The Burghley sculpture garden

Back when I was a lad, if you wanted to see sculptures you had to go to an art gallery, or maybe a museum. True, if your interest extended no further than humanoid figures you could reasonably expect to see statues of former monarchs, politicians and sundry other ne’er-do-wells in civic spaces scattered throughout the urban landscape. But if your tastes ran to something less formulaic and more creative you were pretty much confined to museums, galleries and similar indoor areas.

And then, thankfully, some bright spark came up with the idea of sculpture gardens.

Vertical Face II

A sculpture garden, and its big brother the sculpture park, is an outdoor space dedicated to the presentation of durable, three dimensional works of art in landscaped surroundings. In galleries and museums sculpture is contained, hemmed in by walls and ceilings, often difficult to fully appreciate.

In sculpture gardens and parks however, sculpture sits comfortably within a spacious, natural environment, with room to breathe. And the sculptures and the landscape in which they sit enhance one another: the gardens and parks frame the sculptures, while the sculptures become visual anchors within their surroundings.

Held

Sculpture parks can now be found throughout the length and breadth of the UK, and visiting one can be an uplifting experience. Last week I wrote about our visit to Burghley House, a grand mansion dating from the late 16th century. In total contrast to the baroque excesses of the house itself, one of the joys of the parkland at Burghley is an excellent sculpture garden featuring a variety of contemporary and modern pieces.

Burghley’s sculpture garden dates back only a couple of decades, but is situated in an area of the grounds originally fashioned by the famed late 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. It combines a scattering of works on permanent display with an annual themed exhibition. The theme when we visited in 2021 (carried over from 2020, due to Covid) was ‘House‘, originally conceived to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth in 1520 of Burghley House’s founder William Cecil. 

Cornu Cecilium

One of the most striking pieces on permanent display in the sculpture garden is Vertical Face II by English sculptor Rick Kirby. Works by Kirby are on display in various parts of the UK, and if Vertical Face II is typical I can see just why: it’s a haunting, enigmatic creation.

Equally serious – or, to be blunt, downright spooky – is Held by Anne Gillespie. The body of a man, folded into a foetal position and entombed in a rock wall, is not an easy piece to view, and is laden with hidden meaning. But what, exactly? I know what it means to me, but your interpretation may be totally different. And in the end that doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are required to exercise our brains and think about it…which, after all, is surely one of the purposes of art?

Trojan Horse

But art, and sculpture, doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful: it can also, quite simply, be fun. The colourful sculpture of a snail, Cornu Cecilium by Pete Rogers, plainly fits into that category. However there is more to this piece than initially meets the eye. Commissioned for Burghley’s 2021 themed exhibition House, the shape of the snail’s shell echoes the grand octagonal towers of Burghley House.

I was also taken with the Trojan Horse. Fashioned from logs and standing several metres high it’s a quaintly rustic piece, and seems to be completely at ease in the lightly wooded landscape in which is stands.

Teddy bears’ picnic

Talking of wooded landscapes, if you go down to Burghley’s woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: a family of whimsical bears enjoying a picnic, including mama bear in a faded blue dress. Again, there’s no great depth of meaning here, but it’s fun, isn’t it.

Also at home in the wooded landscape are the snowdrops of Everlasting Spring, another Pete Rogers creation. Snowdrops are “here and gone again” in the blink of an eye every spring, but thanks to Rogers they last all year long in Burghley’s sculpture garden.

Everlasting Spring

Italian artist Michele Ciribifera’s Elicoide BG is definitely eye-catching. Elicoide translates from the Italian as “spiral” or “helical”, and this gleaming metallic piece stands out boldly in the verdant landscape of grass and trees. Maybe there is a hidden meaning here? Or is it simply intended to please the eye? Personally I’m inclined not to overthink it: the latter explanation works just fine for me.

And finally, in this whistle-stop tour of a few of the sculptures we saw at Burghley last year, is City Cuts by sculptor Paul Cox. Inspired by the 2007/08 world financial crisis, a handsaw is seen slicing into a swanky city skyscraper. This one is rather poignant for me. At the time of that economic meltdown I was working as a senior public service manager, and found myself forced to make massive cuts to stay within my greatly reduced budget. I was compelled to wield not just a saw, but an axe too.

Elicoide BG

Several of my staff, including friends whom I respected and admired deeply, sadly lost their jobs in the dark days and months that followed. Seeing this stark piece at Burghley certainly gave me cause to think about my own very small, local role in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis all those years ago. It was not a particularly happy part of my life, but life’s not meant to be easy all the time, is it?

City Cuts

Thankfully those days are over, and because I’m retired I don’t have to worry about how to navigate my service through the new financial crisis brought about by Covid. So, while my unfortunate successor wrestles with that impenetrable problem, I have time on my hands to visit some more wonderful sculpture gardens, like the one at Burghley. Don’t they say that good things will eventually come to he (or she) that waits?

Visions of heaven and hell: the Burghley prodigy house

Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.

Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys

Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.

And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.

The Great Hall lives up to its name

During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.

And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil (later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.

The rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the House’s owners and royal guests.

The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.

The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!

The Bow Room was the 5th Earl of Exeter’s State Dining Room

Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.

But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!

The Heaven Room is considered to be Antonio Verrio’s masterpiece, painted around 1697. In the centre of the room is a Queen Anne oval wine cistern dating from 1710

Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.

Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.

The Hell Staircase, ceiling by Verrio, Murals by Thomas Stathard added later.

I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.

But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.

Detail from the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, depicting tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat.

However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.

In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite:

Invitation to a wedding

Sadly, I’ve reached the time of life when I get to go to many more funerals than weddings.  Until the invitation to Mark and Kate’s nuptials arrived it had been nearly two years since I’d last witnessed a couple tying the matrimonial knot, so I was delighted to be asked.  And as an added bonus, their wedding was to take place at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, so picturesque surroundings, excellent food and plenty of fine wine were all pretty much guaranteed.

A Cambridge college makes a pictureseque wedding venue

Mark is my godson.  Also, he and his mum are pretty much the only blood relatives I have left, or at least the only ones I’m aware of.  However, I’m sad to say that I hardly know him. 

Mark lives in London, while Mrs P and I are holed up in the north Midlands.  Our paths have crossed only rarely over the years, and although he once stayed with us for a couple of days and his mum updates us from time to time on his exploits, he’s something of a mystery.

The invitation to Mark’s wedding was therefore a pleasant surprise, though not one I probably deserved given my inept performance as a godfather.  Even better, it quickly became apparent that Mark is a lovely, caring man. 

The college chapel was an intimate setting for the ceremony

Although this was his – and Kate’s – big day, Mark went out of his way to greet and make welcome all the guests, to spend loads of time chatting with them, and to find ways of ensuring those guests got to know one another.  And he also found plenty of time to be attentive to his 99 years-old wheelchair-bound maternal grandad, whom he clearly adores.

One of Mark’s cunning plans to bring the wedding guests closer together was to lay on an evening barn dance.  Such were his powers of gentle persuasion that even I took to the dance floor, for the first time in a couple of decades.  Mrs P likes barn dancing, so thanks to my godson I won myself a rare brownie point. Yes, result!

Moreover, I’m proud to report that I held my own in the Gay Gordons, before plumbing hitherto unimagined depths of incompetence while Stripping the Willow. 

Mrs P says the latter failure was down to her, but I think she’s just being nice: I really should learn the difference between left and right. But, despite the exhaustion and the humiliation I will confess I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though I don’t imagine I’ll be putting on a repeat performance any time soon.

Cake, cake, glorious cake!

All too soon the evening was over.  Mark and Kate left to begin their new life together.  I left, supported by my long-suffering missus, for a quiet lie down in a darkened room.  Too much wine and barn dancing can do that to a man.

I’m really pleased we made the trip to Cambridge for Mark’s big day.  Partly because families – particularly tiny ones like mine – should stick together, but mainly because he’s a thoroughly decent human being and it was good to spend a few hours in his company. 

With luck we’ll meet up with him and Kate again before too long … though probably not on the dance floor!

Cambridge: my old stamping ground

Last month we were in Cambridge, my old stamping ground, for my godson’s wedding.  In the mid-70s I spent three years studying there at one of the University’s many colleges.  It was such an intense period, life lived at one hundred miles an hour. The University was an exotic, parallel universe, one that appeared totally divorced from the real world of normal people.

But they seem like another lifetime, my Cambridge days.  I rarely think about them now. 

Jesus College

Trudging the streets again, over 30 years since my last visit to the city, the memories come flooding back.  Here’s the room in which I lived in my freshman year, anxious, ill at ease, a stranger in a strange land. And there’s the stinking drainage channel into which I fell one drunken night, establishing a reputation with my peer group that I could never quite shake off. 

This here is the spot where Phil streaked one Rag Week, pedalling his bicycle furiously along King’s Parade, wearing only a big grin and a policeman’s helmet, cheered on by dozens of adoring college cronies.  And over there is the library where I spent most of my days, studying feverishly in a desperate attempt to prove to myself that, despite my humble origins, I was as good as the rest of them.

Gonville and Caius College chapel

You see, although I made a few pals there, including one very close friend who would later be my best man when Mrs P and I were married, I never felt I truly belonged. I think psychologists today refer to this as “imposter syndrome”. 

Cambridge University was – and is – one of the world’s outstanding places of higher education.  The standards are so high, the demands so rigorous. At the time it seemed impossible that I, just an ordinary working-class lad from West London, deserved my place.  Meanwhile the privately educated students from rich families who made up the bulk of my peer group seemed to sail through it, their boisterous belief in themselves undermining my own, oh-so-fragile, self-confidence.

Gargoyles, Gonville and Caius College

I know now that I got it all wrong. 

For the most part, the self-confidence of my fellow students was bluff.  Underneath it all most of them were unsure of themselves too, making it up as they went along, hoping they wouldn’t get found out, wouldn’t be revealed as frauds unworthy of their places at this great cathedral of learning. 

St John’s College

And my doubts were, in any case, unfounded.  By the time I graduated it was plain that I was clever enough.  While not quite the sharpest spine on the Cambridge University hedgehog, neither was I a dullard.  Without doubt I deserved to be there. I just wish I’d known it when I first arrived, instead of beating myself up every day.

My three years at Cambridge University were an extraordinary period in an otherwise ordinary life.  Visiting the place again has awakened painful memories, stirred some unwelcome thoughts of what was and what might have been. 

Bridge of Sighs, St John’s College

But time has moved on and so, thankfully, have I.

Once, when dreams floated like butterflies on the breeze and stardust lay thick upon the ground, a sweet, sensitive and naïve lad who shared my name and birthday went to Cambridge University to study.  He stayed three years, got educated a bit, got drunk a lot, got lost for a while, then found himself again. 

That lad’s dead now, and I should let him rest in peace.

I’m pleased I went back to visit Cambridge, my old stamping ground.  I won’t ever go back again.

Cambridge through Chinese eyes

My last post bemoaned the hordes of tourists who clogged the narrow streets of Cambridge’s historic centre during our visit a few weeks ago.  Most of them appeared to hail from China, and as they came in groups of up to 50 they were impossible to miss or ignore. The days of Japanese mass tourism may be over, but in China the tour companies have found a worthy Far-Eastern successor.

Kings College Chapel: look carefully and you will see at least three tour groups

The new-found wealth of the People’s Republic of China has changed the face of international tourism.  We witnessed this first-hand during our trips to Tasmania (2016) and the USA’s Yellowstone National Park (2018)

In both places the bus-loads of phone-wielding, selfie-snapping Chinese tour groups were the dominant feature in the tourist landscape.  It was therefore no surprise to see so many Chinese folk in Cambridge, which is, of course, one of the UK’s major tourist destinations.

Punting on the River Cam

What was a surprise was to learn that there is another reason why the Chinese flock there in such large numbers.  In November 1928 a Chinese poet who had previously studied at Kings College, Xú Zhìmó, made a return visit to Cambridge and was moved to capture the moment in verse.  Xú is considered one of the most important modern Chinese poets, and Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again is his most popular poem.

Xú died in controversial circumstances in a plane crash in 1931.  In 2018 he was commemorated through the creation, in the grounds of Kings College, Cambridge, of the China-UK Friendship Garden, also known as the Xú Zhìmó Garden.  Four lines of his poem are inscribed on a rock in the Friendship Garden, close to the banks of the River Cam. 

File:Kings College Xu Zhimo memorial.jpg

Photo credit: Cmglee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Xú’s poem, and the Garden commemorating the poet and his most famous work, appear to be a contributory factor in attracting Chinese tourists to Cambridge.

The translation (below) is sourced from the East Asia Student website.

Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again
by
Xú Zhìmó

 
Lightly I leave,
as lightly I came;
I lightly wave goodbye,
to the sunlit clouds in the western sky.
 
The golden willows of that riverside,
are brides in the setting sun;
their glimmering reflections in the water,
ripple in the depth of my heart.
 
The waterlilies in the soft mud,
sway splendidly under the water.
In the gentle waves of the Cam,
I would be a water plant!
 
That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.
 
Looking for dreams? Push a punt
to where the grass is greener still upstream;
a boat laden with starlight,

singing freely in the glorious light of stars.
 
But I cannot sing freely,
silence is the music of my departure,
even the summer insects are quiet for me,
tonight's Cambridge is silent!
 
Quietly I leave,
as quietly I came;
I cast my sleeves a little
not taking even a strand of cloud away
.

What a beautiful, evocative poem.  But the tranquillity it conveys is a million miles away from the febrile tourist trap we visited recently. 

I wonder what Xú Zhìmó would make of Cambridge, August 2019?

Cambridge creaking at the seams

Last month we spent a few days in Cambridge.  So, it seems, did everyone else. Back in the day I was a student at Cambridge University for three years but I was never there in August, the height of the tourist season.  And, of course, tourism – both home-grown and international – has expanded massively in the 42 years since I graduated. I was, therefore, totally unprepared for the crowds we encountered during our visit.

Gonville and Caius College

Cambridge has a lot to offer the tourist.  Here’s what Lonely Planet has to say about its attractions:

Abounding with exquisite architecture, exuding history and tradition, and renowned for its quirky rituals, Cambridge is a university town extraordinaire.  The tightly packed core of ancient colleges, the picturesque riverside ‘Backs’ (college gardens) and the leafy green meadows surrounding the city give it a more tranquil appeal than its historic rival Oxford … The buildings here seem unchanged for centuries, and it’s possible to wander around the college buildings and experience them as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

I’ve got a lot of time for Lonely Planet.  Their guidebooks are invariably well-written, and often encourage the more intrepid visitor to get off the beaten track and walk roads less travelled, which is the best way to get under the skin of a country or a city.  But, based on what we experienced a few weeks ago, the words “tranquil appeal” seem sadly out of place in any description of Cambridge in August 2019.

Peterhouse College

We had a lot to pack into our visit, and so were out and about by 9am.  At first all seemed well, the streets lively but not uncomfortably busy.  Then, around 10am, the coach parties began to arrive. 

Long crocodiles of visitors, up to 50 in a single group, descended on the historic city centre from all directions, following obediently behind their flag-waving guides.  Soon the narrow medieval streets were crazily crowded, visitors jostling one another to get a view of – or even better, a selfie in front of – one of the city’s architectural gems. 

St John’s College, and bicycles galore

“Tranquil appeal?”  I don’t think so!

Lonely Planet is also unrealistic in suggesting that the average tourist can “wander around the college buildings.”  Many of the colleges are doing whatever they can to keep the hordes at bay, barring their doors and placing stern messages outside warning the masses that THIS COLLEGE IS CLOSED TO VISITORS. 

Others, Kings for example, take a different view and charge a pretty penny for admission.  Of course, everyone wants to see Kings College Chapel up close and personal, so the college bursar must be raking it in.

Interior of Kings College Chapel

I will confess that these attempts to deny or charge for admission don’t worry me personally.  As a graduate of the university I can get in pretty much anywhere, and without spending a dime, so long as I flash my alumni card and behave myself. 

But I’ve a lot of sympathy for the serious tourist, who maybe has travelled a long way and spent a small fortune to visit Cambridge, only to find that lots of the places he wants to see won’t let him in or will only do so in return for a fistful of dollars.

Kings College Chapel, viewed from “the Backs”

Tourism is hugely controversial in Cambridge.  In 2017 over eight million tourist visits were recorded, in a city of just 146,000 people.  The city is creaking at the seams. Tourists keep some shopkeepers afloat with their purchases, but other business owners complain that these are the “wrong tourists,” visitors who just don’t spend enough or buy the right stuff. 

For Cambridge residents going about their normal daily business the crowded streets must be distressing.  But tourism reportedly accounts for 22% of jobs in the local economy, and only the most hard-line critics would seriously consider killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

The Mathematical Bridge, Queen’s College

Mass tourism is a mind-bending conundrum, but not one that is unique to Cambridge.

In another blog I wrote at length about the impact of tourist numbers on the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in the USA.  There, as in Cambridge, the scale of tourism is in danger of destroying the very thing that tourists want to see.

As an habitual tourist I was, and am, part of the problem.  I cherish the prospect of being a tourist again, in Cambridge, in Yellowstone, or elsewhere, but what will be the cost to the places I want to visit and those who live in them? 

I don’t have the answer, but it seems plain to me that things can’t go on as they are.

*

In case you’re wondering why, despite my protestations about the Cambridge crowds, there are so few people in the photos that illustrate this post the answer is simple: Mrs P hates anyone getting between her camera lens and the focus of her interest. She’s been known to wait a long, long time for a clear shot, and when she can’t get one she gets very cross indeed. You have been warned!