If you were to close your eyes and try to imagine the Cotswold idyll, the vision in your mind would not be far from Asthall Manor, with its rolling dairy fields, honey-stoned surrounding hamlets and tranquil cottage gardens. Home to the eccentric arts patron Rosie Pearson, the seventeenth century Jacobean manor house plays host to a sculpture biennial that has grown to become one of the leading sculpture events in the country. Every two years, applications open to any artist across the globe, with the only rule being that the works must be made of stone. On Form, now in its eighth occurrence, has come to be known for being a show that is as joyous as its setting, and a delightful assault on all the senses.
This year, On Form brings together 268 works by 39 stone sculptors, set within the six acres of grounds of the house. Each year the Biennial grows in both ambition and production – the sheer scale of the enterprise is the first thing that greets the visitor. Rosie Pearson, and her curator Anna Greenacre have striven to make the whole thing a very multisensory experience – stone and stonemasons have traditionally been seen as more of a naïve craft than a contemporary material and expression – but On Form helps dispel this myth. The sculpture is every part as conceptual, thought provoking, skilled and impressive as that which can be seen in the best galleries and institutions made from other materials. In fact when one considers that every piece of stone set around this site has been hand selected from a quarry, painstakingly carved by hand from a modello, polished to a fine surface and transported to the site, all by the artist, it becomes apparent just what a feat of work each piece, and the whole show, must have been.
Stone, by its very nature, is a hard material to work with. It is impossible to tell how the material will fair under the duress of being worked, and often the inside of the rock can be filled with veins and bruises that mean the piece has to be re-started. Yet as On Form shows, when worked by a skilled artisan amazing results can be achieved. The surfaces of the pieces as you move around On Form often seem like marshmallow, linen, nougat, seeds and clouds. The sheer scale of colours, patterns and textures is astounding – from rough pinks to smooth greens, the material seems alien yet at first, yet extremely alluring.
The biggest clue to the fact that this isn’t any old sculpture park is that visitors are actively encouraged to touch the stone, in a charming move that defies the usual rules of a gallery. It not only makes you instantly become intimate with the artworks, but makes you feel completely at home in Asthall Manor. It is an indication that this show isn’t about big names and big wallets – it’s the opposite, it’s inclusive, welcoming and how art should be. The added benefit of being able to touch the stone means you can feel the heat that they absorb and generate. Black granites radiate warmth as you brush past, while the white marbles are like ice to the touch. The whole setting is a sensory overload, the smell of the stone amongst the flowers and streams, the sound of the wildlife, the dimming afternoon sun reflecting of every surface creating a glistening dreamlike haze – even in the rain the stones completely change colour.
Anna Greenacre’s curation perfectly sets of the quality of the materials – stone, as an organic substance, seems much more at home in the outdoors. Just as the garden juxtaposes neatly trimmed borders with wild meadows, so does the stone exist in polished sleek lines and rough natural surfaces and edges – the mixture compliments itself with great visual pattern and form at every glance.
As On Form has grown, so has the need for space, and the sculpture trail now extends over an indoor gallery, Asthall Manor’s sumptuous ballroom, an expansive flower meadow, a woodland trail, a lily pond, a vegetable garden, numerous lawns and flower beds and hedge rows, and even inside the local village church, where a pinky-white marble brain by the artist Katherine Dowson is equally fascinating and poignant. It seems to go on for miles, and hours, but never tires. Where else could a marble brain and heart be shown in a church? It’s a wonderful testament to Rose and Anna’s commitment to involving the community, challenging notions of what stone sculpture can do and where it can be shown.
Other highlights include Mel Frasers rippling and bubbling organic yet somehow symmetrical and polished forms that seem to defy the rules of stone’s colour and strength, Joshua Locksmith’s contemporary and striking geometric carvings that prove this is an art form that can give any other contemporary sculpture a run for its money, Jordi Raga’s pink marble tendons and sinews that feel like they are equally unsettling and beautiful and Anthony Turner’s seed-like pods that appear like symbols of fertility and nature, yet seem from another planet.
The works range from folk-like to cutting edge, with a wide variety of artists working in a span of stone that almost seems impossible. There is everything from abstraction, symbolism and portraiture, and its all for sale. There are also classes and workshops for all ages taking place throughout the duration of On Form, and normally at least one or two of the artists will be in residence for tours and questions, adding to the genuine and unconceited nature of the place – it’s a shame more shows can’t adopt this practice.
There is a café run from an eighteenth century potting shed on the estate that cooks seasonable fruit and vegetables from the gardens, complete with wood burning oven and compost toilet. The resident chef Fiona Cullinane will be hosting a series of supper clubs throughout the opening around the pavilion in a walled garden. There is also a book shop by the fresh water pool, numerous surrounding country walks and idyllic Cotswold pubs and inns to visit nearby, all in all making it the perfect summer day out, especially being only an hour from London.
On Form at Astral Manor, Burford, Oxfordshire, 12 June – 10 July 2016