Please DO touch: on form at Asthall Manor

Vortex, by Guy Stevens

Vortex, by Guy Stevens - Credit: Archant

The biennial on form exhibition looks forward to welcoming visitors to the beautiful surroundings of Asthall Manor and some of the finest stone sculptors in the world Words by Candia McKormack

Group of seeds, by Chris Elmer

Group of seeds, by Chris Elmer - Credit: Archant

We can find pleasure in the smallest things. The feel of a small, smooth stone in the palm of your hand can heal in a way that years spent in the psychoanalyst’s chair can’t. The coolness and rough texture of a jagged rock under hand or foot has a way of stimulating the senses that can’t be achieved by other, perhaps more sophisticated, means.

Peahorse Blue, by Anthony Turner

Peahorse Blue, by Anthony Turner - Credit: Archant

Rosie Pearson and Anna Greenacre understand the power of our primal and creative selves only too well.

On the Tip of My Tongue, by Adrian Gray

On the Tip of My Tongue, by Adrian Gray - Credit: Archant

Since taking on 17th-century Asthall Manor, childhood home of the Mitford sisters, in the late 1990s and commissioning sculptor Anthony Turner to make the dramatic gatepost finials, Rosie has set about turning her dream of creating a sculpture exhibition dedicated entirely to works in stone into a reality. Then, in 2005, Anna got involved and the two became a unifying force in achieving their goal.

Greta, by Alasdair Thomson

Greta, by Alasdair Thomson - Credit: Archant

Each year of the biennial on form exhibition, the two come up with more creative ways to share their love of sculpture with the thousands of visitors that come flocking to the Oxfordshire manor, and this year is no exception. In 2014 theatre group Scary Little Girls will be returning following the success of their ‘In the Footsteps of the Mitfords’ at Asthall in 2012. Planned for 2014 is a piece celebrating the history of the Manor and on form, called ‘The Ghosts in the Stones’, where small groups of visitors will be taken on a special route around the house and gardens, bringing the environment alive through the work of writers such as George Eliot, Wilfred Owen, E Nesbit and, of course, Nancy Mitford.

Asthall Manor

Asthall Manor - Credit: Archant

“It’s great fun, the site-specific theatre,” Anna says. “They do, quite literally, jump out at you!” As visitors wander around the gardens, they should be prepared for players to suddenly burst out from behind a stone and recite poetry or enact a love story between two of them. It’s a great indication of how Rosie and Anna breathe life into what, let’s face it, can be the stuffy world of fine art and sculpture. Speaking with them in the homely yet historic drawing room, and verdantly glorious gardens, of Asthall Manor, their infectious energy makes you feel that you want to be a part of what they’re offering – whether as a visitor or one of the wonderfully gifted artists not surprisingly queuing up to take part.

Rosie elaborates: “With the Living Word Walks you have a script; you go round the garden and it tells you where to go next. We did one on the Mitfords last autumn – there was a different actor hidden on a different spot for each Mitford sister – but we’re trying to do something a little different this time.”

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Ah, yes, the Mitford connection.

“It’s always the way here,” Rosie continues, “you want to use the Mitford interest as it’s so good, but you don’t want to be drowned in it. I think this is actually the first year that we’ve not used the word ‘Mitford’ in the press release, if I’m right!

“What they’re doing this time is the history of the Manor with all its episodes, so the first bit will be about the wool trade in the 1600s when the house was built. After that there will be a bit of a jump when the players cover the First World War, then the Mitfords, and finally something about sculpture.”

The sculptures are made from every variety of stone you can imagine, from all across the world so, as well as an appreciation of the form of the works, there’s much to be gained from the texture, colour and feel of the stone.

“Sarah Smith, the Yorkshire sculptor, has these wonderful things called ‘erratics’,” Rosie says, “which are essentially things that have been deposited in the middle of a field by glacial movement. She has this wonderful arrangement with the farmers that when they find an unusual stone they will tell her and she will collect it.”

When it comes to talking about stone and sculpture, the enthusiasm the two have for the subject is palpable, and it becomes easy to understand why so many are keen to be part of what they do, and why on form is the success it is.

Anna continues, “We also have the artist Tom Stogdon, who’s from Thame, and he’s creating a cityscape inspired by Oxford, which will be 150cm long.” Tom has previously created a London cityscape and so Anna and Rosie suggested he could make one for the exhibition that was relevant to the area.

Another of the artists exhibiting this year is one that I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago, when he was creating his beautifully organic sculptures out of wood, Chris Elmer.

“We actually encouraged Chris to go into stone,” says Anna. “About four years ago he sent us pictures of some of his work, saying he loved the on form exhibition. We looked at the pieces and thought ‘this is wonderful, but it’s wood’!” Consequently, Chris, keen to be part of the exhibition, started playing around with stone and has translated what he has done successfully in wood for many years to this new medium.

Another artist, Emma Maiden, from Charlbury, originally exhibited in 2004 and 2006 then took a few years out as life and its various challenges took over, but she’s returning for 2014. “She’s one of three sculptors who are going to talk at the Ashmolean,” explains Rosie. “The other two are Aly Brown and Anthony Turner, and they’re all going to discuss which works in the Ashmolean have inspired their practice.”

The talks are to be held on Friday, June 13 from 3 to 5pm, while other special events happening around on form include a Geology Tour, led by Philip Powell of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (June 15 & 20), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by Oxford School of Drama on June 25.

The artists are chosen for their vision and ability to convey their art through the medium of stone, and come from all across the globe, though many are also from the Cotswolds. One Oxfordshire lad exhibiting goes by the rather fabulous name of Johannes von Stumm, and is the former president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors (RBS), and then there’s Oxford-based Regis Chaperon whose beautifully fluid pieces revolve around the concepts of family, protection and roundness.

Choosing which artists are to take part in the exhibition each year is a mixture of those that approach Anna and Rosie, and those that they seek out, having seen their work and knowing that it will fit with the on form ethos.

One of the artists that they discovered by research is Bristol-born stone-balancer Adrian Gray whose gravity-defying pieces are created using naturally weathered stone and then captured on film as evidence of their existence. As part of the exhibition, though, he will be doing live demonstrations (June 18 & 19), so visitors will be able to witness his intuitive work at play. In the meantime, it’s worth watching the online videos of him making his pieces, as they’re quite mesmerising: www.stonebalancing.com). Anna had the pleasure of seeing him create one of his pieces: “He understands the physics of how the stones balance, and when I saw him do it, it really is like magic,” she says. “It’s bizarre because in some ways it’s quite hairy, seeing him moving these large boulders, but in other ways it’s rather meditative.”

Another aspect is of course the beautiful surroundings of Asthall Manor’s celebrated 18 acres of gardens, created by award-winning designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman. From the formal yew avenues and clipped box hedges, to the wild sweeping vistas and wildflower and woodland areas, walking around the gardens is a voyage of discovery, and the careful placing of the sculptures will enhance this, bringing absolutely every sense into play.

Which brings us to touch.

It’s hugely important that visitors know that they are welcome, and indeed encouraged, to touch the sculptures; something that’s practically unheard of in the setting of the conventional art gallery. But, to Rosie and Anna, this is one of the essential parts of the on form experience. In fact, something they’d dearly love to introduce is a blindfold tour of the sculptures, ideally led by a local blind group, so you’d have blind and partially-sighted people guiding the sighted around the pieces and experiencing them in a completely different way.

“With stone, it’s so crucial to touch,” says Rosie, “it changes temperature, and its texture can be smooth or incredibly rough. Once people are feeling a piece of stone in their hands it brings everything to life.”

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on form runs from June 8 to July 6 at Asthall Manor, Burford, OX18 4HW, tel: 01993 824319. Opening hours are 12 noon to 6pm, Wednesday to Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday). Admission £7.50 adults (to include full-colour catalogue with map); concessions £6; under-12s free. Visit www.onformsculpture.co.uk for more information.

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