Another victory for Houghton

Houghton Hall in Norfolk (which I wrote about last week) hit the headlines in the arts pages earlier this year because it is playing host in a spectacular way to an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Damien Hirst.  The roads for miles around were splashed with  posters featuring Hirst’s spotty paintings enticing visitors to go and see them in the state apartments  where the family portraits normally hang . So while last week’s post was a potted history of this great 18thc estate in Norfolk this week’s is about what’s happened to it in very recent times.

There were two main reasons why I wanted to go to Houghton now. One was to see the Hirst and the other was to see  the garden created in memory of the marquess’s grandmother Sybil Sassoon.

One was worth every penny of the £18 admission charge. The other wasn’t.

[Photos unless otherwise stated are either by me or Edward Moss or from the Houghton website]

Often stately homes and their estates are frozen in time and rather dreary and depressing places as a  result of becoming institutionalized for the tourist market and having much of their life and individuality sucked out of them. No-one could accuse Houghton of being like that.  Its owner, the Marquess of Cholmondeley,  has set his face against it and instead is embracing the modern as well as conserving Houghton’s heritage. In the process he’s hoping to make the estate pay its way and find a role in the modern world. He’s now a convert to gardening because although he “used to find gardens boring…when I had this one thrust on me, things changed… I think it is only when you have a garden of your own that you really get interested.”

Hans Holbein the Younger, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526–8
National Gallery, London

When the Marquess succeeded in 1990 he faced massive death duties, but he was also determined to continue his grandmother’s work restoring and revivifying Houghton.  He began by doing what everyone in his position has to do and looked for things to sell.  First to go, in 1992, was Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel which netted £10 million. That must have kept the wolf from the door for a little while and he followed this by holding an aristocratic boot sale, clearing the attics and storerooms, to raise funds although its clear that his intention has always been to preserve the original contents of Houghton intact.  Luckily Sybil had inherited her brother Philip’s fabulous collections.  Well over £20 million was raised in the process. [Independent 10th Sept 1994]. To be fair too Houghton has seen this sort of clear-out before with the sale of the cream of Robert Walpole’s amazing picture collection to Catherine the Great in 1779. That raised the £40,000 [the equivalent of getting on for half a billion £ apparently!] to clear the family’s debt [how can anyone owe that much!]. In a carefully negotiated deal some of the paintings came back for an exhibition at the house in 2013.  

The White Drawing Room

But the Marquess has been doing other things too.  “Recently, we have started collecting contemporary art for the grounds. The idea is to create a trail along which visitors will simply come across contemporary works of art as they walk around the park. Most are quite hidden and some have architectural allusions, so they are rather like modern follies by great contemporary artists… We try to acquire at least one piece a year. We’ve also set up a programme called Artlandish with the local education authority, which allows schools to use the artworks in the park for outdoor learning.” [Interview in The English Home]

The White Drawing Room

He’s also begun an upmarket Houghton Festival and this year he topped it by bagging the Damien Hirst paintings and sculptures. Hirst who is probably Britain’s best paid and arguably best known artist, has been allowed to replace the pictures in the public rooms with paintings of his own.

Houghton has never looked spottier.

The nearby parts of the grounds are also currently host to a series of large-scale pieces also by Hirst, which according to Michael Glover, art critic for the Independent are “fairground-freaky, upscaled giants in colours to shock and amaze”.   Luckily Houghton’s grounds are vast, sometimes seemingly never-ending and there, as Glover notes, “Hirst’s statues are a laugh. A flayed unicorn, a couple of colossal people with their skin off. All good fun. Yet it is Lord Cholmondeley’s herd of white deer that elicit gasps when they wander through the woods like a cloud.

The white roe deer

Other critics were far more blunt:


The first sign that something’s amiss in Houghton’s Arcadian landscape is a great lump of gruesomely garish plastic-looking stuff dumped by the drive: a flesh‑coloured cuboid form, 5ft high, with black spikes protruding from the top, and yellow and purple lumps bulging from the sides. It’s a blown-up cross-section of a fragment of human skin, complete with veins, gobbets of fat and hair follicles. Despite the impression of skin-crawling cheap‑and-nastiness, it’s rendered – typically for Hirst – in expensive painted bronze.” [Telegraph 25th March]

Temple 2008

There are several other Hirst pieces scattered in the grounds but as Jonathan Jones concluded in the Guardian, the exhibition is simply “another victory for Houghton Hall … Hirst plays the house and the house wins. However surreal and attention-grabbing his efforts, Houghton Hall consistently outdoes them.”

Luckily Hirst’s intrusions only distract superficially from the other  art works in the  Houghton collection most of which have been specially commissioned for specific places in the grounds.  Very much along the lines of an 18thc collector assembling statues the marquess has placed them carefully, often semi-hidden in the wildernesses .

The first to be commissioned, in 2000, was a ‘Skyspace’ by James Turrell,  an American artist known for his large-scale, immersive light installations. If I explained that its simply a hole in the ceiling of a large wooden box you’d probably think I was a bit cracked but Turrell’s work is  undefinable, but almost instantly recognizable even though [unlike Hirst’s spotty paintings] every one he creates is different.

The Sky SPace

Depending on where they are situated they can be seen as land art, light art, sculpture, and installation or a combination of any or all of those elements.  The one at Houghton  is a six-metre cube of steel and oak and to be honest doesn’t look much from the outside, but push open the door and find yourself in a room empty apart from simple benches round the blank walls and then look up at the pocket handkerchief of sky seen through a hole in the roof makes you open your eyes to power of light.

James Turrell’s Seldom Seen, Skyspace, 2002 (Peter Huggins/James Turrell/Houghton Hall)



Last year’s summer exhibition, which I bet was considerably more enthralling than Hirst’s work, was by Turner Prize winner Richard Long. who  has  extended sculpture beyond traditional materials and methods into land art.   Three large installations of slate now ornament the grounds.

Wilderness Dreaming – Richard Long

Wilderness Dreaming is set on the edge of one of the groves  while Full Moon Circle,  was installed a few years ago where the  carefully cut lawn merges into rough meadow directly in line with the front door of the house. Framed by the avenues and plantations  it echoes the curve of the nearby ha-ha.

Full Moon Circle, by Richard Long

On the other side of the house there is another of his pieces White Deer Circle – a circular group of tree stumps.

White Deer Circle by Richard Long

Most of the art works are semi-hidden, tucked away in one of the wildernesses or woodland groves.   “The Sybil Hedge” an “artlandish” living sculpture by Anya Gallacio, is a copper beech hedge laid out to form  the signature of the marquis’ grandmother, Sybil Sassoon.  Unfortunately you can only see the  full effect from the air .

The Sybil Hedge


Scholar Rock

Amongst other interesting pieces in the groves  and grounds include Zhan Wang’s Scholar’s Rock, modelled in stainless steel around natural rocks, Rachael Whiteread’s Houghton shed, and Stephen Cox’s  Interior Space 2002.

The Houghton Shed

There is a full list of all the outdoor sculpture with excellent photos on the Houghton website, whilst more contemporary art, including another slate installation by Richard Long, stands in the former kitchen garden.

Houghton Cross by Sir Richard Long

By the time the marquess inherited, the old walled garden had fallen into a state of disrepair. ‘My grandparents had been concentrating on the restoration of the house and the park. The Walled Garden was largely fallow, with just a few fruit and vegetables grown by a lovely old gardener. But with the Hall and grounds already opening to the public, I saw the potential to make something special here.’

So in 1991, two years after Sybil Cholmondeley’s death, the marquess embarked on a living memorial for her. “My grandmother always said she wished she had done something with the walled garden, but never got round to it, so creating this garden seemed the perfect tribute.”


It began with an overall plan  for the 5 acre garden which was drawn up with the help of the then head gardener, Paul Underwood. The marquess  said: “The difficulty was to create variety and interest in a flat space with no architectural and water features; however, we found the solution in a succession of rooms divided by hedges, rather like Sissinghurst, so that visitors would be constantly surprised by views through narrow entrances and discover areas with very different atmospheres.” [Times interview 17th April 2008]

Then the marquess commissioned the award winning designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman to help ornament it. “I had seen their work at Highgrove and at Waddesdon Manor, and loved it.”






Neither the description or plan do it justice because the result  is simply a wonderful mix of the formal and the theatrical. From the moment one enters the gates it is like entering another gardening world entirely and it’s not surprising that in 2007 it was the winner of the Christie’s Historic Houses Association ‘Garden of the Year Award’. 

The Bannerman’s designed three of the most prominent features of the garden. One is a rustic temple with its pediment filled with antlers from the estate’s white deer.

There are also a series of massive oak obelisks which carry the theme on elsewhere. 

The Rustic Temple sits at one end of a spectacular double herbaceous border recently refurbished by my friend Virginia Worsley. This, cleverly, is wider at one end than the other which reinforces the shift from cool to hot planting.

The conservatory

At the opposite end is a conservatory where  the Bannermans have created a fern and tufa-encrusted grotto fountain with water spilling from giant clam shells.

The final piece by them is the central fruit cage, modelled on William Kent’s designs for the towers on the nearby stable block.

Elsewhere there is a huge formal rose garden that takes up around a quarter of the garden planted with nearly 150 varieties of both new repeat-flowering shrub roses and older single-flush roses. The central, box-edged parterre is based on the William Kent design for the ceiling in the White Drawing-Room, and it is surrounded by wavy yew hedges allowing views in and out.



In the middle is yet another surprise: a sunken fountain garden


According to Mhari Blanchfield the then Head Gardener interviewed in Country Life in 2009   it is the marquess who was , and who remains, the guiding light behind the garden’s development and who has encouraged adventurous thinking and planting.  

And it’s full of surprises. Perhaps the most striking of all is  what appears to be just a simple small fountain  by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein. Commissioned as a site-specific  “artlandish” folly in the Laburnum Garden, it is very quietly attention-grabbing, since its jet of water is actually topped by a ball of flame. The work is intended “to surprise viewers and make them question what they are seeing.”

 It certainly does that.

Stephen Lacey writing about it in the Telegraph in 2012 suggested it was sorcery, although in fact it’s rather more prosaically fuelled by gas, which travels up through the jet of water with the flame rising and falling with the water.  Simple and sophisticated at the same time it’s difficult to disagree  with his conclusion that the fountain is  “one of the most mesmerizing pieces of modern garden art I have ever seen.”

In fact the whole garden is mesmerizing. Each part very different and yet blending into a single ensemble, and all impeccably kept by the head gardener and their team of 6 [mainly part-time]  + a trainee from the Historic and Botanic Garden Trainee programme.  

Surprisingly very little seems to have been written about the garden. Apart from the Houghton hall website  there was an article by Stephen Lacey in the Telegraph in 2012, and a short piece in Country Life in 2009. There are also some wonderful photos of the walled garden out of season by The Garden Gate is Open, a fascinating blog which looks mainly at gardens open for the National Gardens Scheme.   But as I hope you will have seen this is  clearly a significant garden that will stand comparison with the rest of Houghton’s heritage, and should also stand the test of time.


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4 Responses to Another victory for Houghton

  1. susannahkc says:

    Wow – time to go to Houghton again to see those wonderful new borders!

  2. Margie Hoffnung says:

    Dear David, As always I love reading your blog on a Saturday morning before I start my day. Houghton walled garden does look spectacular. The Bannerman’s work is instantly recognisable – Houghton reminds me a lot of Arundel Castle where they have done a similar job. Have you been there? I went to their tulip festival last year. The fire water spout looks amazing. I must go but won’t mind if the Hirst’s have gone…. xxx

    Sent from my iPhone


    • You’re aboslutely right. There are quite a few similarities with the Bannerman’s work at Arundel as will appear in a post about it soonish. And Houghton won’t miss the Hirsts in the slightest!

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