The bishops must be rotating in their graves. One of their number, whose dignified sandstone presence graces the patio beside the main entrance of the Culloden Hotel, is currently keeping company with comely nudes, sassy young women, plump buddhas, a large heron, a dingy mattress and a couple of drunks staggering home after a night on the town.
All artfully arranged to attract attention and raise a smile, they constitute a snapshot of the spirit and content of Art in the Garden, a large-scale outdoor exhibition, which runs in the grounds of the Culloden Estate and Spa near Holywood, County Down, until September 23.
The Culloden was built in 1876 as a country house for William Auchinleck Robinson, a wealthy JP and MP. After his death in 1884, it was conveyed by his widow to the Church of Ireland for use as the official residence of the Bishop of the Diocese, a status it retained until the 1920s.
Now it is Northern Ireland’s most sought after luxury hotel, patronised by the rich and famous, as well as by the wider community of local residents, who frequently drop in for all manner of social pursuits.
Visitors and locals are out in force on the first full day of this showcase of Irish sculpture, which spreads itself across the Culloden’s immaculately landscaped lawns and leafy glades. This is the second year that Gormley's fine art dealers – based in Dublin, Belfast and Omagh – have used the location as a shop window, displaying almost 200 pieces ranging in price from £120 to almost £40,000.
'It’s a very important part of Gormleys’ year,' says proprietor Oliver Gormley. 'It’s a hugely enjoyable event as well as a commercial undertaking. The art business has changed radically over the past couple of years. People now tend to seek out artwork via the Internet rather than going to galleries. If last year is anything to go by, we expect around 4,000 to 5,000 people to pass through over the course of the next three weeks.
'I am always keen to encourage up and coming artists, who are trying to make their way in this competitive business. Alongside established people like Paddy Campbell, Patrick O’Reilly and Orla de Bri, we have work by younger artists like Redmond Herrity from Donegal, whose granite mattress is leaning against a tree in the upper gardens, and the Spanish/Irish sculptor Miguel Patrick Doyle, whose limestone, marble and copper amaryllis has been attracting a lot of attention.'
Two artists take pride of place at Art in Garden: Belfast artist Noel Murphy, whose paintings are on display in the Drawing Room, and Paddy Campbell, one of Europe’s most highly regarded sculptors, whose Solo 70 exhibition celebrates his 70th birthday.
On leaving school, Dublin-born Campbell trained in catering but eventually swapped the culinary arts for the visual arts. A talented painter and draughtsman, he started to spend his summers in Florence, studying painting and drawing and, as he puts it, 'gradually letting go of my life as a businessman'.
'I always thought of myself as a painter,' he says. 'I took a course in sculpture because I thought it would improve my painting. It was a revelation. The work just seemed to flow from me and I realised that this was a God-given gift.
'I started to learn techniques of sculpting, which have been used in Florence since the Renaissance and which have inspired and informed my work ever since. I have a studio in the city now, in a quiet neighbourhood, not at all touristy. I still have my family home in Dublin but I love the lifestyle of Florence. I suppose you could say I’ve become a local, part of the scenery.'
On display at the Culloden is a dizzying line-up of bronzes, some of them sinuous nudes, others male and female contemporary figures, dressed in sexy, brightly coloured clothing, striding out self confidently into the world.
And there is, too, one of Campbell’s famous ‘scenarios’, a miniature house offering the irresistible temptation to peep through the windows into a crowded family birthday party, complete with cards and cakes, trifles and tipples.
Campbell is a natural communicator and storyteller, whose gentle, self-effacing manner and easy humour hold captive the audiences at his master classes. Groups of visitors, from the very young to the not so young, watch and listen in awe as he demonstrates the complex process involved in rendering a life model – one of the most recent being President Mary McAleese – into an exquisite likeness cast in bronze.
Personality is all important, and behind the surface beauty of each piece, one senses a story, a range of life experiences, personal history and a certain defiant attitude.
On one of the rare sunny days of this summer, the view from the upper patio is breathtaking. The lawns unfold in undulating slopes and curves, while below lies the silver ribbon of Belfast Lough. Gormley says that this is his starting point for the complex task of placing the sculptures, individually and collectively.
'You work with the slope of the land. There all kinds of things to take into account: the terrain, the fall of the light, the size and scale of each piece. We have here a mixture of figurative and abstract pieces, pieces drawn from myths, legends, literature, the natural world. Something for all tastes, really. Each visit is a journey of discovery.'
As he speaks, a family with young children can’t tear themselves away from an enchanting Alice in Wonderland group of bronzes, complete with Dodo, White Rabbit and Mad Hatter water feature.
An elderly woman sits contemplatively beside Brian O’Loughlin’s bog oak and gold leaf 'Evening Blossom', while a young honeymoon couple chuckle at the humour and craftsmanship of John Behan’s bronze 'Mister Bloom (Bloom in the Bath)', with its mischievous reference to James Joyce.
'Yesterday a man called in who had just finished building a house,' says Gormley. 'He wanted to commission a water feature for the garden, so we’ve put him in touch with an artist and we’ll be overseeing the process.
'We get all kinds of requests and meet all kinds of interesting people here at the Culloden. There’s nothing stuffy about it. It’s a great event in beautiful surroundings. And maybe we’ll get an Indian summer to help it along.'