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Compton Verney: A New Attraction for Great Britain

ART TIMES Jun, 2004

Compton Verney

A major new arts venue opened in Britain this year, adding an unusual component to the country’s flourishing artistic initiatives. Compton Verney opened in March to great public and critical acclaim. After a ten-year period of restoration, which saw the previously derelict 18th century mansion transformed into an art venue of international standing, its opening was certainly eagerly awaited. Situated close to the renowned Stratford-upon-Avon, Compton Verney is a significant addition to the ever popular ‘Shakespeare Country’, offering a satisfying mix of historic and contemporary.

The house itself is a Georgian neo-classical mansion, designed in the 1760s by Robert Adam and built around an existing Baroque house. It sits in 120 acres of land, which form part of a landscape designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the most eminent landscape architect of the 18th century. On arrival at the site the visitor passes a lake and crosses an idyllic bridge adorned by four recently recovered sphinxes. The house then becomes visible through an array of towering, dramatically formed trees, and the scene is immediately set for a visit that can really only be described as otherworldly.

Compton Verney was bought in 1993 by the Peter Moores Foundation, which established the Compton Verney House Trust to transform the derelict mansion into an art gallery, and the Foundation has committed 64 million to this project to date. Compton Verney is the realisation of a life-long aim held by British philanthropist Sir Peter Moores, and contains six important art collections: Naples 1600-1800; German 1450-1650; British Portraits; Chinese Bronzes; British Folk Art and the Marx-Lambert Collection of Popular Art.

In addition to the collections an outstanding programme of exhibitions are scheduled to take place over the next few years. The first is Luper at Compton Verney, an installation by world-renowned filmmaker Peter Greenaway (to 31 October). On entering Compton Verney the visitor is immediately confronted by an aspect of the Luper installation, which continues throughout the building, climaxing in the historic Great Hall and a series of purpose built contemporary spaces.

Greenaway’s films often feature the archetypal English estate with sweeping grounds as a backdrop, and Compton Verney therefore provides a uniquely appropriate setting for the exhibition. Here the character of Luper takes the viewer on a journey through time and history in an installation that is epic in both scale and content. It is an extraordinary fusion of sound and vision, which immerses all the senses. Haunting, yet compelling, the story of Luper at Compton Verney offers a poignant metaphor for our fragmented times.

Tilman Riemenschneider, 'An Unknown Female Saint' (c.1515-1520)

Both the collection and temporary exhibition spaces at Compton Verney have been immaculately and sensitively designed. The actual transformation of the building was led by two architectural practices: Stanton Williams in London and Rodney Melville & Partners in Leamington Spa. Contractors were the Midlands-based Linford Group and the exhibition design was created by Metaphor, a museum masterplanning and exhibition design studio in London. The combination of these talents has resulted in an art gallery that holds rank with any major restoration project in the world. Over twenty gallery spaces have been created, which are situated on three floors, in addition to a shop, café and extensive learning centre.

The historic importance of the site meant a particularly careful restoration of the shell of the mansion was needed. Architectural details and intricate fireplaces have been left intact throughout the building. From the tall, elegant windows glimpses of the grounds can be seen at every turn, offering a constant reminder of this exquisite location. A combination of limestone, handmade bricks, hand-tooled stone, glass and steel complement the spirit of the original buildings, yet create an ambience that is totally modern and timeless.

Inside the mansion the restored eighteenth century rooms on the ground floor lead to the new galleries on the upper floors. The contemporary extension offers an added dimension and provides the flexibility necessary for Compton Verney’s temporary exhibitions programme. The galleries meet the conditions of an exacting international standard, with a complex integration of mechanical and electrical engineering work into the historic building’s fabric. All this importantly enables Compton Verney to host loaned works of art from all over the world.

Compton Verney is a place where art, architecture, landscape and learning fuse, to offer the visitor an experience that is truly holistic. The variety of the collections and temporary exhibitions programme ensure that there is something to interest everyone, and Sir Peter Moores’ vision of providing an opportunity to share with others the pleasure that the arts give him has certainly been achieved.

(Compton Verney, Warwickshire, England comptonverney.org.uk)

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