Exploring Cheeseburn: My Journey Through the Gardens… and Beyond
It was on a sunny, May bank holiday that I drove to Cheeseburn. Winding along narrow country roads, with the wind in my hair and fields as far as the eye could see, it felt like a road trip to the heart of the English countryside – despite only being 10 miles west of Newcastle. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Cheeseburn’s curator, Matthew Jarratt, who handed me a map to follow and explained that the sculptures were in numbered order. After this, I was encouraged to explore, and so the real adventure began…
For those unaware, Cheeseburn encompasses Cheeseburn Grange Hall, a sprawling home with a rich and diverse history dating back to the 1200s; the sculpture gardens, which have been painstakingly restored by owners, Joanna and Simon Riddell; the Chapel, which dates back to 1820 and plays host to a range of artistic events, and the Stables Gallery, with its ever-changing programme of curated exhibitions.
But, it’s the gardens I’m most interested in. And so, it seems, is everyone else; taking in my immediate surroundings, I’m delighted to see a real mix of people exploring the greenery. From kids with piqued curiosity to retirees with professional cameras, I sense a real excitement over the many sculptures sited within the grounds.
With the map as my guide, I allow myself to delve into the landscape, where I encounter sculptures in places I wouldn’t even have expected. I crouch into alcoves with smooth, wooden pieces, asking to be stroked; I navigate through a tunnel leading to the most beautiful of rose gardens, where sculptures are carefully placed, almost at peace with their surroundings.
The first sculpture I am in awe of is Lure by Joseph Hillier – a large, stainless-steel ovoid, which lies motionless on its side. I can’t decide whether the egg is a nod to the farmland that surrounds Cheeseburn, or whether it should be taken at face value, with its interconnecting steel rods giving off an almost sci-fi quality. Either way, it certainly succeeds in luring me in.
The formal garden is occupied by more than one of Hillier’s sculptures, though and, soon enough, I’m drawn away from the silver ovoid to a multi-faceted bronze structure, known simply as Origin. I learn that Originis a two-part installation; the multi-faceted structure is coupled with a bronze, human-like figure holding a smaller version of the aforementioned. In Hillier’s work, the human body is often combined or confronted with geometric forms; at Cheeseburn, it’s no different.
I meander through the exceptionally well-kept garden, before noticing a fellow art-lover sat in the Chapel, complete with headphones on. Curious, I wander over, take a seat and pop on a spare set of headphones. I’m met with the sound of water; the soft tones of a male voice. Glancing across to my left, I discover that the sound installation is by Martin Eccles, who has recorded his journey through the River Pont. I close my eyes and imagine myself pushing against the current, with Eccles as my guide. The sound surrounds me, and, for a moment, I forget where I am. Such is the power of art; it transports you to another place.
With a renewed sense of calm, I continue along the sculpture trail, encountering a scurry of squirrels; concrete words of encouragement (‘onwards,’ ‘together,’ ‘as one’), and an acorn, nestled deep within the branches. The sculptures manage to blend in with their surroundings, whilst also remaining noticeable enough to add texture and variety to the landscape. I continue to feel as though I’m in the heart of the English countryside: the birds chirp away in the background; the sound of traffic is a million miles away.
I pass through a door in the garden wall (not unlike Alice in Wonderland, my curiosity growing with every passing minute), before arriving at The Potting Shed. A quick overview of the allegory of The Cave, before I am transported, once again, to another place. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness that surrounds me. For context, I’m in the midst of Peter Hanmer’s Plato’s Lair, which is the winner of this year’s Gillian Dickinson North East Young Sculptor competition. Hanmer has utilised every inch of the shed, his miniature figures appearing in every nook and cranny. The combination of the figures, sound, light and shadow, and the narrative creates a sense of unnerve. I feel on edge. Anxious. Yet, I can still hear the birds; I can still visualise the beauty beyond the shed.
I exit the Lair, continuing on with my journey through the sculpture gardens. After a short while, I arrive at Cheeseburn Grange Hall. The Hall is even more magnificent than in pictures, with its elegant sash windows, surrounding hedges, trimmed just-so and the, rather pretty, addition of lilac wisteria climbing the walls. The immediate surroundings of the Hall are, of course, punctuated with sculptures.
Among my favourites, are the works of Qi Yafeng. Hand-forged from stainless steel, Yafeng’s sculptures are extraordinarily large-scale; you can’t help but notice them. But, what I love most about them, is their ability to reflect the beauty of their surroundings, giving new meaning to the idea of greenery interacting with art. Yafeng works from a major studio space near Hong Kong and comes from a family of sculptors, who have been developing specialist fabrication skills for generations. His large-scale works were specially shipped over from China and, in June and July, visitors to Cheeseburn will be given insight into the craftsman’s studio practice.
I finish my grand tour of Cheeseburn by visiting the Stables Gallery, where I’m encouraged to place my vote for next year’s Gillian Dickinson North East Young Sculptor award. The sun is still shining upon my return to the outdoor seating area and so, I sit quietly, reflecting on time well-spent. One of the things I love the most about Cheeseburn is that it is only open for six weekends a year. My visit feels like somewhat of a special occasion; tangible yet intangible; a memory to treasure. I leave feeling full of hope: for young artists; for innovative sculptors; for experiences craftsmen. At Cheeseburn? They’re in good hands.