As the Scottish sculpture park celebrates its tenth anniversary, Amy Sherlock talks to its founder Nicky Wilson
Collectors Nicky and Robert Wilson bought Bonnington House, a Jacobean manor house set within an 100-acre estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh, in 1999. Over a period of years, under the spell of Little Sparta – Ian Hamilton Finlay’s nearby garden – the couple began commissioning large-scale landworks and outdoor sculptures. The park, Jupiter Artland, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with quarry, a new monumental installation by Phyllida Barlow, and an exhibition by Joana Vasconcelos. Barlow’s work joins nearly 30 other permanent commissions by artists including Sara Barker, Anya Gallaccio and Jim Lambie, which make this a landscape quite unlike any other in the UK. Amidst preparations for May’s tenth anniversary party, Nicky Wilson and I spoke about the origins of a project that is both public and highly personal, and where she imagines Jupiter Artland in ten years time.
AS Jupiter Artland celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Where did the idea to build a sculpture park begin?
NW To be totally honest, it was a moment of my life where I had had loads of babies and was feeling pretty miserable. I was suffering a bit of post-natal depression, probably; my career had been stopped by children and I was trying to work out what to do with my life. We lived in a house with all of these acres of woodland, outside of Edinburgh, and I felt quite isolated.
Robert and I had been collecting for a number of years but, when I went to visit Little Sparta [Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in Dunsyre, outside of Edinburgh] and the Garden of Cosmic Speculation [a sculpture garden created by Charles Jencks, near Dumfries], I realized that landscape can be an amazing canvas for really great artworks. I’d been to lots of sculpture parks – I trained in sculpture at Camberwell College of Arts with Phyllida Barlow – but I had never liked sculpture in the landscape. We decided that we would go on a voyage of discovery and slowly but surely the idea grew.
AS Which were the sculpture parks that you thought were successful?
NW I love Little Sparta and the Garden of Cosmic Speculation – both the singular visions of individual men. I also love the Kröller-Müller Museum [in the Netherlands] – particularly the fact that it was a woman, Helene Kröller-Müller, who created it; I was fascinated by her life and her journey. There are also some beautiful examples of smaller collections – Peggy Guggenheim’s, for instance. And I was hugely impressed by Storm King [in New York State]; I was just blown away by the ambition and the scale of it. I kept coming home and thinking that the land we have here was crying out for something similar.
AS What was your first commission, once you had decided what you were going to do?
NW The decision came when we picked up the phone and called Charles Jencks. His project took a long time to work through – he didn’t finish for five years. In the interim, once we had started commissioning on that scale, we realized that we could ask Mark Quinn to make a giant sculpture and then Anthony Gormley, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Anthony Goldsworthy and so on. Actually, by the time that Charles’ piece was finished, we had a number of other pieces installed. And then Cornelia Parker did a huge firework display for the opening. It was amazing!
I consider Charles Jencks to be the start of it all – and it was because he used the land and he understood the land; it was his architectural interest. He wasn’t the most obvious choice, but actually he was the most rigorous in terms of the questions he asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ Or: ‘I look at sculpture parks, too, and this is what I think is good and this is what’s bad.’ I largely agreed with him, but he made us reflect a great deal.
We’re not the kind of collectors that have vaults filled with art: for me, if you have art, you’ve got to let other people see it. There are so many people that don’t have access to art, or don’t feel able to see it and we knew that we had to do something in terms of the education programme. Key moments in my life have been the result of great teachers – Phyllida is a prime example of that; I think that great teachers turn us into the people that we can be, which is why the education programme here is central.
I don’t think the world should be full of people who say ‘I don’t like that because it’s a pile of bricks on the floor’ – that’s defensive thinking. You want people to be able to articulate what they do and don’t like. That is learning to be critical; it’s about resilience, in the end, for children. I have five children and I want them to be able to articulate their thoughts about works that might be difficult – even if they don’t like them.
AS I’m interested whether this has informed your commissioning process. Are there works that you have commissioned that, while you can see the value in them, you don’t actually like?
NW An example would be Nathan Coley’s work. I personally love his work, but it’s dark, it’s difficult. It’s quite stark. His piece about Lockerbie [Lockerbie Evidence and Lockerbie Witness Box, 2003] was really a challenging work, though it was intellectually stimulating. It’s not a piece that you could live with in your home but it’s a work that you need to see, in a way, to understand the tragedy.
AS Was there, when you were starting out, an artist who you really wanted to work with?
NW Phyllida Barlow. Who initially said no.
NW This was just before her 2014 commission for the Duveen galleries at Tate Britain. In a way, I can understand – the preparation for a work on that scale is so intense. Also she doesn’t really make outdoor sculptures. I think her British Pavilion in Venice last year was a turning point, where she realized she could do something outside and at scale. The first time she visited us she was hesitant; the second time, she got to know the landscape and found a beautiful grove of trees that was special because they are extremely old, which is where the work was ultimately installed. The thing about Phyllida is that she can articulate her challenges so well: ‘I’m struggling with the space and the trees; I want nature to win, but at the same time I want to be part of its whispering boughs.’ She has been a complete and utter pleasure to work with.
AS Do you see yourselves staying here forever?
NW I don’t know. It’s quite exhausting being right in the middle of this, because we’ve built everything around us. At the minute, we make all of the decisions – down to the colour of the tulips. Would one of the children want to take over? I don’t know. They’d need a very good job, for a start. We’re hoping that we can get Jupiter to a point where it’s beloved enough by the people, the visitors, that it will continue to exist. We will never go for public money, on principle, but it would be great to make the park a secured landscape so that no-one can build a road through the middle. Ultimately, we’d like to get to a point where Jupiter is self-sustaining, but finding the economic model for that is quite a challenge. The plan forward is difficult in terms of legacy: I think that’s something that Robert and I need to consider very seriously at this point.
In terms of how we grow, I want to make Jupiter – which is obviously named after a planet – have something orbit it. I want the park to be the home beacon but I want to do smaller projects and installations, particularly with the education programme, in communities where you wouldn’t expect to find us. We are in a weird place on the outskirts of Edinburgh, we are surrounded by industrial estates, it’s not beautiful or fashionable – it’s not the Cotswolds or the Chilterns.
The plan would be to begin these satellites project in Scotland, expand to the UK. Then the world! I’m not dissimilar in many respects to Joana Vasconcelos and Phyllida Barlow. We’ve got ambition, and we’re not dead yet.
Phyllida Barlow’s quarry and Joana Vasconcelos’s Gateway are currently on view at Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh.
Main image: Charles Jencks, Life Mounds, 2005. Courtesy: Jupiter Artland