If You Go Down to the Woods Today…

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From garden Jenga to riotously colourful decor, Cowley Manor isn’t your run-of-the-mill country house hotel. With an exhibition of contemporary sculpture to discover in its grounds this summer, Estella finds there’s all the more reason to pay a visit…

You never know quite what you’re going to find in Cowley Manor’s gardens – you might, for instance, stumble upon a swan sitting proudly atop its towering nest on a lake island, or come to cluster of brightly coloured deckchairs in a clearing telling of some recent gathering, or spot a deer darting into the woods. No wonder Lewis Carroll loved to ramble in the grounds of this Cotswolds estate while staying with friends in the neighbouring village: the possibility of slipping down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy wonderland seems suddenly quite plausible.

In fact, at it times it seems as though you’re already through the looking glass thanks to the array of sculptures dotted around Cowley’s 55 acres, displaying a rather Carrollian mix of whimsy, anthropomorphism and the surreal. These are here thanks to an on-going partnership with the Royal College of Art: each year post-graduate students from its prestigious Fine Art MA design pieces specifically for this setting and six are selected to make and display their artworks in situ through the summer. The overall winning entry – chosen by a panel of judges that included GQ’s arts columnist and the director of Camden Arts Centre – is purchased by Cowley Manor and takes up permanent residence there. Now in its fourth year, for many of the students it’s one of their first opportunities to create a commercial commission.

Cowley RCA 2015 © Amy Murrell-21

So the treasure hunt begins. First I happened upon ‘Backsides’ by Millie Peck – a series of white signpost-like stands that mimic the contours of classical statues’ buttocks. Right now the collection is positioned next to the spa – a cheeky nod to the, err, cheeks on display by the pool perhaps.

The next piece is far more solemn, menacing even – a pair of towering, textural workers’ boots by Jamie Fitzpatrick that stand sentinel beside a secluded lake. Passing a row of huge white Hollywood-style letters on a grassy verge, spelling out ‘Hey’ (the winning entry from 2012), Kyle Zeto’s ‘Barkskin’ is located beneath a sapling up ahead. Raised on an altar-like grassy mound, this small, unsettling votive fuses a 3D rendering of the artist’s own hand with a found chunk of beechwood, as if frozen in a state of metamorphosis like a tiny Daphne.

The works continue to surprise and raise a smile. Oskar Jakobsen’s ‘Redoubt’ is a shelter or hidey-hole whose fluid, silvery draped folds belie its hard metallic texture – it turns out it’s made from alufibre, a material normally used for boats or racing cars. And Natalia Skobeeva’s playful audio sculpture gives visitors an unexpected greeting as they enter a room – I won’t tell you where exactly, just keep your ears open…

But it’s Chilean artist Miguel Soto Karelovic’s ‘Stolen Friend’ that takes home the prize. It’s an exact replica of an Easter Island figure from the British Museum and looks at home rising out of the Upper Pool, a natural spring beside the rock garden. As you look down at it from the hotel’s terrace, past the Jenga sets and colourful hammocks on the lawn, you can also see last year’s winner: a luminous green Cheshire Cat grin hovering mysteriously in the trees.

Cowley RCA 2015 © Amy Murrell-9

An afternoon spent sculpture spotting in idyllic English gardens is, I discover, one of the best antidotes to the stresses of London life. Rushing across town in an Uber that morning seems a world away from Cowley, not an hour and twenty-minute train ride. A mid-afternoon soak in my room’s seriously massive bathtub, doused with Green & Spring toiletries (full-size bottles, not piddly little hotel-size ones), completes the unwinding process before getting ready for a barbecue supper.

Like the rest of the house, the bedrooms fizz with rich colour – think teal, plum, apple green and magenta – and the presence of contemporary art continues with original prints and paintings on the walls. I liked mine so much that in the morning I opted to have my cooked veggie breakfast and pot of Earl Grey in bed instead of heading downstairs – or maybe it had something to do with all those amaretto sours the previous night…

Never mind – it’s nothing that can’t be sorted out by bracing walk through the fields in a pair of the hotel’s sunflower yellow wellies.

The Cowley Manor Arts Award sculpture exhibition runs until September. For more information visit www.cowleymanor.com.

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