Review: Ed Vaizey discovers Anish Kapoor at Houghton Hall
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C&TH’s resident culture critic, Ed Vaizey, discovers an enthralling mix of old and new at Houghton Hall, home to Anish Kapoor’s latest sculpture exhibition
Anish Kapoor at Houghton Hall
I first visited Houghton Hall, the seat of the Marquess of Cholmondeley, near King’s Lynn in Norfolk, in 2013. It was for one of the most memorable exhibitions I have ever seen, not just because of the quality of the paintings, but because of the history it evoked. Houghton was built by Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in 1722; he also put together a vast collection of European paintings, comparable to that of Charles I. In 1779, the entire collection was sold to Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia.
Miraculously, the current Marquess managed to entice the paintings back from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, to reunite them with the house for the first (and perhaps the only) time in 230 years. As I was the arts minister at the time, I was invited for a ‘dine and sleep’ on the opening night. Being staggeringly pompous I was mildly miffed to be put in a relatively small bedroom. At dinner the Marchioness asked me how I was enjoying sleeping in Robert Walpole’s bedroom. The great man slept simply, off to the side of his study. This little man had been put firmly in his place.
I returned a few weeks ago to see an exhibition of Anish Kapoor’s sculptures in the grounds. Houghton is a beautiful Palladian mansion, and in perfect condition, considering it suffered long periods of neglect over the centuries. It is capable of showing anything off to best advantage, and Kapoor’s work is no exception. Ten monumental sculptures are situated throughout the grounds, the highlight of which is undoubtedly the Sky Mirror. A vast circular mirror, placed at an angle slap in the centre of the grand avenue, it reflects the sky above it to make a beautiful and constantly shifting installation. Whether it is grey scudding clouds or an azure blue summer sky, it makes what it reflects absolutely stunning.
The other sculptures do their best to compete with the star of the show, with Rectangle within a Rectangle artfully framing the west front of the house, for example. But for me, much more entrancing were the smaller pieces within the house. In the Stone Hall, four mirrors of iridescent purple, yellow, green and blue sit like alien space ships behind silent and watchful Roman busts. In the South Wing, geometric circles and squares of deep blue, yellow and burnt red play with you as optical illusions, flat surfaces which are actually three-dimensional.
Kapoor is the latest in a series of exhibitions Houghton has staged. Some of what they have shown before remains, including a beautiful Richard Long stone circle and a James Tyrell light installation framed by a wooden cabin. It has become fashionable to mix heritage with the contemporary, whether it is the National Trust or Chatsworth, and at Houghton the result is a triumph. Not only can you enjoy the monumental sculptures and the house itself, you will also be entranced by the almost tame white fallow deer, who congregate close to the house, and enjoy delicious food and drink grown and made in the grounds. This is one exhibition you will not want to miss, and worth spending a day to see.
Anish Kapoor at Houghton Hall, until 1 November 2020 (selected days). Tickets must be pre-booked. houghtonhall.com