Robert and Nicky Wilson are feeling slightly delicate. It is the morning after the opening party for the second year of their sculpture park, Jupiter Artland. They have been up for hours, picking cocktail umbrellas out of their gravel courtyard to prepare for the arrival of visitors. At midday, their 80-acre estate opens to the public until September.
Situated on Edinburgh’s fringes, the park is also their family home. They live year-round with their four children in Bonnington House, a grand 17th-century pile nestling in the middle of their land. Since about 2005, the grounds of the house have become gradually populated by works of art from some of the biggest names in contemporary sculpture: Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, to name a few.
The funds for the Wilsons’ audacious project – which now boasts 22 works, 20 of them specially commissioned – stem, perhaps surprisingly, from alternative medicine. Robert Wilson is the chairman of Nelsons, a homeopathic healthcare company established in 1860 and owned by his family since 1972, known predominantly for its “Rescue Remedy”. In spite of the financial climate, Nelsons had a turnover of £35.6m in 2008 and is continuing to expand. Jupiter Artland – more Nicky’s baby than Robert’s – is, however, a non-profit registered charity, part personal dream and part philanthropic venture.
At the visitor entrance, Nicky Wilson is surveying the elements. Although the sky is glowering over the Pentland Hills to the south, the park is for now bathed in sunshine. “It absolutely poured last night for the party,” she tells me, over a cappuccino from their vintage coffee van stationed in the courtyard. “People were queuing for fish and chips in the rain. But this is Scotland. You can’t rely on the weather.”
One of the five works new to the park this year has not benefited from the late spring (“we still have daffodils in the woods”, Nicky says with a look of resignation). Peter Liversidge’s “Winter Shadow” isn’t quite ready for visitors because its 6,500 “Queen of the Night” dark purple tulips planted to form an oak tree’s shadow have yet to bloom.
It is the only semi-permanent piece in the park: other new works hidden in the woodland seem as if they have been there for centuries. They include a small graveyard enclosure by Glasgow artist Nathan Coley, and a nine-metre steel and iron shotgun by Cornelia Parker. Based on one of Robert Wilson’s 19th-century hunting guns, the distorted scale of Parker’s piece renders it benign – an elegant rust-coloured leaning tower, nestling nonchalantly against a tree in a clearing.
The Wilsons, who are both in their forties, have been collecting contemporary art for some years. Both sets of parents are collectors – Robert’s collected Irish art, and Nicky’s Edinburgh-based family collected Scottish art. Nicky studied art in London and was a sculptor herself before the two married 15 years ago. They began collecting painting – “Scottish artists, Callum Innes and Alison Watt” – as well as the odd small-scale sculpture. “We have a Damien Hirst,” says Robert, “a maquette of ‘Charity’, his work that was originally at White Cube.”
London’s White Cube gallery seems a long way from West Lothian, but until they migrated north in 1999, the couple lived in Fulham. Nelsons is based in London and Robert commutes there for a few days every week: “I catch the 6.30am Tuesday flight from Edinburgh and am at my desk in London by 9.10am.” How does it feel to run Nelsons and Jupiter concurrently? “It’s very nice to have a creative project to enjoy with one’s spouse,” Robert replies. “But my time is spent running Nelsons, which I’m very passionate about. In a sense it is very creative too – just a different set of creative urges.”
There was no initial plan to turn Bonnington House into a sculpture park, but “one work begat another”, says Nicky. “That is what the sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay said to me before he died. And it’s true.” The first work they commissioned was by Charles Jencks, whose landscape sculpture they had long admired.
“I remember it was a rainy weekend and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to see if Charles Jencks could build something in the garden?’ So I got hold of his number and gave him a call.” And the rest was history. Very expensive history.
The resultant work, “Life Mounds”, is the park’s most imposing and fabulous creation. A series of terraced “earthworks”, as they are described on the visitor map, these giant sculpted mounds of perfect turf rise up surreally on either side of the main drive to the house. It is a grand piece which, along with Gormley (“Firmament”, a huge scaffolding-style structure of a falling man) and “Stone House” by Andy Goldsworthy, makes abundantly clear the Wilsons’ status as serious collectors.
But Scotland is often seen as conservative in taste. Do they feel out on a limb, collecting contemporary art on this scale? “Not at all,” says Nicky firmly. “Scots are just rather reluctant to come forward as collectors. I know quite a few who are very private, but who are collecting a lot of amazing contemporary art.”
Both are quick to point out that Scotland has also become a hive for contemporary artists, thanks to Glasgow’s Modern Institute and forward-thinking galleries such as Ingleby, tucked behind Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, currently showing work by painter Sean Scully.
The Wilsons didn’t plan to open to the public, but soon felt it was wrong not to. “Private commissions often just disappear from view,” says Nicky. “And we didn’t want that. What the artists want is for their work to be seen by as many people as possible.” Over the past few years, chosen artists have visited Jupiter Artland to discuss possible commissions. So far, they have never had to turn down a proposal, says Nicky. “They know how much we love the land, so they’re not going to suggest doing anything that is disrespectful.”
Unusually, the artists are given an almost entirely free rein. “They all get to choose their sites. The funny thing is that they all wanted the same site as Anish [Kapoor]. But a site isn’t a site until it is claimed: it was covered in brambles.”
Kapoor’s work, “Suck”, a 17ft high rusty cast iron cage, with a large plughole in the middle disappearing into the ground, is one of Jupiter’s more austere works. It is also one of the first that visitors chance on as they venture into the woods. There are no signposts and virtually no paths, aside from some newly laid patches of turf.
Jupiter Artland had 8,000 visitors last year, almost half during August. “We’re fortunate to have the International Arts Festival so nearby. We got a lot of international visitors thanks to that. The other 4,000 visitors have mainly been Scottish,” says Robert. “We reckon the limit is 12,000 visitors each year,” he calculates. “After that, it ruins the effect.”
Equally, the couple feel that the “gala wood” area of their estate, home to 10 of the works, has “just about reached its balance”. “There could be another little sculpture we can squirrel in, but we don’t want it to start impacting on the other pieces,” says Robert. They may start to think about opening up “the wilderness”, a 20-acre wood. “Within two years, there may be a work there. And suddenly the wood will be transformed from an area that is completely undisturbed to one that is energised and exciting.”
But in September, the park will shut up for another long winter. “We couldn’t open all year,” says Nicky. “We had eight weeks of snow! And anyway, it needs to go back to being a family home. It needs time to rest, and we need time to rest.” And with that, a car pulls up on the gravel drive. The first visitors of the year have arrived.