Changing gear to reduce your speed is both a physical and metaphorical preparation as you turn beside the artists’ house, delighted that you did not miss the discreet laneside sign for Sculpture by the Lakes, the home of Simon and Monique Gudgeon.
Scrunching down the gravel driveway towards the car park, tantalising glimpses of the sculptures distract. This feels new and different, open and inviting, in stunning contrast to the traditional ravine ‘C.A.R.’ – camellia, azalea, rhododendron – gardens along the English south coast. This landscape provides a modern alternative of elegant simplicity and meticulous sight lines; a master class in the proportional placement of sculpture within a semi-naturalistic idyll.
As an open air gallery it offers symbiotic harmony between sculpture, horticulture and the wildlife that it supports. Unexpectedly, it also provides an opportunity to nurture the emotional responses compressed by life within the madding crowd. There is space to relax because visitor numbers are limited and, by considered decision, no under 14s (due to the deep water risk of the lakes, of which there are three: Artist’s Pool, Rainbow Lake and North Lake).
The rarely considered though necessary task of cleaning and waxing the sculptures, even those of more than three meters in height, is regularly undertaken so that each piece may be seen to best advantage unblemished by nature’s detritus.
Birds of exotic origin skim the lakes as they seek sanctuary after their Springtime migratory Channel passage. Sculpted wading birds of rarer species reside here permanently: Isis, Thoth and Geranos.
Simon’s gracefully sinuous sculptures are balanced by the open planes of the fields, reflected across smooth or wind ruffled water and counterbalanced by clusters of scaled trees. Some of his inspirations are ancient legends from faraway lands; though the simplicity of other names, eases the recognition of his sculptures born from the observation of more local neighbours: Barn Owl, Falcon, Kingfisher, Ravens or the woodland placed Roe Deer.
While sculpture park and garden history aficionados will recognise the use of inspiring poetic prose that echo Ian Hambleton Finlay’s garden Little Sparta in Scotland, there the similarities end.
Where plinths have been used, they are set low as platforms rather than barriers, this invites visual scrutiny of the sculptures. Works placed upon the lakes are enhanced by reflection, particularly the elegant Swans.
The viewing circuit broadly follows the edge of the lakes, in a route defined by personal preference, leading through alleys of trees and narrowed pathways spilling into more open grassland without the exaggerated manipulation of passing through sombre gloom into intense daylight.
Monique’s horticultural artistry leads the eye to frame both distant and happened upon pieces in a dynamic landscape of year round interest for seasonal visitors, for which professional advice has been sought to optimise habitat havens.
Beside a wooden built gallery two overlapping circular inked pools nestle the bird form, Reflection. This sculpture is backed by huge Phormium tenax, their spiky, strappy leaves piercing the clear blue horizon beyond.
In the garden gently undulating raised mounds of evergreens are cloud pruned and spiral to elevate the gaze towards an apex crowned with the closely choreographed ritual of Dancing Cranes. This repeated arching horticultural rhythm is intensified by the crest of the birds’ arced wings.
Sylph, one of few figurative sculptures, has alighted upon the surface of a water lily covered pond which is punctuated with the vibrancy of marginal planting. Compositionally the body laced as shimmering filigree leaves is poised in balletic stance.
Simon’s iconic monumental male and female profiles titled Search for Enlightenment speaks of the duality of theme for Sculpture by the Lakes, possibly best captured by the poet Walter Savage Landor: ‘Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, art’.
While many visitors are reticent to invade the privacy of the garden closest to the house, it is encouraged, and some of the most dramatic grass borders are found here as is the stunning collection of Hemerocallis resplendent in July and August.
Climbing roses intertwined with wisteria have begun to swath the long Walkway; though too young yet to drip with the floral racemes that promise to dapple the light within the soon to be enclosed tunnel.
Giant polished Fruits extend upon a platter dramatising the size and contours of the seemingly familiar; the edge of the bowl in which they lie is created by a circled hedge and willow tunnel.
As sentinels a muted pair of Guardian Hares are custodians for Pippin’s Garden, here a rich palette of low mound shrubs hug the contours of the built bank behind. Two pale stone paved circles are interlinked where an incised rill cascades water from the upper to the lower. Centred on the upper circle is a sundial inscribed as a memorial for a beloved lurcher.
The soft contours of stylised lawn cut borders are block planted to stage the largest sculptures, some upon gentle pillows of sea thrift – colours are thoughtfully selected so that they draw bees and butterflies yet do not detract.
There are a number of themed gardens: the Italian Garden, the Fern Garden, the Bamboo Garden, and a glorious Renaissance tapestry of Summer sedums in the Dry Gravel Garden each complimenting the situated sculptures.
Broad leaf mature trees that were here prior to the couple’s purchase of the land and lakes in 2007 and the subsequent opening in 2011 have been supplemented by countless new trees. Silver birch whips are juvenile yet though anticipated in prospect and many specimen oaks are included in a managed planting plan.
Unrestricted to solely native English species, the area beyond the garden planting is unapologetically naturalistic by design and in the selection of plants that will actually thrive when awash in silt and gravel, for as well as the lakes, the racing River Frome has carved an ox bow that murmurs the amplified acoustic of racing water channelled in a faster flowing slip-stream.
Strategically placed throughout are accessible benches named by the couple in French, ‘simply because we liked the idea’, trance inducing swing seats plumped with colourful cushions and for purchased privacy – perfect for memorable birthdays, romantic proposals and significant anniversaries – the cosy River Keeper’s Hut or Fisherman’s Caravan. Refreshments are not available though picnics are encouraged as visitors in sensible footwear set forth clutching a pre-chilled bottle and a pretty hamper.
The tranquillity of this environment affords the visitor contemplation; where Time To Reflect deconstructs from a miraged waterborne instruction into a lingering invitation to consider. For some, such a physical and serendipitous space, may invoke a kaleidoscope of introspective associations or a surge of resolution.
Historically a private fishery, these twenty six acres have been skilfully transformed through imagination, sheer toil and the desire to make a meaningful contribution, a legacy.
Neither Simon’s nor Monique’s artistry has been diluted, their’s is a cohesive partnership. Though the works of guest artists, predominantly painters, are exhibited inside The Gallery none of the art works on display, either in the landscape or gallery offends, for such controversy would rail against the prevailing philosophy of harmony found here.
The aesthetic impact of Simon’s sculptures is immediate, desirable and evident, showcased by Monique’s visionary scenery, of which it should be born in mind that its true glory will be enjoyed by a later generation.
In setting his scaled sculptures within the countryside, Simon also offers prospective art collectors the opportunity to consider how their favourite form might appear as an ‘eye-catcher’ when placed within a private or public environment.
Reminiscent of a prior age, in which another couple set about taming a landscape to display sculpture when Henry and Irina Moore created their home at Perry Green in Hertfordshire, by embarking upon this adventure Simon and Monique have begun to successfully craft the next chapter in the phenomena of sculpture parks.