House & Garden

Colouring the view

Vibrant colours and striking, confident forms are injecting today’s garden sculpture with a welcome dose of modernity. Nicole Swengley talks to the artists who aren’t afraid to infuse the beautiful with bravado.

March 02 2011
Nicole Swengley

For many years, garden sculpture has focused primarily on form. Colour, if applied at all, was used sparingly to complement, but not dominate, works in traditional materials such as stone, bronze, wood and welded steel, allowing the material’s natural beauty to shine through. Now though, as contemporary artists move away from modernism’s emphasis on form, a palette of zesty colours is giving garden sculpture a new vibrancy.

“We’ve seen a joyous explosion of colour in the past few years,” says art collector Lucy Abel Smith who, with her husband David, runs Quenington Sculpture Trust, the registered charity behind the biennial FreshAir shows. She promises “a polychromatic frisson” for anyone looking to buy or commission garden sculpture during this year’s exhibition, when around 130 new designs will be displayed in their Cotswolds garden.

“People are no longer afraid of having really bold colours in their gardens,” says Carole Andrews, a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and a FreshAir 2011 exhibitor. “Gardens are now treated like outdoor rooms, so installing a sculpture is like putting ornaments around to give a space character. A sculpture in a complementary or contrasting colour to a schematic area of planting really adds to the atmosphere.”

Kent-based Andrews uses traditional Japanese origami skills to fashion industrial roofing felt into shapes that she covers in resin and paint. “I like to make big, gutsy pieces and push the material to its extreme,” she says. And homeowners are responding enthusiastically. “A big, purple piece that I call Spanish Onion recently went into a modern garden with very architectural planting as a birthday present for a client’s husband,” she says.

Inspired by tall conifers, Andrews has developed the Red Sentinels series (from £3,000), since showing a single Sentinel at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in 2009. Her totem-like, abstract figures, such as Franchetti Blue (£3,500), are also painted in vibrant colours. “Turquoise looks fabulous against dark moss, and placed in a woodland setting the figures make the area quite spectral,” she says. Lofty structures such as the 2m-tall Grandiflora Pink (£4,500) are made of resin-covered aluminium mesh and stainless steel, while organic, circular Coelenterates (about £5,000), inspired by sea corals and stingrays, are cast in marble resin in vibrant lime, scarlet and deep-ocean blue.

Nature is also seminal to Ruth Moilliet’s work. “It’s about pollination; the relationship between plants and insects,” she says. In a process that involves dissecting and sketching real flowers, Manchester-based Moilliet recreates the shapes by laser-cutting the constituent parts and bolting the pieces together.

Her Pollination Stems (£25-£55 each), made from colourful stainless steel, acrylic and anodised aluminium, push into the ground individually or can be grouped as an installation. “One client commissioned a group for her Lancashire home that looks as if a cloud of flowers has blown against a wall,” she says. Further designs on show at FreshAir 2011 include coloured acrylic and stainless-steel Wild Flowers whose bases bolt to the ground (£265-£1,950 each). She also makes singular large-scale pieces, such as Pollination – Bees and Butterflies (£20,000) – a big, spherical, stainless-steel sculpture with insects hovering above 500 multicoloured, anodised aluminium flowers.

Colour is a universal language in art. “Contemporary sculptors are driven by abstract concepts or narratives,” says Kent-based sculptor Max Jacquard. “A sculpture’s form follows the narrative and the story is also told through colour, with ideas as the key drivers.”

Jacquard’s figurative piece Albion (£8,000), shown at FreshAir 2005, originated “from a desire to explore my own identity; my Englishness”. Taking inspiration from patchwork, the English landscape and church effigies of knights in chainmail, he set out to create a 1.8m-tall figure “as if wrapped in a suit of armour made of glass”.

In an intriguing process, Jacquard placed a knitted patchwork quilt around a plaster mould. A collage of glass, fused from cut sheets, was slumped over the mould within the kiln so the patchwork pattern transferred, texturally, to the glass. Jacquard then drilled holes in the glass sections and sewed them together with wire. The figure can be displayed outdoors, either standing on a base or suspended from wires. “It has a slightly ghostly feeling and intentionally looks a bit sinister,” he says.

Taking the concept further, Jacquard uses glass from recycled green and brown bottles to create rippling patchwork blankets (from £3,000), designed to hang outdoors or against white walls, reflected light bouncing through their earthy tones.

A more exuberant palette is explored by glass-maker Neil Wilkin, whose water features erupt with a colour intensity that matches nature at its flamboyant best. Fountains (from £9,600) in blue glass heighten reflected sky on the water’s surface, while sculptures such as Red Lily and Red Glass Flower (£7,200) add South Seas exoticism to the most conventional plot (Red Flower Fountain and Blue Flower Fountain, both £30,000). His work can be seen at The Grove in Hertfordshire and the Four Seasons in Hampshire, but he also accepts private commissions.

The use of non-traditional materials is another driver of the trend. “Acrylic, resin and fibreglass tend to be made in bright colours, so the language of the work changes,” explains Jacquard. His view is shared by Stroud-based Aimee Lax. “I’m interested in hyper-real colours and fluorescents that border on the unnatural,” she says. “Clay has a limited colour range so I use other materials too – acrylic, glass, aluminium and rubber.”

Clients are clearly intrigued. One installed a luminous green piece from her Barbed series (from £1,000) in a tree. Another design, in orange acrylic, is placed over a gazebo, and an ambiguous brown plant form “grows” over a bright green acrylic plinth in another work (Host series, from £3,000). “You feel you recognise the shapes but then, when you get up close, they appear alien and otherworldly so the colour needs to be artificial too,” says Lax who will show new work based on her study Agar, in silicone rubber and coloured clay, at FreshAir 2011.

Richly coloured materials not generally associated with garden sculpture are Jenny Ford’s milieu. Working from her Cotswolds studio, she fashions designs for use in covered outdoor spaces from silk-velvet and metallic organza (from £165) – which she describes as “surprisingly robust”: “I use velvet because you can create such deep, intense colours through hand-dyeing – colours that really vibrate in natural light.” Her seed pods and kernels are structured with electrical cable and wire over which the textiles are hand-stitched. Inspired by medieval and Elizabethan costume details, as well as natural forms, they look mysterious and magical slinking through branches, tucked into archways or emerging from alcoves. “I’m trying to create a little enchantment – an unexpected chance encounter – and colour is part of the intrigue,” she says. “I want to capture an ephemeral moment like the sudden flash of colour as a kingfisher flies past.” New pieces in blue and burgundy silk velvet and silk dupion will be shown at FreshAir 2011.

Even sculptors using traditional materials say clients want stronger colours. Northampton-based Wendy Hoare, whose large pots (£1,189-£2,000) are handmade using an old clay-coiling technique, prefers colour “to be a natural and integral part of the form – not painted-on decoration”. Still, her pink pots are now more popular than silvery-white vessels. One client commissioned a pair in pink and gold for a redesigned garden near Bath, while another client in Milton Keynes ordered a light gold pot as a centrepiece for a stone circle in her garden.

Meanwhile, Caerphilly-based Nigel Cann, who works with quarry stone, began adding stained glass when he realised “the play of light on coloured glass would bring the stone alive”. While the stones gather moss and lichen, the glass colours stay true (his Blue Slalom, from £3,000). “People react emotionally to the colours,” he says. “They go for hotter ones when commissioning a stone as an anniversary present and shades of blue if it’s a commemorative piece.” Other aesthetic reasons can prevail: a pair of stones (£3,500), commissioned to face a conservatory at a client’s home, was embellished with glass to match the tribal rugs indoors.

Pete Moorhouse’s work is similarly site-specific. Steel sculptures rust naturally to a deep red patina, while others are stove-enamelled or spray-painted. “Either it’s a brightly coloured high note to create a focal point or deliberately low-key to blend in,” says the Bristol-based sculptor. “A Cheshire client commissioned a sculpture in bright blue [£2,450] to pick up on planting, while another ordered a purple one for a rock garden; it worked very effectively with the foliage.”

Even large-scale architectural pieces are increasingly painted in strong hues. “There’s such a lot of colour in nature that I tend to use shades that aren’t quite natural,” says Gloucestershire-based sculptor Rob Olins. “The colours need to be hyper-real to contrast with the landscape.” Olins, who is a fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, makes large architectural pieces called Gridshells (£2,000-£12,000) which can be used as a trellis or positioned to define a specific space. For a US client he attached an orange aluminium one to the side of a ranch-style house to support a vine, while another client in Germany ordered a free-standing timber Gridshell, painted blue, for a farmhouse garden.

Just as arresting are Hilary Arnold Baker’s vermilion structures whose posts are sometimes interspersed with mirrored stainless steel or toughened mirrored glass to create reflective surfaces. Her inspiration, she says, derives from Himalayan fences and “that burning red you see everywhere in India. It also recalls the red lacquered look of Japanese temples and wild poppies. I think it’s such a wonderful complement to a garden’s natural colours.” Keep your sunshades to hand and prepare to be dazzled this summer.