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Artists and the South Downs

You will find great art all across the South Downs, but a good place to start is Petworth House, which holds the National Trust’s finest art collection. There’s paintings by Van Dyck, Reynolds and Blake and a remarkable terrestrial globe by Emery Molyneux from 1592. Turner kept a studio at the house where he painted several scenes of both the garden and the Downs, many of which can be seen in the gallery.

Petworth Park, National Trust/Andrew Butler

Capability Brown designed Petworth’s garden, seeking to capture the feel of the natural contours of the land so that his interventions blend seamlessly in. Such sympathetic interactions define the South Downs, from ancient barrows and tumuli to the hedgerows and pathways that stitch together its many farms. This has not been a wild and untouched space for a very long time.

All across the park you’ll find different ways that people have worked with the landscape. Hundreds of years ago unknown artists carved chalk figures at the White Horse above Cuckmere and the Wilmington Long Man. Near Westmeston there is a V-shaped wood planted in 1887 to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. And today you can find examples of modern Land Art such Andy Goldsworthy’s Chalk Stones Trail near West Dean and Chris Drury’s Heart of Reeds near Lewes.

Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa and Quentin Bell covered the interior of Saint Michaels in Berwick in their murals. They set the religious scenes in landscapes instantly recognisable through the church’s windows. And when Eric Ravillious painted the Downs in his watercolours he left patches of bare paper exposed like chalk on the hills and included manmade features such as telegraph poles or the Long Man.

This co-operation between man and nature continues today. The artist Richard Perry has worked with communities in Hampshire to create a sculpture trail along the Shipwrights Way. Each of the twenty carvings on this long distance path represents something iconic to the area, from a natterjack toad to a Roman pot or a soldier’s helmet and rucksack. The Cass Sculpture Park’s 26 acre grounds are home to an ever-changing display of monumental sculptures, which has featured works by the likes of Caro, Frink, Gormley,Heatherwick and Quinn. And each year at the Arundel Festival, the gallery trail connects visitors to the studios and galleries of painters, printers, photographers, sculptors, ceramicists and jewellers.

Apprentices still learn traditional furniture making at the Edward Barnsley Workshop in the hills above Petersfield. In villages like Selborne you can buy the work of local potters. And West Dean College, once the home of surrealist patron Edward James, is now the number one place in the UK to study tapestry and textile art. Wherever you look, it’s clear the Downs’ 2000yr old tradition of art is alive and well.

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