The gardens and grounds of England’s Helmingham Hall are now “growing” with sculptures by David Harber. His large-scale works, made of copper, bronze, stone, and steel, were chosen for the grounds by Harber and Sophie Tollemache, the custodian of the great English house. The photographer Clive Nichols (whose features have appeared in MILIEU), was commissioned to shoot the works in situ.

We spoke with David Harber about his creations and how they transform the already spectacular garden setting that was designed by Xa Tollemache—and whose new book, A Garden Well Placed (Pimpernel Press Ltd.), recounts her process and approach.

The works are on display to the public through September 30, 2024 (closed Fridays and Saturdays;  book online at helmingham.com.)

HOW MANY WORKS ARE ON DISPLAY IN THE GARDEN?

We have 13 of our beautiful sculptures in the historical gardens of Helmingham Hall, in Suffolk. This is a one-of-a-kind exhibition.

Armillary sphere

DO YOU ENCOURAGE VISITORS TO INTERACT WITH THE WORKS OR TO HAVE THEM SIMPLY ADMIRE THEM/REFLECT ON THEM FROM AFAR, WITH NO HANDS ON? 

Thirty years ago, I made my very first garden sculpture, the armillary sphere, inspired by the design of Ptolemy, the Greek philosopher and astronomer (CA 250AD). It is by its very nature interactive, the viewer is encouraged to engage with the piece, to see the time as created by sunlight and shadow and importantly to read and absorb the mottos and quotations that are an essential part of the sundial tradition. The Kernel (an evolution of my dark planet sculpture) has both a delightful optical illusion and is immensely tactile and as such a good part of the joy of the piece is to be found by gently caressing the perfect stone surface. Others in the collection are feasts for the eyes and imagination but do not lend themselves to be touched. The magical optical quality of the striking mirror polished stainless steel Torus and the beautiful garden it reflects is the essence of the piece. All off the pieces, in some way or another, have an element of the magic of optical illusion, a playfulness, and often pay homage to the natural environment in which they are placed.

Torus outdoor sculpture

Kernel black stone sphere

TELL US MORE ABOUT THE NAMING OF THE SCULPTURES. HOW DO YOU CHOOSE THE NAMES AND TO WHAT DO THEY REFER? 

The concept for a sculpture can be the result of a prolonged development and evolution. It can also be a nano-second of joyous inspiration. The naming of a piece can follow the same path, the piece has been inspired by something such as the Hydra (a Greek mythical creature / flowing water plants). The Torus with its perfectly smooth mirrored surface focusing and holding one’s gaze at its centre was inspired by the concept of a “Torus” within the heart of nuclear reactors. The Mantle is a reference to the layers within the earth itself, from the delicate Verdigris bronze surface to the vibrant, gold inner core.

However, occasionally, it is the commissioning client who has the flash of inspiration and baptises the piece with a name which rings true to them and us.

Mantel garden sphere

WERE YOU GIVEN ANY DIRECTIVES BY XA TOLLEMACHE OR SOPHIE TOLLEMACHE ABOUT WHAT TO DO WHAT TO CHOOSE FOR THE GARDENS, OR WERE YOU GIVEN FREE REIGN TO CURATE THE WORKS AS YOU WANTED?

Having known Xa for many years, the pieces were selected with the drama and serenity of the different areas of the gardens in mind. The viewing angles/vistas, the scale of the planting and trees, and the mood that the areas of garden create.

WHAT ABOUT THE POSITIONING OF THE SCULPTURES IN THE GARDEN? THAT WAS YOUR DOING?

The positioning was a delightful collaboration between Xa, the creator of the gardens, the sculptures themselves and their personalities, the natural light and the orientation of the location and an awareness of how they would evolve as the gardens develop over the summer.

 Matrix and Mantel garden spheres

HOW DID THIS COLLABORATION ARISE BETWEEN YOU AND THE CUSTODIANS OF HELMINGHAM? 

The two driving forces behind this exhibition were Xa’s daughter-in-law, Sophie Tollemache, and my wife Sophie Harber, the power behind the David Harber brand (and David Harber’s Managing Director).

WHICH COMES FIRST, THE SCULPTURE OR THE LANDSCAPE? DO YOU DESIGN THE SCULPTURES TO FIT THE LANDSCAPE OR DO THE WORKS ALREADY EXIST?

When I first started making sculptures, I would design and produce a piece and, if I was lucky enough, somebody would buy the work and, as such, I have now built up an extensive portfolio of pieces, which clients around the world are happy to commission for their specific locations. However, there are an equal number of occasions whereby we are asked to design or adapt an original piece for a specific location and/or to convey a specific mood. This is a delightful challenge which we revel in.

Quiver mirrored leaf sculpture;  Quill tall garden sculpture; Hydra bronze tree sculpture

TELL US ABOUT THE SHAPES YOU CREATE AND THE MATERIALS YOU USE TO MAKE THE WORKS. 

All the sculptures I have created over the years have been inspired by simple, clean, honest shapes, and shapes that we find in nature. We are adept at creating spherical objects but without the resources of massive engineering facilities we have had to be creative not just aesthetically but also in how we can produce the shapes using the craftsmen’s skills that we possess.

At the very beginning of my career, I was called upon to restore a 500-year-old sundial. In doing so, I discovered the name of the maker scratched on the back of the piece. I then vowed to myself that anything we make must have a life expectancy of many centuries, if not millennia. To this end, we work with a wide range of metals and other materials, including marine grade stainless steel, and high-quality bronze in order to ensure that the pieces will function for generations to come.

 

Coluna copper sculpture; Sycamore sculpture; Portal metal garden sculpture

WHAT DO YOUR SCULPTURES ACCOMPLISH OR ACHIEVE IN THE HELMINGHAM HALL GARDENS? HOW DO THEY ENHANCE THE GARDEN DESIGN?

Helmingham is utterly magnificent, both the Hall and the extensive gardens. the sculptures create both a focal point but more importantly a reason to stop and engage with the location.  To take time on the journey through the magnificent environment. They are designed to harmonise, embellish, and pay homage to Xa’s creations.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE SCULPTURES IN ANY GARDEN SETTING? WHAT EFFECT DO WORKS OF ART HAVE IN A NATURAL SETTING?

By introducing a sculpture into nature, be it a garden or a landscape, you are investing both emotionally and economically, which acknowledges that a garden is an important extension of your home. A piece of sculpture viewed in a gallery can be over intellectualized, whereas in a garden it is harmonizing in an honest way with its environment.

FINALLY, WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR RESPONSES TO THIS EXHIBITION.

The exhibition has been incredibly successful to date, and we are confident that it will attract a high number of guests throughout the summer, as Suffolk is a big summer holiday destination in the UK.

For more information and tickets visit Helmingham Hall Gardens, helmingham.com

For learn more about David Harber, visit davidharber.com

Photography by: Clive Nichols

Interview by: David Masello, MILIEU Executive Editor