It takes a certain level of confidence to install 80 plus sculptures in an outdoor space, but that’s what they’ve done with great success at this stunning sculpture at Leonardslee exhibition.
Although the sculptures, which make up The Walk of Life, will be formally launched in September, the majority are already at home in the estate’s 240-acre grounds and gardens that have undergone an incredible transformation since Penny Streeter OBE acquired them in 2017.
The exhibition features the work of South African sculptor Anton Smit and is set to be the largest outdoor sculpture exhibition by one artist in the UK. The installation of the sculptures feels like a fitting culmination of the past four years’ work to the Grade I listed estate which has taken them from an overgrown wild landscape, to lovingly cultivated and brought-back-to-life pleasure gardens. With their solidity and timelessness, the sculptures at Leonardslee are a sturdy presence and attest to Streeter’s ambition for the venue – they, and the gardens, are here for the long term.
Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens is just off Brighton Road (near to Horsham) and comprises multiple gardens, seven lakes, a Michelin-starred restaurant, an enormous dolls house, café, garden shop, trial pinotage vineyard (why not eh?), and of course, the famous wallabies.
With all this going on, why then introduce the sculptures at Leonardslee? There’s no extra cost to see the exhibition on top of the usual entrance fee as they’re threaded around the various trails within the gardens and lakes. “We wanted to offer another layer to visitors to what they already come for,” explains Patrick Rea, press officer for the estate, “we very much take on the South African ethos, where Penny lives, of bringing together hospitality, leisure and luxury.”
It was with a certain bias I approached our guided tour of a selection of the sculptures. I’ve enjoyed many a pleasant day whiling away the hours in the stunning gardens, so I didn’t need to be told just how impressive they are. However, from the moment I pulled up in the car park, two impressive figures, silhouetted by the sun, The Walking Man stood proud at the entrance, willing me in.
After that, each twist and turn of the gardens sprung a sculptural surprise. One of my favourite pieces was a group of mask-like sculptures all finished in different mediums, entitled Shattered Remains. Where they sit it feels as though the space was made for them, which is impressive, bearing in mind the distinct contrast all of the sculptures will experience to the South African background they have called home, until now.
As we walk away I notice two children looking at them, running around the sculpture and touching the faces, comparing the textures. It’s a joy to see when you consider how rarely any of us get to engage with art in such an informal way, let alone children.
Created in various media, including steel, clay, stone, cement and bronze, the sculptures were created at Smit’s Cape Town and Gauteng studios. However, getting the sculptures in place called for some ingenuity when Covid put paid to travel by either Anton or owner Penny. Instead, it took numerous Zoom calls with the artist to decide on the sites at Leonardslee, and Penny’s son Adam – the manager of Leonardslee – to even get into the positions of the sculptures to help give some sense of how they’d look once placed.
The placement of each sculpture does seem to be very well thought out. Take In Moment III for example, a woman sat in a meditative state. A fairly discreet piece, its size is actually magnified by the enormity of its surroundings. It’s not dwarfed by its landscape, instead it sits there, waiting for you to enjoy its beauty and the space around it, whilst birds of prey soar overhead.
The gardens were dug out originally as “hammer ponds” for smelting iron ore which produced cannonballs for Oliver Cromwell’s armies. Smit says this was an inspiration for the exhibition which took three years to plan.
“There is poetic synchronicity between the smelting of iron ore and the forging of massive sculptures and the creation of these beautiful gardens centuries ago,” Smit says, “the intense heat, the roar and the exhale of flames, the clamour of metal on metal; from this great beauty is forged.”
It’s worth knowing too, that whilst this is an exhibition, all the works are for sale and have a QR code on each base. It won’t be the last exhibition either.
“The creation of the sculpture park is a further commitment by our family to this very special place and we are looking forward to welcoming presentations by other artists in the coming years,” owner Penny explains.
The Walk of Life can be viewed seven days a week and is included in the entrance fee. For more details go to www.leonardsleegardens.co.uk
Contributed by Lisa Brace
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