Unlike apparently everybody else on the planet – and possibly beyond it – Wilfred Cass likes the “jazz” logo for the London 2012 Olympics. “I think it’s brilliant,” he tells me in the dented BMW in which he picks me up from a rural train station to transport me to his home-cum-outdoor-sculpture-salesroom on the Sussex Downs in south-east England. “And I’ll bet you whatever money I have that, in five years’ time, everyone else will like it, too.”
Regardless of the accuracy of the prediction, the wager might not be so rewarding because Cass has sunk much of his own fortune into his idiosyncratic charity devoted to the advancement of British sculpture. But he is used to thinking against the crowd. When he set up the Cass Sculpture Foundation, on his “retirement” in 1992 (he is 82 but seems less tired than people half his age) everyone thought, he says, it would be a white elephant. “Without exception,” his wife, Jeanette, recalls once we are ensconced in their Hockney-bedecked living room, “all the great and good in the art world said: ‘Oh, what a wonderful idea: it won’t work.’ ”
For what the couple had in mind – commissioning works from British sculptors and plonking them on the 24-acre woodland estate they had just bought, for the edification of the public and to sell on – was, as far as they knew, a model that had never been tried before. Cass himself is no artist – he began as an engineer, working on some of the early television sets with designer Robin Day before becoming an entrepreneur and profitably reinventing a succession of failing companies – but he had long collected art. The influence of Henry Moore, who became a friend after approaching the art supplies company Cass was then running in search of a special paint, was, he thinks, decisive in focusing his attention on sculpture – and particularly on British sculpture.
Moreover, in the couple’s travels around the world, “about the only place we didn’t see British sculpture was Britain”, Jeannette explains. Something had to be done and the pair, once retired, set off again in search of ideas. A vast Japanese sculpture park, Hakone, in the foothills of Mount Fuji, impressed them, as did the collection of monumental works on the 500-acre grounds at Storm King, near New York.
But, Cass says, “what mainly inspired us were negatives. One thing we saw was that collections got too full. It’s a problem with having a sculpture park: if you want to keep up to date, you have to get more pieces but then you tend to have them too close together.” In their own grounds, the pair vowed, each sculpture would have a quarter-acre to itself.
So, collaborating with the landscape designer Victor Shanley, they set about carving clearings within their newly acquired tract of ancient woodland – then a mess of old man’s beard and trees felled by the storms of 1987 and 1990 – to form natural galleries carpeted with rare floral specimens newly revived with exposure to the light. The result remains unlike any art gallery you are likely to have seen. The late curator Bryan Robertson compared it favourably with sculpture parks that “tame individual sculptures into resembling self-conscious and dumbstruck animals in benign captivity”. Yet, coming upon them at the end of this or that curling path within the tenebrous, fairytale wood, exotic beasts is what the Cass sculptures precisely resemble – however, neither tame nor predictable ones.
Tony Cragg’s contorted “I’m Alive” is like a great, gleaming steel spermatozoon deposited by a passing alien; his “Declination”, atop a grassed-over chalk-pit mound, is a huge, endlessly curving wad of discarded yellow gum. Steven Gregory’s disturbing baby elephant on a tricycle – among the works by less prestigious, but often no less engaging, artists – has a yawning, yearning orifice in place of a head; Abigail Fallis has sculpted a witty, tree-high double helix out of shopping trolleys. Kenneth Armitage’s troupe of colourful, oversized stockinged legs seem to be frozen, mid-stride, among the trees; John Davies’s austere, big, bald, granite head guards a crossroads like a misplaced Easter Island idol. This is garden sculpture far removed from gnomes and pensive nymphs.
Nor does Cass’s forest remotely resemble a salesroom – despite that being mainly what it is. The paying public the Casses most want to attract are those who will spend between £30,000 and £400,000 on a sculpture. Cass explains to me the particular mechanism the foundation uses to keep innovative works rolling off the artistic production line. He is exceedingly rare – most galleries are too fearful of the financial risk – in commissioning work directly from the artists; he signs up British sculptors at all stages of their careers, always encouraging them to realise bold ideas they might not otherwise be able to afford.
When the sculptures sell – it can take five years – the foundation subtracts its overheads and passes the rest of the sum on to the creator. Cass reckons he has paid out £7m to artists and helped to bring 160 original pieces into being since the foundation began; he now commissions 12 to 15 large-scale sculptures a year, as well as many more maquettes at a fraction of the price. When once people dismissed his vision as “mad”, the trouble now, he says, is finding enough quality works to commission.
It all sounds very selfless, I say; what does he get out of it? “It’s a magical life,” he says, “and you have your own revolving sculpture collection.” He just wants more collectors to know about his stone and steel creatures in a wood. Helicopters can land in an adjoining field; the architect Norman Foster pops down occasionally and, says Jeannette, “the Chinese have been”.
“Now all we need are some Russians,” Wilfred adds wistfully, resolute as ever on keeping British sculpture alive in his own backyard.