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The Garden at War: Deception, Craft, and Reason at Stowe

Joseph Black | Antoine Espinasseau | Ian Hamilton Finlay | Claude Lorrain | Nicolas Poussin

Stowe House, Buckingham, MK18 5EH, UK
8 July – 9 September 2017 (10 – 4 daily)

This Summer Aganippe Arts, in collaboration with Stowe House and The Courtauld Institute of Art, is proud to present the exhibition The Garden at War: Deception, Craft, and Reason.

Accompanying a publication of the same title and a day long series of talks from leading art historians, The Garden at War explores the gardens at Stowe as a site of metaphors, performance, and perpetual conflict.

The exhibition programme brings together interpretations from some of the leading thinkers on landscape design, and includes work from Antoine Espinasseau, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, as well as from the exhibition’s Senior Curator Joseph Black. Through these artists work we can explore the gardens at Stowe, as well as Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, as a conceptual playground and battlefield.


The Judgement of Hercules, 1759, After Nicolas Poussin

Stowe is widely held to be one of the greatest cultural achievements of the eighteenth century, incorporating work from the greatest garden designers of the day; from William Kent to ‘Capability’ Brown. Yet unlike most gardens, Stowe isn’t a garden of flowers or shrubs; it’s a garden of ideas. 250 acres of carefully maintained landscape gardens offer a complex web of views, pathways, statues, inscriptions, urns and ideas. Unlike its French floricultural precursors, Stowe presents sudden shifts of scene, abrupt revelations, as well as spots at which to stop to absorb the visual effect. There is natural beauty in the gardens of Stowe, but they serve a larger purpose than to please the eye. Beneath this facade of bucolic idyll lies a deeply important suggestion of our relationship with nature. Like any garden, it must be maintained and its ordered, controlled, and contained vision of nature upheld.

The idea of the garden, as something more than a pleasant retreat, inevitably evokes the eighteenthcentury gardens of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. This was a time of classical revival, when the prevailing cultural attitude was to reform the world based on venerated classical ideals. The Enlightenment provided a cultural environment which called for a form of art suited to this ‘Age of Reason’. The proponents of such a movement saw in the potential of the garden a symbolic embodiment of civilisation and of our relationship to nature. The garden suggested a lost Arcadia, a stage for philosophical thought, and just as irrationality may be conquered and turned to logical reasoning so too the wild forces of nature may be brought into quite alignment.

The Gilded Medici Venus in the Venus Rotunda at Stowe, 1721

This is the use of the garden as metaphor. In its principles of balance and symmetry the neoclassical gardens of Stowe create a visual equivalent of coherent thought. The Garden at War therefore looks to the work of conceptual artists, and to that of the poet and ‘avant-gardener’ Ian Hamilton Finlay who dedicated his life to creating his garden of Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills of Southern Scotland.

Like Stowe, Little Sparta bristles with disconcerting images of warfare, violence, the classical tradition, and references to landscape painters of the past.

The garden designers of Stowe took inspiration for their aesthetic of natural parkland and classical ruins from the French landscape paintings of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain whose work can also be seen in the exhibition.

This international relationship is further explored in the work of the contemporary French architect-turnedartist, Antoine Espinasseau, whose newly commissioned work is installed inside the State Music Room.

By exploring the work of these artists we are asked to reflect on the intricate and complex web of relations, influences, and artistic collaboration as fundamental to the production of a garden design.

Senior Curator: Joseph Black (1992 -) is an artist and writer based in London. He obtained a Masters Degree in Conceptual Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2016. He has since founded and continues to work as Senior Curator at Aganippe Arts, a curatorial company specialising in managing exhibitions of historical and contemporary art in locations of cultural importance. His work has been exhibited in independent curatorial projects across London and his writing has been included in a number of arts publications.

Aganippe Arts CIC.
Conference The Garden at War: Deception, Craft and Reason
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