May 20, 2011 10:01 pm

Value set in stone

A shade under 2,000 years ago, when the Emperor Hadrian laid out his vast gardens at what is now called Villa Adriana, he took the use of statuary in gardens to previously unseen levels. Even today, with just a fraction of what would have been now remaining, the Villa Adriana is impressive. It is perhaps the longevity and presence of statuary over the ephemeral nature of gardens that gives statuary particular allure.

Statues in a garden

Statuary and garden ornamentation in European gardens differs substantially from that of Asia and the Far East. Europeans tend to favour figurative and celebratory work, along with ornamented practical features, such as benches and urns. Asian statuary tends to be rooted in contemplative or religious thought, with unworked lumps of rock often carrying greater significance than man-made pieces.

The significance of classical Roman and Hellenic gardens and their statuary began to recover after the Dark Ages thanks to the Renaissance and the Grand Tour. Their influence spread through the work of artists such as Claude Lorrain. The Villa d’Este at Tivoli is perhaps the best-preserved Renaissance statuary garden, and Versailles still maintains the same quantity of statuary as contemporaries would have experienced.

In classical gardens, as well as being celebratory and reverential, statuary was often used to make overt political statements. In Britain during the late 1600s and early 1700s, opposing political views were played out through statuary, with the Whig party’s support for the accession of William and Mary of Orange represented by statues of Neptune and Hercules. At Stowe, the Whig Lord Cobham created a Temple of Modern Virtue that housed a bust of an unnamed statesman – reputedly having more than a passing resemblance of the then prime minister Robert Walpole, whose version of Whiggism Cobham and many other leading Whigs opposed with vigour. Cobham’s slight was to make the temple a ruined and rather poorly built sham, the result of which sent Walpole into a mighty and long-lasting political sulk.

Statue production at this time was near-industrial in scale in Britain, and a lighter side to garden ornamentation emerged too, with surprise statues such as realistic representations of gamekeepers with gun at the shoulder, ready to shoot.

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The move away from rigorous symbolism into eclectic acquisition became even more marked during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The New World money of John Jacob Astor, applied to the old world setting of Hever Castle in Kent, demonstrates just how eclectic things can get, with the Italian Garden rammed full of urns, columns, arches, portico shards, sarcophagi and statues in a glorious muddle.

But does ancient garden statuary still have relevance for today’s collector and connoisseur? And if so, is it still the European scene that dominates?

According to James Rylands, director of Summers Place Auctions and an expert on garden statuary for Sotheby’s, the European and North American markets still account for the vast majority of sales worldwide. “The market is very selective,” he says, “and has polarised even more acutely in terms of the best and the rest. Quality sells, and with antiquities to an extent one pays for the moss.”

Of Summers Place’s British buyers, many are among the wealthiest investors in the country, and Rylands believes the combination of market forces and discerning clientele mean that obvious trends are less apparent. “At the moment, more than ever, the golden rule is that the man with the gold makes the rules,” he says – although increasingly that gold is being spent on work by emerging artists. At the antique end of the market, Regency and Georgian statuary is favoured and more complicated Victorian designs are “off the boil”.

Rylands estimates that as much as 70 per cent of the work sold through Summers Place leaves the UK. Investors are still overwhelmingly from the established European and North American markets. Given the potential for investment from Russian collectors, it is surprising to learn that those who do invest are doing so for their British or western European properties, rather than for back home. Rylands says that outside the royal palaces there is less of a tradition of statuary in Russian gardens, not least because extreme cold can damage stone, lead and bronze.

Japanese garden ornaments have been a mainstay of European auction houses since the interest in Japanese gardens took hold in the late 1800s, but the majority of purchases still end up in European Japanese-style gardens, rather than being repatriated. Traditional stone lanterns and cranes remain relatively strong sellers, but the bottom has fallen out of the Buddha market.

There are other more practical issues relating to antique garden statuary, such as availability: there was a lot more material around 25 years ago than today, with pieces coming on to the market as old British estates were broken up. Of those grand estates that are still intact, protection through listing by bodies such as English Heritage has ensured that the contents of the garden – much of which is at the highest end of the market – has remained, and will always remain, in captivity. This puts a further premium on the best material.

There is one area of the market that Rylands believes is overlooked and undervalued: material such as columns, shards of pediments and half-crumbled arches can be used to great effect or to fulfil the role of more conventional sculpture.

Unknown or “lost” works still turn up. Rylands was recently involved in the unearthing of a marble urn and pedestal, thought to be the work of Piranesi but based on an ancient Augustan capital. Its provisional value has been put at $100,000. So great works are still out there, under the moss, if you know where to look.

Matthew Wilson is a garden writer and broadcaster and the managing director of Clifton Nurseries, London, www.clifton.co.uk

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