(A condensed version of this feature was published in May 2012)
THE first swallow of the season swoops and skims over the glassy surface of the River Frome at Pallington Lakes, dipping its beak to refuel after the long flight up through Europe.
It is sighted and noted by Simon Gudgeon, who takes a proprietorial interest in all new arrivals on his 26 acres at Tincleton, six miles west of Dorchester. For the record, that swallow arrived on the 2nd April, sand martins on the 1st, and the first of the family, the house martins, on the 26th March. Nothing is missed, everything is appreciated and accorded due honour.
Here, deep in the Dorset countryside, with lakes, ponds and the river threading through the land, Simon and his wife Monique are happy hosts to 93 different types of bird – so far. More will surely come as the lakes, formerly a coarse fishery, continue their rehabilitation and complete their return to natural splendour.
The swooping barn owl, the statuesque bittern, the curve of a wing, the angle of a beak – all of this is not just food for the soul. In Simon’s case, the wildlife around him feeds his inspiration, too, for he is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary sculptors and his main subjects are birds.
He made his name as a wildlife sculptor, but in recent years he has moved away from smaller-scale animals to create monumental bird-forms to stand majestically in such spaces as Hyde Park and the sculpture trail at the National Museum of Wildlife Art of America, Wyoming. The birds, some figurative, some more abstract, some that reference myths and legends, others that combine with exotic flora, are displayed on home turf, too, where they draw visitors from every corner to the Gudgeons’ countryside park, Sculpture by the Lakes.
Simon is the only living sculptor to have had two works commissioned for display in Hyde Park. He sells throughout the world and he is represented by the Halcyon Gallery in London. In short, he has arrived. It may be a crowded scene, but he is at the very forefront of the stage.
It is all the more surprising, therefore, to discover that he has been making a living as a sculptor for only a relatively brief period. Thirteen years ago, at the age of 40, he picked up a piece of clay and turned his back on the ‘trial’ occupations he’d been engaged in, starting with law and continuing through commercial photography, landscape gardening and house-sitting.
After meeting Monique, also a successful career-changer – from London-based PR executive to fully trained plantswoman – he decided to pursue what he really wanted to do, which was to make things with clay.
He has never had a lesson. He is not from an artistic family. He just knew that when he had that lump of clay in his hands it felt good and he had the urge to turn it into something beautiful.
The astonishing result, with many of his pieces, large and small, now in the homes, gardens and grounds of private collectors, and with national and international acclaim regularly coming his way, may bring him satisfaction and reward but he is always striving for something more, different and, in his eyes, even better.
“I’ve got to keep moving forward and be challenged and inspired and excited,” Simon says. “I can’t stay ‘safe’. I believe that as an artist you have to paint or make things you are passionate about, and if you are not passionate then it’s futile.”
His aim is to create something skilful, beautiful and profound. “If you can achieve two out of those three, that’s good. All three is perfect,” he says.
The evidence of that pursuit of perfection is all around at Sculpture by the Lakes, its waterside setting surely unique among the country’s many sculpture parks and gardens. Simon’s sculpture, majestic within such a landscape, where Monique’s block planting is so thoughtful and so effective, moves the viewing of art into a totally different dimension, an experience that enthrals and excites. Sometimes a piece is glimpsed from a distance, perhaps through trees or tall grasses, the aspect changing until it is finally revealed, more beautiful even in its proximity and, sometimes, doubled in magnificence by its reflection in a lake.
Now that Pallington Lakes is no longer a fishery, visitors are able to spend as long as they wish, strolling and relaxing and picnicking. There are boats for crossing to an island where Eve and the Fallen Apples lie in wait, and many lakeside seats at different levels to allow appreciation of the sculpture from alternative angles – one seat, strikingly, made in wood by local furniture maker Simon Thomas Pirie, and another a two-man copper swing by Hampshire metal artist Steve Myburgh. It all adds up to what Simon wants it to be: “A place of reflection and quiet contemplation.” That is why no more than 30 pre-booked visitors are allowed at any time, and why children under 12 are not allowed. “An exhibition should be an experience, not a ‘viewing’,” Simon adds.
With head gardener Marcus Smith and the grounds maintenance team of Lin Hambidge, her partner Ian McLuckie and his son, apprentice Sam McLuckie, Simon and Monique have planted 2,000 trees and shrubs, among them a wood of 460 silver birches and large numbers of oaks and willow as well as a dozen rare black poplar. “This is a lovely spot,” Simon agrees, “but you are always driven. There are always changes to be made, a whole range of things to work on. You don’t get time to relax. It’s like art. Art is a creative imperative. You can’t not do it. The more ideas you have the more driven you become.”
The drive is propelling Simon down undiscovered roads, into painting – “big, juicy oils, playing with colour” – and abstract kinetic sculpture, which he plans to exhibit next year.
The restless creativity explodes in dramatic vignettes wherever you look. There’s a beautiful, productive vegetable garden in parterre style close to the house, a hen enclosure with a des-res henhouse, a hard-landscaped sitting area where two old dogs lie commemorated, a long, winding woven willow arch, hand-made by Monique, and the ‘wise walk’, an arcade with quotations and uplifting or amusing aphorisms carved into the paving. In fact, les mots justes abound, surprising with their appearance in a stone wall or in metalwork springing up from the edge of a lake. Shakespeare is of course represented, but the selection is extremely catholic and includes Kipling and Edgar Allen Poe.
All of this, even the newly dug ponds, has been created in just four years since Simon and Monique first set eyes on Pallington.
They’d been looking to move from their rented two-bedroom cottage south of Salisbury and close to the New Forest because Simon couldn’t cope any longer with working in an old Nissen hut. “I couldn’t make anything over seven feet in height,” he says. “It was restricting both physically and creatively.”
Online searching of properties for sale, focusing on houses with barns in Devon, suddenly threw a curve ball – PallingtonLakes in Dorset. As Simon wryly recalls, it failed to fulfil any of their requirements. “Scarily, it was also twice our budget, so as first-time buyers it was an altogether hopeless proposition.”
However, he and Monique were intrigued enough to view it – and the rest is history. Freed from the confines of the Nissen hut into two huge, high, studios, Simon’s sculpture has grown exponentially. He’s thinking big, making big and has big plans to match.
A first musical event at Sculpture by the Lakes last year has encouraged him to grow that side of the business, so that this summer there will be three, all on a large scale. Stretch marquees will accommodate the crowds but the hope is that balmy evenings will mean everyone can wander the candlelit paths and picnic by the lakes.
PallingtonLakes may have been Simon and Monique’s first house purchase, but it is also their last. They don’t plan to move on anywhere else. “We’ve chosen where we’re going to be buried – our Île des Morts,” says Simon, gesturing out across the 26 acres, where the flashes of kingfishers suddenly illuminate the lake’s edge.