When visiting the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery in 2002, a gang of schoolboys ate what seemed to be a few leftover sweets sitting out on a shelf, later discovered to be an exhibition piece by artist Graham Fagen. The anecdote speaks to the fear that can be elucidated by the experience of entering an art gallery with its reverent silence and chilly white walls, leaving its visitor paranoid that, like the Birmingham schoolboys, they are missing the point entirely, perpetually on the edge of embarrassment.
Outside art parks propose a more egalitarian alternative to the frighteningly chic white cube. Removed from the urban sprawl, these parks are a friendlier and often cheaper viewing space. Claire Lilley, head of the pioneering Yorkshire Sculpture Park, describes how she’s ‘seen people embracing sculptures and hugging Henry Moore’s’, describing the experience as ‘wonderful’. In a space where sheep nibble grass at the foot of Barbara Hepworth’s The Family of Man, the rules are relaxed and visitors can interact more freely with the pieces they came to see, unconstrained by any crippling self-consciousness.
The artworks themselves are similarly transformed by their natural context. Grayson Perry, roughly quoting Proust when he speaks of the way in which our aesthetic tastes have been socially conditioned, remarked, ‘‘We only see beauty when we’re looking through an ornate gold frame.’ Open-air art requires a different structure of viewing. In fact, many of the sculptures included in these natural environments have been designed to engage with the landscape around them. Henry Moore, describing his ‘Three Standing Figures’ (1947) shown in Battersea Park in 1949, explained how ‘I wanted to […] create figures conscious of being in the open air, they have a lifted gaze, for scanning distances.’ Barbara Hepworth, one of the centrepiece artists of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, created many of her sculptures outside and these pieces speak to the elements from and within which they were crafted. A 1953 film, Figures in a Landscape, shows Hepworth in Cornwall, precariously perched on a step, furiously chiselling while shadows of surrounding flora slide across the piece and waves rumble in the background. The footage serves as a powerful testament to the innate sculptural qualities of natural materials, carved by the elements as much as the artist.
This dialogue between art and its natural surroundings is articulated in a more miniature scale in two of our jewellery collections, Bloom and Arizona Boulder. Designed to explore the affinities and the tensions between the natural and the man-made, these collections play off ideas of permanence, seasonality and evolution in their materials and design. Our Arizona Boulder collection is influenced by the voluptuous organic shapes created in rock by processes of erosion, while clusters of natural gemstones are used in our Bloom collection to recreate the sprawling beauty of a wilderness in spring.
The question of the relationship between nature and the manmade in craft is an ancient one and yet, judging by the popularity of outdoor art spaces in recent years and by the number of artists who are now constructing work designed to be displayed outside, the tension is still both evocative and productive.