A guest blog from Jim Harris, Greenbelt compere on August Bank Holiday weekend, but in his professional life a fine art curator and teacher at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.
Boughton might seem an incongruous setting for a festival exploring new art and new thinking, all the continuing acts of social, political, devotional and artistic creativity that make us human. After all, an English country estate is the epitome of ‘finished’ art: a house, hundreds of years old, set in a artificially-constructed landscape of timeless beauty and filled with objects acquired by generations of collectors, all cleverly and tastefully arranged to give the impression that they’d always been there.
It’s a paradigm of completion, a pastoral and domestic gesamstkunstwerk whose disparate elements play into and off one another to make a seemingly effortless whole.
You can’t be at Boughton and not be in the presence of great art. The landscape itself, rescued and restored over recent decades by the present Duke of Buccleuch and his father, the ninth duke, comprises one of the most thrilling artworks of eighteenth-century England.
Starting in the late seventeenth century, the first and second Dukes of Montagu aimed to give their fashionably-French styled house, recently transformed from its medieval monastic core, a setting worthy of the chateaux it sought to emulate. Working with Charles Bridgeman, the gardener of Stowe, they planted trees – thousands of them – in miles of formal avenues alongside a grandiose series of severely rectilinear water features supplied by the tamed and constrained River Ise. Earthworks were raised to add height and provide viewing points for both house and landscape, making an entirely new kind of English garden, as far from the faux-natural landscapes of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton as it was from the minutely-manicured parterres it replaced.
It’s an artwork of colossal vision, a unique combination of the formal and the Arcadian that made of the garden an intellectual exercise worthy of the age of enlightenment. But more than that, it’s an artwork that continues to grow. The great lawn-sculpture, the Mount, the seven-metre high, flat topped pyramid at the bottom of the Great Lawn, is now complemented by Kim Wilkie’s Orpheus, an inversion of the same form, cut into the earth and, like its three-hundred year old predecessor, based on the mathematics of the Golden Ratio.
If its setting is a piece of proto-Land Art (move over Robert Smithson), it’s the house, unsurprisingly, where most of the art collection is – and Boughton’s is exactly what you might expect, full of ancestral portraits and appealingly unchallenging landscapes. And yet Boughton’s state rooms, for all their aristocratic formality, are also wonderfully punctuated by moments that betray a deep interest in making, in the processes of art and the possibilities of paint. Three artists in particular are worth seeking out.
Gainsborough is there, whose apparently unthreatening portrayals of the English gentry and aristocracy belie his acute insight into both the psychology of his sitters and the precise social contexts they inhabited. Painting at a moment, in the early industrial revolution, when the crisp delineation of class was starting to blur and fray just a little, Gainsborough was as canny a social commentator as any Greenbelt speaker. Look for his Portrait of Mary Montagu.
El Greco is there, the outsider who came in. A Greek who became painter to the magnates of Spain and brought the spiritual sensibilities of Orthodox religious painting to western European art, his Adoration of the Shepherds is typically simple and profoundly strange. He made pictures that were moving and visionary, accessible but sleepily so, as if someone had entered your dream and drawn it, the most deeply personal manifestation of the avant-garde.
Best of all, perhaps, Van Dyck is there, in thirty-nine monochrome oil sketches made in preparation for a great collection of portrait prints, the Iconography. The subjects of the Iconography, 80 nobles, scholars and artists, provided a snapshot of the times, the 1630s and early 40s, but the oil sketches do more than just tell us what they looked like. These are objects of supremely deft skill and of penetrating vision. They represent art in the moment of making, miles from the vast oil portraits and altarpieces from which the painter made his (considerable) fortune. Here, among his peers and contemporaries is Van Dyck the Internationalist, the European; here is an artist looking out from himself to say something about the world; and here is an artist whose skill is on display entirely unadorned, relying on nothing but his own gifts of eye and hand. These sketches are the performance of art happening right in front of your eyes.
When you get to Greenbelt, then, look closely at Boughton. You won’t be able to avoid enjoying the garden, but visit the house, too – open on Saturday and Monday from 10am until 12 noon – and you’ll discover something that has more in common with us than you might expect.
For this place isn’t just a slice of English social and visual history set in aspic and left as a time-capsule in the Northamptonshire countryside. It’s a vast, encompassing object that tells us something not only about its owners but about ourselves – what it is to be creative, thoughtful, interested, and all set within a growing, transforming work of art in which our own explorations of creativity, meaning and beauty have found an ideal home, under the Silent Stars.
And a note from the House …
Handel at Boughton
This August, Northamptonshire’s Boughton House will be home to a specially curated exhibition exploring seminal moments in the life of composer George Frideric Handel.
Guests to the Estate, home to the Duke of Buccleuch, will be in for a treat during this year’s annual August opening, with all ticket holders gaining free access to Handel at Boughton during normal opening hours.
The exhibition will chart key episodes in Handel’s life, following him from Rome to London’s West End, and Montagu House – the ancestral home of the Duke of Buccleuch, where he was a frequent visitor.
Learn about the advent of Handel’s Italian opera company, under the patronage of the Duke of Montagu (an ancestor of the Duke of Buccleuch), and his celebrated Music for the Royal Fireworks of 1749, commissioned by the Duke.
The exhibition will bring together for the first time a collection of artefacts, including a 1720 harpsichord (probably Handel’s own) and celebrated sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac’s own first model for Handel’s monument in Westminster Abbey, plus a Chelsea porcelain orchestra and some very rare orchestral instruments from the period.
Items on display from the renowned Buccleuch Art Collection include the first edition of Messiah, striking portraits of the Montagu family who entertained and commissioned Handel, period furniture and the original menu from Handel’s lunch with the Montagus in 1747.
The Duke of Buccleuch said: “The exhibition has been a labour of love for all those involved in bringing it to life, and it looks set to be a real highlight of our summer events programme at the Estate. From Handel’s early life in Rome, to his affection for dance and the stormy creation of the Music for the Royal Fireworks, we’ve uncovered some wonderful stories.
“We are fortunate to have so much original material at Boughton and in the wider Buccleuch Art Collection. I hope Boughton House enthrals our visitors this summer whether they are Handel enthusiasts or visiting the Estate to enjoy its wider treasures and beautiful gardens.”
Visit www.boughtonhouse.co.uk for more information on upcoming Summer events and to arrange a group tour of the Estate out of season.
 To see further works by renowned sculptor Roubiliac, you can visit the restored Montagu monuments at nearby St Edmund’s Church, Warkton.