Chatsworth House in Derbyshire is famous for being a beautiful example of English Baroque architecture, and is the current host of a collection of sculptures by Anthony Caro, and Englishman more typically associated with the 1960s and abstract expressionism. However, it is less commonly known that Chatsworth was also supposed to have been the inspiration for Jane Austen when she created Pemberley in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I mention this because due to the largely negative response of local critics and residents to ‘Caro at Chatsworth’, I find myself greatly reminded of Lady Catherine de Beurgh exclaiming ‘are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’. However, where she faced the small challenge of preventing an inter-class marriage, the curators of Caro at Chatsworth face the greater challenge of convincing sceptics, and dare I say it snobs, that ‘a bunch of metal girders’, as one friend’s grandfather put it, is art, and art which is worthy of its place at Chatsworth, whose collection includes Old Masters drawings and neoclassical sculpture.
Caro and Chatsworth may seem an odd combination. Anthony Caro was a favourite of Clement Greenberg, and is visually synonymous with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His gestural sculptures are icons not only of the sixties, but of the introduction to a new approach to sculpture, and the love of Caro is immortalised in the writings of Michael Fried. In contrast, Chatsworth has immortalised the love of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. In addition it has witnessed the unhappy marriage of Georgiana Cavendish, and not to mention played host to Keira Knightley frolicking about in both of these female roles.
However, the reality of ‘Caro at Chatsworth’ actually seems a far easier, organic and inclusive relationship then that of Jane Austen’s famous protagonists. The vast metal works seem as light and effortless as the fountain which they surround. The beautiful gardens of the Chatsworth estate seem both to perfectly frame the sculptures, and claim them as a natural presence within the landscape. However, what I found particularly remarkable was the ease which the other visitors clearly felt around the work. In what could have itself been a portrait of society there were young children playing, elderly couples gently meandering, and adults basking in the sunlight and glorious surroundings.
The exhibition was a perfect example of the effects of good curating. Gone were the wall texts which flustered visitors tend to gravitate towards only to forget what they have just read moments later. The exhibition exists to provide enjoyment rather than to forcefully educate, a novelty amongst galleries and shows, which itself was an educating experience. The display of the ‘Goodwood Steps’, which provide the frontispiece for the catalogue, are a particular triumph, creating a bond between baroque architecture and a nineties metal work that none could have foreseen. It is a shame that some people cannot see past the ‘bunch of girders’ in order to enjoy the experience of the exhibition, and the rare opportunity to see such a wide ranging selection of an Caro’s work.