very large, beautifully carved and polished representations of a tulip flower opening.

Bizarrely, they were for sale individually.

What's the point of that? Surely most of their attraction lies in the progression from one shape to another? (Oh blimey, I've spent too much time talking about sculpture, I'm getting pretentious myself!)

Although I have to say, I did have the slightly unworthy thought that all they needed was a thick layer of cobwebs on an autumn morning to make them look less like tulips and more like the hatching face-hugger pods from the film Alien....

So, let's get back to the Balancing Stones of the title. I went there to see the gardens, which were well worth the visit: I frowned at, or laughed at, most of the sculptures, apart from the ones above: and I was utterly captivated by Adrian Gray, who was doing live demonstrations of his incredible skill at balancing stones.

In a quiet corner of the lower gardens, an area had been swept clear of leaves and debris, spread with shingle, and three wooden circles had been laid out, with a rope around to provide a safe exclusion zone.

Within the circles, this chap Adrian was carefully balancing stones - not little ones, bloomin' great big ones that he could just about lift.

Here he is, delicately placing an upper stone on a lower one.

On the left you can see one of the other arrangements, and no, they were not stuck together in any way.

They are just poised!

It took a little while, and I didn't like to interrupt him while he was concentrating, but once it was safely up I asked him about them, and he was gratifyingly easy to talk to.

Apparently he has always been a sculptor, and he started doing this aspect when he was involved in arranging some human figures, and he became interested in the way the heads balanced on the bodies.  This lead to balancing stones one on the other, and this lead to an exploration of how counter-intuitive it could get; how far "out of balance" could a stone appear to be, while still actually balancing.

Here he is, walking away from the one in the picture above, to talk to me.

Honestly, you would swear that it would just fall right off, wouldn't you?

But it doesn't. It sat there quite happily for twenty minutes or so, until a bunch of people arrived, and the tremors through the ground were enough to topple the left-hand one, and the third one that you can't quite see in this photo.

Whereupon he changed them around, and rebalance them to show the new arrivals.

He's been doing this for ten years now, here's his website: and if you get the chance to go to a live demonstration, I would recommend it.

The "best" part of his work is the live balancing, but you can buy - if you wish - one of his works for permanent display, in which case they are stuck together to avoid accidents. Apparently you choose the one you want, he brings the stones to your location, films them being assembled, then they are fixed together for safety, while you have the film to remind you of how it was done, which seems like a  nice compromise.

For this sort of live demonstration, he says that he takes some time to set the lower stones carefully and fairly securely on the ground, then he chops and changes between the upper stones. Each time he does it, it's different. Sometimes they stand for a long time, sometimes a simple footfall can topple them.


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