Sometimes we do something or visit somewhere and it is fairly straightforward to write about it; travelogue style pieces that essentially say we went here and saw that. However occasionally we do or see something that provokes a deeper response in me and I then find it quite hard to think about how to write about it to the extent that I wonder whether I should or not. That is because my response will mean that I have to share something about myself and my feelings and opinions with the “world” that I may not think is entirely politic. Even writing this paragraph falls into that category and leads me to ponder what exactly is the purpose of the blog and why I am writing it. When I am “stuck” over a post in this way I always know as I will often start it and then scrap it; write the first paragraph and decide it is not right; give it one title and then change it and sometimes abandon it altogether. All of this except the abandoning have been true of this post.
Before I go any further let me say that this is a longish post and it has more than the usual number of links out to other web sites and pages. Normally these would be optional in the sense that they would be for those interested in further information but in this case they do form an important part of the post as they contain much of the “evidence” for my position and are integral to the argument so I hope that you will take the time to at least click and follow as many as you can bear even if you don’t read them all; that would probably be asking too much, although you may want to read this over more than one sitting. So, back to the beginning; my original opening paragraph went like this:
“Recently, while lunching with friends from Kensington Chapel at the very acceptable reincarnation of the Beaufort just up from us on the London Road, we had recommended to us Hauser & Wirth Somerset, a private art gallery, or perhaps art space one might say nowadays, set in the Somerset countryside on the edge of a small town called Bruton about 45 minutes drive south and a little west of Bath. It sounded so interesting that it seemed worth a visit which indeed it was as we found out a couple of days ago but a little background is probably going to help here.”
As you can see this could very easily have just continued on as an innocuous piece about how “interesting” the gallery was and what a fine time we had visiting it but as the last sentence begins to suggest everything requires some context within which it may be understood or interpreted; at the very least how does a small town in Somerset come to have such a professional website? (As a comparison have a look at the rather naff effort produced by Tetbury, my parents’ town, which is Prince Charles’s local town, a tourist destination and of comparable size to Bruton, though actually somewhat larger). Let me just re-state this. Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a substantial private art gallery with gardens, restaurant, guest house and study and educational facilities that has been established deep in the Somerset countryside yet on the edge of a small town whose other main activities are agriculture and private education. How on earth did it get there? What kind of small rural town gets to have such a place, the primary purpose of which is to sell substantial works of contemporary art that can really only find a “home” in either a significant public art museum or space or a private collection somewhere and which only the super-rich could ever hope to purchase?
Given those questions this post is not an attempt to describe the gallery to you or even to respond to art works that we encountered but rather to try and supply some of the missing context and how I respond to that. To begin to appreciate what Hauser & Wirth Somerset actually looks like I urge to follow some of the links that I am going to supply. The more you read the more you will understand the background and also why this post carries far fewer pictures than normal. There is an abundance of excellent photos in all of the various links. When you do follow a link, take note of the dates of the articles or references and you will see that the gallery has only been a “place” for a few years at most. A good place to start is this piece in the Guardian which actually appeared in their Travel Section. It is quite lengthy but very informative. I draw your attention to a couple of key passages:
“As well as the farming families and West Country bohemians (Glastonbury is 15 miles away), there is certainly an element of comfortably off DFLs (down from Londons) whose children attend one of a clutch of local, independent schools. This is also an area fertile with creativity. Artist Richard Pomeroy and his writer wife Helena Drysdale are locals. As are writer and TV presenter Mariella Frostrup, photographer Don McCullin, film maker Julien Temple and painter Luke Piper, grandson of John Piper. Its most famous visitor was, perhaps, John Steinbeck, who stayed in the 1950s while he worked on The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, published posthumously.”
So we are beginning to understand something about this part of the country which for me is commonly understood to encompass the Cotswolds (Gloucestershire and Wiltshire), Somerset and perhaps some of north and west Dorset, a largely rural area of outstanding natural beauty, as they say, that has never been spoilt by anything so unseemly as industry and whose early wealth stemmed from the wool and cloth trade. Bath lies on the western edge before you get as far as Bristol and is colloquially known as “West Kensington”, that is, it is regarded as an extension of South Kensington in London for obvious reasons.
The second passage I would draw to your attention is this:
“In the 20-odd years that Hauser & Wirth has been in existence, opening first in Zurich, then adding galleries in London’s Mayfair and New York, it has established itself as a serious player in the commercial art world. Swiss art dealer Iwan Wirth co-founded the gallery with retail magnate and art collector Ursula Hauser in Zurich in the early 1990s, then married her daughter, Manuela. They expanded into London (first in Piccadilly; they now have interconnecting spaces on Savile Row), then New York, with Los Angeles in their sights for 2015.
They are described as “the gallery world’s power couple…Somewhere in between openings in London and New York last year, the “power couple” discovered this laid-back, pastoral corner of Somerset, on the cusp of Dorset and Wiltshire. They now have a house here, and their children are at school locally.”
So, cultivation met money and then married it. A little harsh I am sure but you get the picture and just so that you understand this thing about being a “power couple” properly let me refer you to the latest assessment by Art Review. This certainly begins to draw one deeper into the world that is opaquely on view here. I encourage you to read the full article but the key point, as the author proposes, is surely that:
“Iwan and his wife (and gallery copresident), Manuela, understand that selling art objects isn’t the whole story – the well-off want to be sold a lifestyle.”
Ah, things are becoming a little clearer but that is not the whole story by any means for indeed:
“the gallery was also recently cited for having placed new employee Princess Eugenie under a ‘holiday ban’ so that she can be ‘manning a stall in Regent’s Park’ during Frieze Art Fair. The Somerset project only hints at how the Wirths’ success lies in the way that their operations are increasingly merging collecting with the tastes and social aspirations of their clientele.”
You might think that the author has been a little too explicit here but no, for they cannot resist a final gush to make it abundantly clear what is being offered. It is:
“That subtle, tailored approach to the lifestyle of art that taps into the insatiable desire for exclusivity that drives the wealthy. More than just a gallery, Hauser & Wirth is turning itself into a sort of club, one that the very rich are only too keen to join.”
One can scarcely believe that one of the many propagandists for the wealthy and their lifestyles could be quite so crass, I suppose only one who is not actually part of it could be, but there are plenty of others to provide a suitable gloss on the true purpose of such businesses. Here are a few examples for you to drool over. I don’t expect you to read all of these but please at least have a look and a skim to absorb the flavour. Firstly and unsurprisingly the house magazine of the Tory party, The Telegraph, has a couple of delicious examples, both are from their Luxury Section (I kid you not, there really is such a thing) on the restaurant and on the gallery itself and both are so fawning as to be bordering on self-parody but certainly convey the flavour. My favourite quote from the restaurant article is this gem:
“The well-connected Catherine Butler is the powerhouse running the show, she’s already ploughed a furrow for Bruton with At The Chapel, a restaurant and bakery (the very definition of rustic chic) with rooms that has become the beating heart of this unassuming Somerset town for both the well-heeled, linen-dressed locals and the down-from-London brigade “.
More on At The Chapel later but note this from the piece on the gallery delivered with a straight face by Ms Louisa Buck:
“All of the above is a particular boon for the inhabitants of Somerset who recently – and controversially – had to endure a 100 per cent cut to their arts funding by the county council. So far, the consensus from the surrounding community as well as from the artists and friends of Hauser & Wirth has been a resoundingly positive endorsement.”
It isn’t just the national press reporting on the pleasures to be had at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Bloggers to the smart set such as Lucy Freedman wax lyrical as does architectural blogger Prewitt Bizley. As a further insight into this let us see what qualifies Lucy to “show you” as her blog so disarmingly offers to do. This is her biography from the blog and it is worth quoting in full:
“Created by Somerset born Design & Creative Consultant Lucy Freedman, after 10+ years in London, Lucy has recently moved to Paris for the beginning of her next chapter.
A Kingston University Product & Furniture Design graduate with a decade of experience in the European luxury design market, Lucy was the founding Design Director of e-commerce brand Discover&Deliver and Senior Designer at Fox Linton Associates.
After years of collating images via trade shows, press events, client sourcing, and both personal and professional trips abroad, and as a scrapbook fanatic from an early age, times change, only keep so many crumbling notebooks could be kept, so a webpage was born.
Press features include being featured in Conde Nast Traveller UK & UAE, and Hong Kong & China’s South China Morning Post newspaper as one of the Top 5 Best Decor Blogs, and winning the Amara Interior Blog Awards ‘Editors Choice’ award.”
You see it is only people with such credentials, and they are real credentials, could write about a place such as Hauser & Wirth in the way that her intended audience would and could understand although she could do with a bit of proof-reading as the “only keep so many crumbling notebooks could be kept” clanger suggests. (I now have to hope that I don’t find I live in a glasshouse but c’mon, really Lucy what would your readers think?).
Now one thing that I should say very clearly at this point is that there is no doubt that Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a very sophisticated and pleasing creation. Everything has been done in the best possible taste using the skills and talents of some of the best people in their fields such as architect Luis Laplace, landscape gardener Piet Oudolf and restaurateur Catherine Butler and her designer and furniture-maker partner Ahmed Sidki. After all, it has to be good to attract not the general art-interested public but the very wealthy art-buying public.
What, however, of the town of Bruton itself? We have already learnt that our “power-couple” came to live here before deciding to rescue Durslade Farm that was falling into dereliction and turn it into a centre for art tourism and had sent their children to local schools. But Bruton is a very small town of only 3,000 inhabitants so what kind of schools would be available. Well there is no need to worry on that count because a quick search soon reveals that there are in fact several schools in and around Bruton but unless you can afford a private education you are likely to be disappointed because apart from the local Primary school they are all what is coyly known as “independent” except for the disconcertingly named Sexey’s which is one of the very few State boarding schools in the country. Let the 2015 Tatler’s Guide to State Schools reassure you on the matter:
“Thanks to Hauser & Wirth’s decision to land their new art gallery in this corner of Somerset (home to the Friel/Lowe/ Temperley set – and Glasto, of course), Bruton is now firmly on the map. In state-school terms, Sexey’s is tiny, with fewer than 500 pupils, just under half of whom board (fees are around £9,000 a year). But its GCSE results are the best in Somerset’s state schools, and pupils notched up an impressive 62 per cent A*-B at A-level last year. Parts of it are on the shabby side, but this just adds to the atmosphere – ‘like a slightly shambolic private school,’ we are told. The word ‘family’ cropped up a lot when we visited – pupils come from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities (they’ve just added Mandarin as an enrichment class due to demand). To stand a chance of getting a day place, you must live within a mile of the school. For boarding places, you have to hold a British or EU passport. Head Irfan Latif has spent his teaching career in private schools – for him, Sexey’s is about ‘affordable independent-style education’.”
So don’t worry because, thanks to Hauser & Wirth, Bruton is on the map and consequently you will have to be able to afford the real estate in Bruton to be able to send your child to Sexey’s and derive all the benefits of a boarding school style education even though you will only be a mile away so it’s not for everyone. As one mother of a year 7 boarder explained: “she likes being able to drop her son off on Monday morning and pick him up on Friday afternoon. ‘I feel we get the best of both worlds,’ she said. ‘There is no Saturday school so we get a proper family weekend'” whatever that might mean in her universe. Although this piece from the other side of the tracks, where the Daily Mail exists, suggests that not everyone will appreciate all that Sexey’s has to offer. Not quite the publicity they were looking for no doubt and it is genuinely sad.
As for the rest you can choose from King’s Bruton or Bruton School for Girls (or there was the Meadow School, a Steiner school but that appears to have closed its doors), as long as you have the wherewithal¹. The Observer ran a very illuminating piece on the class divide over schools in Bruton. Rather than link to it I am going to quote it in full because it tells an important story that goes to the heart of what this post is all about:
The small Somerset town of Bruton shows how the divide operates even in highly successful state primary schools. Once a centre for the wool and silk trades, Bruton is now dominated by schools. It has two private boarding schools (King’s School and Bruton School for Girls), each with its own prep school; a grant-maintained state boarding school (Sexey’s) which regularly tops government league tables for state schools; and a state primary that is the best in the area. The locals say there are more students per head in Bruton than in Oxford, and in the summer holidays the population is cut by half.
Bruton Primary is one of those high-performing state schools of New Labour’s dreams. It is largely middle class, there are still 20 per cent of children on free school meals and there is no academic selection. It meets national targets for 11-year-olds in maths and English (other schools have been given until 2002) and its Ofsted inspection was so positive that Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, is paying a visit in March.
But even here the great divide is everywhere apparent. Bruton primary gets about 1,500 pounds per annum for each pupil – the equivalent of one term’s fees at the local prep school, Hazlegrove. A quarter of its pupils end up in independent schools either by transferring to Hazlegrove or by passing exams for private schools.
After nearly 30 years as head of Bruton Primary, Brian Ditchburn is resigned to the strict local hierarchy: ‘My job is to give the children the best possible chance here. Where they go after that is up to their parents.’ But in many ways his school can’t compete with Hazlegrove, (another independent school: TobyTheCat) whose days last till 6pm and which has a theatre, bee-keeping lessons, a go-kart track, canoeing, an indoor swimmming pool and selective entrance policy. Hazlegrove’s head, the Rev Bramwell Bearcroft, is sceptical about Labour’s plans to get private schools to open up their facilities to the state sector. ‘It’s patronising,’ he says. ‘How about a huge injection of cash and confidence.’
When he visits Bruton next month, Mr Woodhead is unlikely to visit the Meadow School, set up last November by dissident parents in reaction to the ‘back-to-basics’ approach of Ofsted and the Government. Here, parents pay up to 2,500 pounds a year for the privilege of withdrawing their children from the tests and strictures of the national curriculum.
The school is run on the principles of Austrian educationalist Rudolph Steiner, emphasising the importance of the creative arts in a child’s development. Parents built the school in the shell of an old shop on the high street.
Emma Craigie, whose six-year-old daughter, Maud, is part of the first intake of 11 children, said: ‘I feel immense sadness. I always thought my children would be educated in state schools.’
Curiously, it is the Meadow School, opposed in so many ways to Government policy, that is building the kind of imaginative alliances that the Government wants the impoverished state sector to adopt.
The parents raised the money to build the school and persuaded local firms to donate 15,000 pounds of building materials – then did most of the work with help from Community Service Volunteers.
Heads from the local state and independent schools attended the official opening of the school and the bountiful head of King’s has agreed to let the Meadow children use his playing fields.
As the private sector (traditional and alternative) in Bruton meets steadily more ambitious goals, the state primary school gets squeezed. Although it does not select on an academic basis, Bruton Primary is happy to attract middle-class children from elsewhere in Somerset, some of whom travel from towns up to 20 miles away to attend this model school. And so the pecking order is maintained.” (Andrew Adonis and Martin Bright)
What is particularly startling about this piece is that it dates from 1998 making it nearly 20 years since this state of affairs had been identified. Note also that the Meadows was a parents initiative. As mentioned above this “alternative” private school didn’t survive the vicicitudes of the free market. I can only assume that these forces have intensified given what we saw during our visit. Attractions such as At The Chapel and Hauser & Wirth did not exist yet the “divide” was already well in evidence.
To put all this into some kind of perspective we have an ancient rural town whose wealth derived originally from the wool trade that in modern times became a middle-class enclave and an educational centre based on a number of private schools. The schools attracted well-off parents down to the town and this encouraged a local economy which in its turn attracted other well-off people into the area to live. Entrepreneurs began to provide venues for them such as At The Chapel and the otherwise out-of-place up-market women’s clothing stores, antique and lifestyle shops that such a small rural town could not normally support. These factors attracted yet more wealthy people such as the Wirths who then realised that they could build yet further on this growth and attract the DFL’s (see above) and their own wealthy clientele as long as they could offer somewhere suitable for them to stay such as the Farmhouse at Durslade.
An interesting sidelight on this is the transport connection. Bruton has historically had a railway station but since 1965 it was an unmanned halt only and trains on the Reading to Taunton line rarely stopped at all, however, miraculously, in December 2015 (that is about a year ago) the GWR (privatised rail company) introduced a service from London Waterloo to Frome and Bruton for the first time ever. I cannot imagine what that could be in response to, can you? This is especially extraordinary when one thinks of the lack of rural transport links one normally hears about.
I said at the outset that some context would be required before I could report on our visit and I think that should be sufficient to make sense of the place and our experience of it. By the way, if you are wondering about the unusual paucity of pictures so far in this post it is largely due to the proliferation of very high quality photographs in all the other pieces that I have linked to. Frankly they are much better than most of mine although I have uploaded a couple of galleries to accompany the post and I will interpolate a few pictures from here to help deepen your understanding of Bruton.
Arriving at the gallery we parked in the ample free parking available and made our way into the main buildings and on enquiring were lucky enough to be able to secure time-constrained seats in the Roth Bar & Grill – about which you have already read so much – for lunch without a prior booking. I can confirm that we had an excellent meal at prices that were more reasonable than I would have guessed for such an establishment. In doing so, service was provided in the restaurant and at the bar by quite delightful and extremely attractive young people who really should have been somewhere else, like London for example. As our table was needed for booked guests we repaired to the bar for pudding from where we could examine the details of the much discussed use of old tools and artisan bric-á-brac. I have to say that this kind of appropriation of the implements of actual craftsmen, or just plain workmen, always puts me in mind of one of my favourite acerbic quotes from the comedian Alexi Sayle that: “Anyone who mentions the word ‘workshop’ outside of the context of light industry is a twat”. Why do people who are never likely to get their hands dirty with an actual wood or metal working tool so keen to decorate places with them as if it implied some sort of authenticity?
After lunch a quick pit stop in the washrooms was required. These continued the quasi-industrial/farm theme by making me feel as if I was in the milking sheds or somewhere similar while at the same time in a continuation of the gallery.
I have to admit that it was a lot of fun to be in this crazy environment where even the cloakroom seemed as if it was a work of art. Eventually we made it into the actual exhibition spaces which were large enough to contain the type of substantial pieces that seem to be a speciality. In most of the rooms there was a charming attendant happy to discuss the work on view. Nearly all of these people seemed to be middle-aged, middle-class women; presumably the wives and mothers from the town, delighted to have a job at the gallery. I just hope that they were employees and not volunteers. We were definitely put in mind of the White Rabbit gallery in Sydney which displays works from one of the largest private collections of modern Chinese art. The main difference is that White Rabbit is simply there to share the art collected by two very wealthy individuals with the general public while Hauser & Wirth’s gallery is there to share art works for a limited time before they are purchased by some very wealthy people for their own enjoyment.
Outside, the garden was a little disappointing inasmuch as it was in a “fallow” period with not a lot in bloom and the skies were overcast, heightening the subdued appearance. At the far end of the garden sits the Pavilion designed by Chilean architect Smiljan Radić. This unique structure was first unveiled as the Serpentine Gallery 2014 Pavilion and installed at Bruton in March 2015. In case you were wondering it is an entertainment space with a built-in bar all ready for art show launches and other such gatherings.
Before leaving we took a stroll around the town of Bruton itself. What struck us immediately was the singular lack of people on the streets. Although there were a few locals wandering around there was a quite eerie emptiness about the place and then almost the first person we saw, waiting at a bus stop by a bridge over the little river running through the town, was a young girl chatting away in an Eastern European language – probably Polish – on her mobile phone. Once again, as we experience so often, EU migrants can be found deep in rural areas of the country keeping the economy afloat. Eventually we came across some old buildings that gave the feel of being on a street in somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge. Unsurprisingly these were part of King’s School and we could see how much the school dominated that side of the town.
Back on the main street we ended our day in the very cool and stylish At the Chapel for coffee and cake. The lunch session was winding down and at a few tables others were having afternoon drinks. Two of the groups I observed were comprised of teenaged girls and I fell to wondering how it was that they were there in term time, on a weekday afternoon, in such a small town. Remember, at the time I was not aware of the Girl’s schools in town but I now realise that they were escapees in some way from the schools betraying that sense of privilege that belongs to the upper-middle and upper classes. “But how do you know they were really from those classes?” I can here you protest. Well, let me quote a passage from Watching the English by anthropologist Kate Fox (daughter of Robin Fox for those in the trade):
“If in doubt, look at the hair. Hair is a fairly reliable class-indicator … Almost all upper-middle to upper-class public-schoolgirls have straight, shiny-clean, floppy hair, falling loose so that they can be constantly pushing it back, running their fingers through it, flipping and tossing it, tucking it behind their ears, pulling it into a rough twist or ponytail then letting it fall back again, in a sequence of apparently casual, unconscious gestures. This public-schoolgirl floppy-hair display is a highly distinctive ritual, rarely seen among working-class females.”
That’s how I know and if that was one piece of imaginative construction on my part the other was the mother, expensively dressed and seated languidly at the table next to us with what I took to be her young son in his (public) school uniform. The latter was finishing up some special afternoon treat of some sort as mama looked on distractedly wondering how long it would be before she could drop him back off at school and escape back up to “town” (London, of course) in her Range Rover and whether she would make it in time for that dinner party….etc.. No justification for that one, just guessing given everything else we had seen.
You will not be surprised then, if I admit to some feelings of ambivalence towards Bruton and what it seems to represent, a colony of the wealthy in rural South West England. There is a rather contemptuous comic creation of Harry Enfield called “I Saw You Coming” of which this is just one of many example that can be found on YouTube. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Hauser & Wirth are in quite the same class as that character but in the bar area of the restaurant was a large glass cabinet in which there were hanging several sides of beef and other meats. This is the “salt room for hanging the meat, which is lined with over 500 hand-cut Himalayan salt bricks, highly valued for their purity. This traditional process is known as dry-ageing, and produces extremely tender and flavoursome meat” which is great except that the proprietors had felt that it was necessary to put a legend on the outside which read:
“This is not an Art Object”
I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
¹For those interested in the history of the independent schools in Bruton they all have Wikipedia pages which says something in itself and they can be found here: King’s Bruton; Bruton School for Girls ; Sexey’s School.