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Until recently, the most spectacular art works at Chatsworth were confined to the house: Rembrandt’s mesmerising “Portrait of an Oriental”, Veronese’s sumptuous “Adoration of the Magi” and Canova’s sensual “Sleeping Endymion with his Dog”. But the present Duke and Duchess of Devonshire are devotees of contemporary sculpture. And they have taken their passion out into the magnificent garden, where 105 acres and five miles of footpaths offer ample opportunities for adventurous exhibitions.
The new show, aptly called Beyond Limits, proves just how rewarding sculpture outdoors can be. Plenty of carvings are displayed at Chatsworth already, especially on the ample Salisbury Lawns laid down in the 1760s by “Capability” Brown. But these are classical statues on plinths, either robed dignitaries or naked hunters. And one mightily muscled hero now seems to be reeling back in horror at the advent of Ju Ming’s monumental 1985 bronze called “Tai-Chi Series: Preparation for Underarm Strike”. He is a massive figure, more rock than human, and split with deep, dramatic fissures. But he still feels capable of extending both arms outwards, half defensive and half commanding. The Chatsworth Garden provides many different vantages for visitors viewing the sculpture. And if you climb up to the summit of the 18th-century cascades, Ju’s figure far below now seems to extend a gesture of welcome to all the children leaping down through this irresistible water.
I was lucky enough to visit Beyond Limits on a luminous, sunlit afternoon, when even works as restrained as Michal Rovner’s “Makom” had a powerful presence. A simple, rectangular structure, it is built entirely of ancient stones from old Israeli houses. Many are battered, and if you peer through an aperture ghostly figures can be detected inside. They seem melancholy, as if mourning the loss of their homes. But they appear to belong there, as much as prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves. And the extreme primitivism of Rovner’s stones could not provide a greater contrast to the flamboyant, highly carved architecture of Chatsworth House beyond.
But anyone hoping to find modern sculpture at its most dramatic will not be disappointed. Up the hill, near one of the tallest and most majestic trees, Zaha Hadid’s fibreglass “Belu” thrusts up from the grass like a titanic wave about to break. Pale grey and shimmering with reflections, it surprises us on one side with a pulled-out drawer half-filled with rainwater. As for Lynn Chadwick’s “Crouching Beast III”, a large, stainless-steel predator poised beside the Ring Pond, he is the very embodiment of aggression. With shiny legs splayed and mouth open, the beast appears ready to devour anything. No wonder the classical heads in nearby niches look askance.
Time and again in this hugely enjoyable show, I came across illuminating juxtapositions between new sculpture and historic setting. They often involved works installed at Chatsworth during the Victorian period by Joseph Paxton, the sixth duke’s brilliant head gardener. Take Robert Indiana’s aluminium “ART”, which transforms this three-letter word into a near-abstract structure in warm red and blue. It is positioned below a boulder from Paxton’s overwhelming rock garden high on the hill. I realised how intensely sculptural Paxton’s precarious, piled-up stones really are.
The most provocative and playful interplay between sculpture and location can be found lower down, where Paxton’s superb Emperor Fountain spurts up so joyfully towards the Derbyshire sky. At one end of the Canal Pond, Aristide Maillol’s naked woman called “L’Air” seems to lift her legs and float. She could almost be responding to the fountain, and indulging in a fantasy about water splashing all over her body. But at the other end of the Canal Pond, Marc Quinn’s “Myth (Sphinx)” turns her white body away from the fountain. Bearing an inescapable resemblance to Kate Moss, she contorts herself into an extraordinary pose, with both legs bent back behind her. The strain shows on her face as she holds them there with her hand, but she stays utterly focused, as if determined to continue exercising no matter how many people stare at her. And we, in turn, share this sense of concentration. For Chatsworth’s show encourages us to linger, meditate and see each exhibit as, above all, a special event.
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Beyond Limits: ‘Sotheby’s at Chatsworth’ opens on Saturday and continues until November 4