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Thrilling New Sculpture Show At Houghton Hall, Home Of First British Prime Minister

Houghton Hall in Norfolk has been transformed with Smaller than the Sky, an engaging solo show of 59 monumental sculptures, paintings and works on paper by Irish artist Sean Scully. This is the largest show of the artist’s sculptures to date and certainly worth a trip to the splendid country estate. Not all contemporary art works in a historic setting but Sean Scully’s certainly does.

Born in Dublin, Sean Scully gained fame as a painter in New York in the early 1970s, for his distinctive form of abstract painting: dramatic colored bars and horizontal beams. Although better known for these powerful abstract artworks, in fact Sean Scully has been making sculptures for over 20 years. His body of work is interconnected: the sculptures can be seen as three dimensional versions of his paintings. His towering Opulent Ascension was installed at San Giorgio Maggiore for the 2019 Venice Biennale. This year, he created Oak Stacks from historic, local Danish timber to stand in Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Square, Copenhagen for the start of that city’s 2023 designation as the World Capital of Architecture.

For Smaller than the Sky, sculptures made of sandstone, wood, glass, marble, steel and locally sourced limestone can be seen throughout the historic grounds and interiors of the former home of Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister. Of the thirteen sculptures in the exhibition, there are ten large and three small sculptures: four of these are brand new and shown here for the first time.

Crate of Air (2018) a perfectly rectangular sculpture of rust-colored corten steel, dominates the wide front lawn as the largest piece in the show. Near the ha ha (a sunken wall), also in steel but made up of uneven modules is Air Cage (2020), a clear example of Scully’s abstract paintings brought to life. Sandy-colored Tower Light Cubed (2023) is a new piece made from locally sourced limestone while another new work, Brown Miller’s Stack (2023) is a tower of pink sandstone millstones. carefully balanced in a discreet interior courtyard garden. Scully uses more opulent materials too. Tucked between two plump green trees is Black and Gold (2021) made of glimmering Portoroextra marble. In the gorgeous upstairs hall inside the house, Venice Stack (2020) is a delightful multicolored tower of hand-blown Murano glass blocks.

The exhibition also includes a selection of paintings and works on paper made over the past few years but with key reference to works from earlier in Scully’s career. These works are displayed in the grand rooms of the house and in the North Colonnade and the Contemporary Gallery.

Houghton Hall, built in 1722 for the Prime Minister, is one of England’s foremost examples of Palladian architecture and the house and grounds alone are worth a trip to Norfolk. The house, a family home since the 18th century has, along with its expansive gardens, been open to the public each summer since 1976. Sean Scully is the eighth artist to show at the grand house, following Chris Levine (2021), Tony Cragg (2021), Anish Kapoor (2020), Henry Moore (2019), Damien Hirst (2018), Richard Long (2017) and James Turrell (2015). Works by some of these artists have entered the collection and can be seen on the grounds of the house.

Houghton’s longstanding connection to the art world is well known, housing one of the world’s greatest private art collections. Robert Walpole’s collection of artworks, which included Roman busts and paintings by Da Vinci, Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt, were sold to Catherine the Great of Russia and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg now owns more than 120 works from the collection.

Explaining the show’s title and inspiration, Sean Scully said: “England, as we’ve seen from the fabulous paintings by Constable, is a country very informed by sky. People talk about the sky all the time. They talk about the weather, or the clouds, the wet. So, it’s a source of inspiration. When you put sculptures outside, you are aware that the sky is illuminating them, and conditioning how they look. Whatever you put out there is always humbled by the bigness of the sky.”

Sean Scully, Smaller than the Sky at Houghton Hall Norfolk, UK. 23 April – 29 October 2023. Tickets: Adults £20 Students £10 Under 18s free.

Houghton festival, an art and music festival from 10-13 August, on the grounds of the hall, provides another opportunity to see Sean Scully’s work. The festival which features 60 live acts, offers regular guided tours of the sculpture park.

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