Long Reads

The story behind Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh's 100-acre sculpture park

Charles Jencks, Cells of Life
Charles Jencks, Cells of Life, 2003-10, Courtesy Jupiter Artland. Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris

Veronica Simpson talks to Nicky and Robert Wilson, the couple behind the 100-acre public sculpture park on the outskirts of Edinburgh, about the project's first 10 years, their approach to working with artists and the value of art education.

Who are Nicky and Robert Wilson?

Nicky and Robert Wilson are the proud owners and custodians of sculpture park Jupiter Artland, one of the UK’s most remarkable art collections (and one of the finalists for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016). Here, dotted around their 100-acre estate on the outer limits of Edinburgh, can be found 36 bespoke, permanent works commissioned from leading international contemporary artists, alongside a programme of temporary exhibitions, all of which they share with the public from May to September.

The couple came to a love of art via two very different routes. Born in 1967, Nicky grew up in Edinburgh, a child who, in her own words was ‘terrible at school’ but found solace in the art department. ‘My mother used to paint. She valued creativity, and it was the only thing I was good at,’ she says. She was clearly more than good: she went on to study sculpture at Camberwell and Chelsea Colleges of Art, winning various scholarships, but was working in advertising when she met Robert in 1992, at a party, in London. He grew up in Dublin, born in 1962 into a prominent family who had long supported Irish arts and culture, thanks to wealth generated through food manufacturing and homeopathy. Robert had studied history at Trinity College Dublin, and by the time he and Nicky met, he had joined the family firm, but creativity was also in his genes. ‘His mother was an interior designer,’ says Nicky. ‘She designed all the colours for the bridges in London for the GLC [Greater London Council]. She had an innate feeling for colour… He appreciates and longs for beautiful things around him.’

The first 10 years of Jupiter Artland

Nearly 25 married years and five children later, they have recently been celebrating the 10th anniversary of Jupiter Artland, now home to works by artists including Helen Chadwick, Nathan Coley, Laura Ford, Andy Goldsworthy, Antony Gormley, Cornelia Parker and many others. Perhaps surprisingly, the seeds of this immense undertaking were born of boredom. Having both relocated from London to what was then a crumbling Jacobean mansion, Bonnington House, on the edge of Edinburgh in 1999, Nicky was feeling isolated and – when she wasn’t running around after her young children – restless.

Having admired the work of architectural theoretician and landscape designer Charles Jencks, she had the idea of asking him to create one of his huge ‘environmental objects’ in their grounds. She marvels now at how she plucked up the courage to call him – or how she got hold of his number. She had seen Jencks’ works both on his own estate, Portrack House in Dumfries, and outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; she had also been inspired by visits to her friend the poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture garden, Little Sparta, in the Pentland Hills. So Nicky had a hunch that the house’s strange setting – a working landscape of farms and industrial estates – would benefit from some interesting landscape and art interventions.

Jencks answered the call and offered to drop by the next day. The result is his undulating, otherworldly landscape Cells of Life (2003-10), the first work visitors see, and the biggest, which welcomes them with its lush green mounds and mirror-still pools as they enter the estate. But it took nearly eight years to create, so it wasn’t the first work to appear on the estate. That honour went to Marc Quinn.

‘Marc was the first one to arrive and make it happen; he came and he looked at the place and he must have thought, “Where have I ended up?” A lot of the artists in the beginning must have wondered that. We had no provenance, we weren’t big collectors. In a way, you have to convince people you are going to be here for the long run and show them that it matters to you. All that thinking beforehand about why you do things really helps.’ The work Quinn placed at Jupiter in 2006, Love Bomb, is a 12-metre tall ‘impossibly perfect’, multicoloured orchid. ‘I loved it, I loved the fact that we were in grey Scotland and it was bold, bright, brash. It wasn’t about mud – which [was the state] Charles’ work was in at the time. It was a good flag to plant in the ground. My feeling was that you may not love this, but I think it’s brilliant. You could see it from every road around us.’

New arrivals at Jupiter Artland

Last summer, the collection was joined by Phyllida Barlow’s first permanent outdoor work, Quarry (2018). ‘Phyllida taught me, so it was such a huge pleasure. I have almost that student overexcitement about having her here and working [with us]. She’s just a very wise and intelligent human being… She doesn’t have a huge ego. She is genuinely someone who is on a journey, as an artist, particularly in her position. She has made work for so long that hasn’t been seen, but making it in tandem with her career as a teacher and a mother. It is just in her DNA now. It’s an honour to work with her.’

Everything up in Scotland is more challenging! Having sculptures outdoors is kind of daft.

Nicky Wilson

At the same time as the unveiling of Barlow’s work, Jupiter Artland was hosting a solo exhibition by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, which included many of her flamboyant, super-sized, ultra-feminine, craft-inspired pieces, arranged in and around Jupiter’s various buildings. Vasconcelos’ first permanent UK outdoor sculpture, titled Gateway – an ornate outdoor pool decorated with elaborate ceramic tiles – will be unveiled to the public at Jupiter at the end of July.

‘This pool she is doing is extraordinary. We have re-landscaped the garden around it to her design. It’s basically a giant confection of shapes and colours.’ In this, the work absolutely reflects Vasconcelos’ approach to art and life, though at her exhibition launch last year, she said her Portuguese ceramicists were worried about how their tiles would survive harsh Scottish winters. ‘Everything up in Scotland is more challenging! Having sculptures outdoors is kind of daft. This is… the biggest project [to date]. And it’s got so much potential around it. Already we’re talking to young artists who would like to do performances in the pool, as well as around the pool. Joana has actually created a platform for other artists to respond to.’

The lure of Scotland

When asked what really lured the Wilsons up to Scotland from London (aside from both having family roots there), Nicky says it was the house. ‘It is a big part of it… it suits our personalities, it has heart, curiosity, it is its own place. We found this beautiful house at a remarkably cheap price, and that was it. We’re just lucky to have been able to get the artists we want to come up here and work with us…’

How they were able to keep drawing such a celebrated roster of artists up to this interesting but little-known edgeland beyond Edinburgh to make work, especially before its reputation was fully established, Nicky puts down to ‘opportunity’. ‘As an artist, you’re not often going to get the chance to do what you really want to do, which is what we offer.’

Cornelia Parker, Landscape with Gun and Tree, 2010, Courtesy Jupiter Artland
Cornelia Parker, Landscape with Gun and Tree, 2010, Courtesy Jupiter Artland.
Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris

The Wilsons genuinely try to accommodate artists’ requirements, from where they want to place a work to how they want to respond to that place, though they undoubtedly enjoy having an input. Their commissioning approach is often described as ‘co-creation’; many artists stay there, sometimes for months. Anya Gallaccio, for example, stayed in the house for the whole period of creating her crystal grotto (The Light Pours Out of Me, 2012), as did Cornelia Parker, who created Landscape with Gun and Tree (2010), an overscaled, tree-sized rifle, propped up against an actual tree for Jupiter Artland, as well as designing the firework display that opened the park to the public just over a decade ago.

Nicky has been described by Jencks as ‘a midwife to sculptural commissions’. ‘I hope I am,’ she says. ‘You can’t really be a good midwife without having experienced what it is like to have a baby. You can empathise, but you can’t feel it in the gut. I really think that makes the difference. There’s an authenticity there. It wouldn’t cross my mind to have an artwork where I haven’t got to know the artist.’

The importance of education and access

Having curated, cajoled and nurtured these works into place, why make the collection public? ‘The Jencks was so big, I thought it was quite embarrassing to have it as a driveway; that’s not my style at all.’ Education was also at the heart of the project from its early days. Several buildings around the estate have been constructed or converted to host the summer-long programme of educational activities. The Wilsons have declared they want every Scottish schoolchild to have the opportunity to visit Jupiter (children visit for free and, for the 10th-anniversary year, the Wilsons introduced a ‘pay what you want’ Monday initiative to increase accessibility to families). ‘There are too many barriers to coming to a sculpture park… But the more you can say, “This is fun, leave your phones behind, let’s go and see if we can make a Goldsworthy”, the more you give them a chance to engage in that critical thinking… Being able to articulate your thoughts and feelings about art is very empowering.’

Robert, who is chairman of Nelsons, a manufacturer of homeopathic and natural medicines, believes art has healing properties, and has talked of that ‘magical triangle’ that forms between art, nature and the viewer when art is successfully set into a landscape. And when that landscape is clearly both a home and a working, farmed landscape, there is a sense of accessibility and evolution – of art and people in dialogue with natural forces – that is in stark contrast to a more formal, institutional setting. Nicky has observed that art in nature works particularly well for children.

However, the education programme is not just for schoolchildren; it also extends to emerging artists. Every year the Wilsons pick a young artist fresh from art college, and provide a big platform for them, commissioning their first outdoor sculpture and mentoring them through that process. ‘Having your work placed next to that of a great artist… It’s a remarkable opportunity.’

When deciding the criteria in choosing artists, both established and emerging, ideas and connections will undoubtedly arise through the roles both the Wilsons have shouldered within the Edinburgh cultural community; Robert is chair of Creative Scotland, while Nicky is a trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland. But Nicky says they also do quite a lot of research quietly in the background, attending occasional art fairs but also every Venice Art Biennale.

What is next for Jupiter Artland?

In terms of nurturing future artists and art advocates, they are rounding off their 10th-anniversary celebrations with the launch of a new scheme. ‘Orbit’ is a youth outreach programme with a difference: starting with the recruitment of a youth council of 16- to 18-year-olds, the council will work with a curatorial and education team from Jupiter to bring large-scale art projects to communities across Scotland. ‘The idea is to put young people at the helm of decision-making and give them a voice about what happens in the place they live,’ Nicky says.

Robert, when asked about the name Jupiter, has replied that in Greek mythology Jupiter is the archetype for happiness, creativity and enjoyment. ‘It was specifically this trinity that we wanted to put into the foundation of our park,’ he’s said. It may well be a sign of their coming of age as collectors and philanthropists that the Wilsons feel it’s now time to take the art out of the park and into wider society.

A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund. Get 50% off entry at Jupiter Artland with a National Art Pass.

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