November 10, 2020
Home from a short break in the Norfolk of wide skies and huge houses, specifically to visit Houghton Hall, its Bannerman garden and the collection of creations (sculptures is hardly the word) by Anish Kapoor. Houghton and its vast park is not the place to exhibit fiddly little things: Kapoor takes the firmament with his vision, and the firmament plays along.
When the Hall turns its massive front (or is it back?) north towards the sea, an appropriately massive avenue stretches to the horizon. The French allée says it better than avenue: this is more Versailles than the park of an English squire. Plumb in the centre Kapoor has plonked a vast gleaming dish of a mirror, bringing the empyrean (a word I long to use without sounding trite) down into your reach. You can always, of course, throw your head back, scan the sky and follow the wandering clouds. It feels different, though, brilliantly focussed, when the sky is brought close to you in your natural field of vision. The intense blue, the clouds in their infinity shapes, textures, colours, flowing or shifting, are transformed into a solid object.
Most of Kapoor’s works here are shapes he has found hidden in stone. When someone asked Michelangelo how he carved his David he replied (or so someone told me) ‘I just cut off the bits that don’t look like a young man.’
Kapoor has no models for the shapes he liberates from great slabs of rock, some smooth, swelling and seemingly organic, some like brutal gashes made in anger, others like deliberate designs with a purpose (which is not revealed). The formality of Houghton’s park, spaces defined by trees, full-grown or tightly trained, forms the rooms in a vast open- air gallery. I was wondering what Sir Robert Walpole in his pomp, our first Prime Minister, glorying in his power and wealth, would make of his great showpiece reflecting a world he could not imagine. But then, of course, nor can we without Kapoor.
Awesome as the scale of Houghton is, its neighbour and rival Holkham Hall puts it firmly in its place. Coke challenged Walpole to a duel, with parks as the weapons. Is there an avenue, or indeed allée, anywhere as ambitious as the north drive at Holkham? It marches three miles dead straight over hill (admittedly modest hill) and dale (also modest) from a triumphal entrance area to the great frowning front of the Palladian mansion, punctuated by an obelisk which is scarcely a lesson in modesty.
The units of this grandiose approach are not mere single trees but clumps of a dozen evergreen oaks at a time, spaced to allow vistas of Coke’s famously fertile farmland as you pass. The house (‘palace’ fits it better) does not exactly smile a welcome. As a dozen other Norfolk rural mansions of the 18th century testify, a Norfolk squire can do haughty as well as any prince.