As I know you are a person of discernment and refined tastes, I’m sure you will be holidaying in Devon this year. While you are here give yourself another treat and visit Broomhill Art Gardens a few miles north of Barnstaple on the B3230. In fact, as a hotel lies at its centre you could spend some of your holiday on site.
Broomhill nestles in a heavily-wooded, steep-sided valley through which a stream flows from pool to pool. When we visited a couple of weeks ago the woods were ablaze with spring flowers and filled with birdsong. The hotel is set up on the hill with views down the valley. Even if it were only a hotel set in such a picturesque place it would be worth a visit, but it is much, much more.
Dutch couple, Rinus and Aniet van de Sande, have run Broomhill since 1997 and have pumped all their energy and enterprise into creating a centre that not only supports developing artists, but provides an extraordinary experience for all visitors.
We arrived mid-morning and went in search of coffee. Within the hotel there is a large gallery where exhibitions are held on a continual basis. One such exhibition was about to open and the main lounge was full of people waiting to go in. We were served coffee in the library and for the next thirty minutes I don’t think we said anything except, ‘Look at that!’ The room (and as we found later, the entire hotel), is full of extraordinary artwork: paintings, drawings, sculptures, pottery, wood carvings – even the furniture we were sitting on had to be studied. The whole place is a feast for the eyes. If you’re in need of further feasting there is a restaurant called Terra Madre serving delicious and very reasonably priced food.
I suppose what we had seen inside should have prepared us for what came next, but it didn’t. Outside the paths meander through flower gardens, rock gardens and natural woodland, with running water seemingly everywhere. In total there are more than 300 sculptures: some huge and overwhelming, some tiny and easily missed.
I love Flat Man by Giles Penny. Standing about fifteen feet high, only two feet thick and carved from a pale grey stone, he maintains a melancholy watch over the access lane. I must get back there on a clear night to see him by moonlight.
At the other end of the size range there are tiny bronze figures by Carol Peace perched on top of fence posts. They may be tiny, but they are big on character. We found later that some of Carol’s work was also featured in the exhibition in the gallery. I found them utterly charming.
There are creations that work on all of the emotions, from impishly humourous to the rather terrifying. Three are shown below.
One area is used to display work in the National Sculpture Prize event with a prize fund of £15,000. Each year a panel of art experts selects the proposals of ten sculptors. Each receives a grant of £1,000 and is given three months to complete the proposed work. They are then displayed at Broomhill. The eventual winner is chosen by experts, but the public can also vote for the ‘Public Speaks’ award. Interestingly, the two selections very seldom coincide. Entries for the 2014 prize will be displayed from 1st June. When we visited we found past finalist and winning entries on display. Dorcas Casey’s creation of three figures is quite spooky and I can easily understand how it came to win ‘The Public Speaks Award’ in 2013.
Joseph Hillier’s human figure is fascinating. It’s made of many small surfaces set at differing angles so as I walked around it there was a constant change of shadow and light that gave the impression of movement.
With over 300 sculptures on display it’s impossible to take everything in. Looking through my photos I’m reminded of many that stopped me in my tracks. There is such a range of material from those that made me laugh out loud to others that exude emotional intensity. One that really appealed is a piece called ‘Permanently Temporary’ by Graham Guy-Robinson which won The National Sculpture Prize in 2012. It’s about three feet high, four feet square with slightly wavy sides. The inside surface looks for all the world like that orange plastic temporary fencing much loved by builders and farmers, but the piece is actually made of thick steel and the outer surface is highly polished and reflective. Because it’s set within a wood in deep foliage one sees the foliage behind the piece through the holes and the outer surface reflects the foliage behind the viewer, which has the effect that one can almost make the entire piece seem to disappear by adjusting the viewing angle – all of which makes it very difficult to do it justice in a photograph.
Allow yourself plenty of time for your visit. One day may well not be enough. Just in case you suspect that this sounds like a place full of arty pseuds talking garbage with evangelical intensity, let me assure you that everyone we met was warm, welcoming and cheerful. This is a fun place. But a word of warning – you may well leave the Broomhill Hotel filled with the desire to go home, throw away everything in your house and re-stock only with beautiful, fascinating items. Sorry, I forgot for a moment that you are a person of discernment and good taste, so your home, unlike mine, is no doubt already like that.