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  • Curiouser and curiouser at Waddesdon

    Waddesdon Manor

    Devoted art lover or not? You might want to consider a trip to Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire where the latest experiment in juxtaposing ancient (or rather neo-renaissance) and modern is on show. I was able to make a trip there yesterday afternoon.

    Exhibited in the gardens are 33 'responses' to Chardin's painting 'House of Cards' which is to be found within the Manor. They have been made by as broad a cross-section contemporary artistic luminaries as you are likely to find in any public gallery. Names like Gormley, Koons, Kapoor and inevitably Hirst (whose works here are available to buy if you happen to have several million handy), plus slightly less well-known names: Serra, Judd, Tony Smith and even a Rothschild.

    Without knowing the context, as the explanatory leaflet had yet to be provided, we were unimpressed by Serra's huge cube of balanced corten steel plates. 'House of cards' is at the centre of the show and seeks to establish its theme, which is that nothing is at it seems. Its uniform, rusty massiveness failed to delight us, unlike several of the other pieces we saw.

    Some impressed partly by their sheer technical sophistication. Steel can now be laser cut with microscopic precision into the most delicate of filigree patterns.

    Granite can be transformed into paradoxical mirrors. A monolith weighing 6.7t has been polished by Kapoor into intersecting hemispheres that reflect an upside down world.

    Smith's 'Moondog' is named after a New York poet and musician and a Joan Miró painting. It weighs almost two tonnes, and had to be installed on grass that could not be disturbed to more than six and a half inches. Like a house of cards, it balances precipitously, its massive forms making an engaging counterpoint to the rococo ornament all around it.

    Turner prize winner Tony Cragg defies gravity but does not delight the eye with his pile of tyreish turds, 'Wirbelsäule' (spine):

    Robert Indiana's steel 'Love' is close to classical statues of Venus and Cupid.

    Eva Rotschild's 'Meta' evidently works with the house of cards theme. The result is a pleasing interplay of sharpness and curves.

    There's a lot more we didn't have time to see or photograph, including an inevitably bifurcated pig and a spotted mini (Hirst) and a huge steel teapot that perfectly matches the 'Alice in Wonderland' theme that Christie's have adopted in their video which publicises the show. The exhibition benefits from being set amid the natural forms of the formal gardens at Waddesdon, which as we left, seemed themselves to take on sculptural qualities.

    You have until 28 October to catch the exhibition, which officially closes at 5pm (although we wandered round in tranquillity until almost 6.30)

    See also an excellent FT article with an interview with Jacob Rothschild.

  • Mysticism, singing and scones at Othona

    IMAG1497.jpgThere are leaping dolphins at Othona, and butterflies flying to the moon, too. These are wall decorations at a place by the sea near Bridport which is home to a community ‘rooted in a Christian heritage, open to a widening future’. They have been running the house as a retreat centre since 1965, after the community was founded at a centre in Essex. I stayed for a day’s ‘natural voice’ singing and an ‘open weekend’ of walks, talks and homemade food. And all for around £130.

    The previous owners of the building were a group of contemplatives known locally as ‘the white ladies.’ They did much of the building work. There is a simple stone chapel, basic rooms and more basic bathrooms, a well-stocked library, biodiverse gardens, and fine walking down to the sea below.

    IMAG1517.jpgWhy do people make the journey and what do people find here? The sound of the sea and views of the blue horizon from way past Lyme to back towards Portland Bill. A welcoming group of permanent residents sonorously named ‘the Core’ who keep the place running with a team of shorter term helpers who cook, clean and garden. Home grown food, birdsong and quiet contemplation.

    Reasons for being here seem to be varied. One of our teachers was a former monk and resident, at least two others have been part of some kind of religious community. One runs a Vanier l’Arche community in London, caring for adults with learning disabilities. A hard-pressed teacher had been visiting with her family for years. A recently widowed lady had been longing for a return visit. There were crafts people and landscape gardener, a wildlife teacher, a web designer and a young American Baha'i on a break from her theological studies. Typical weekend visitor: a woman in her 30s to 60s. A more disparate group joined us to sing barbershop tags, spirituals and more. Several defined themselves as pagan or ‘post-Christian’ and there was a turquoise-clad sufi who whirled as we sang a dhikr from her tradition.

    Visitors are allocated tasks including preparing vegetables and cleaning their rooms. A bell is rung for meetings in the chapel where the day is formally begun and ended.

    The library holds titles on radical religion, Rumi and chicken soup, works by Chatwin, Maupin, Spong, Dawkins and Dave Andrews, and a copy of Iris Murdoch’s ‘The nice and the good’, which makes much of a disparate people living together in disharmony.

    othona,dorsetSo what is there of Murdoch’s ‘good’ at Othona? Certainly a quiet and unpretentious warmth and acceptance for all kinds of diversity. A lot of laughter. A searching in many directions, from Enneagrams to mindfulness via TS Elliot and country walks. A warm and restful simplicity, away from the usual pressures including  all the buzzing media that seem so essential but that waste so much time.

    I dreamt of St Paul and went on a circular walk to the lovely warm sandstone church at Burton Bradstock where I was coaxed into the middle of Sunday service by the hymn ‘Lord of the dance’. The sermon, delivered in a gentle Dorset burr by a long-term incumbent on first name terms with all but one of his tiny congregation, quoted the uncompromising apostle and his injunctions to read scripture.

    IMAG1509.jpgBack along the coast for roast lunch and and fossils and a river walk in Lyme Regis. In the evening a ‘One World Worship’ led by a Christian Aid trustee with a gift for primary school stye discussions on Ghandi, Aids and  assorted religious texts.

    I left Othona after a quiet morning reading with another trip to the sea where I found pebbles embedded with tiny fossils.

    Outside Winterbourne Abbas I picked wild garlic in a wood where a straggle-haired local directed me to a well-tended 4,000 year old stone circle that is he said connected with mysterious religious ritual: ‘they’re on a ley line and are supposed to be growing, but I’ve not seen it yet!’

    2012-05-07_14-30-37_HDR.jpgNineStones.jpgI resisted the temptations of Athelhampton and Kingston Lacy on the way home, but was most tempted by a garden opening at Charborough Park, home since Elizabethan times of the impressively named Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Draxes. The estate boasts what is claimed to be one of the longest brick walls in England.