The artist has never set foot in the gigantic home of the Duke of Marlborough, but is preparing to install the largest exhibition to date of his work in the
"In the beginning, we sent him photographs and detailed plans, but he's an absolute perfectionist and every inch of where works are placed matters to him," Lord
"That would be the greatest blessing for this exhibition," said Danish-born Frahm, who has visited the artist several times in
Spencer-Churchill, the eldest surviving son of the third of the present duke's four marriages, said Ai was one of the greatest artists working today, whose work was embraced by a wide variety of people on many levels and was someone who had "something really important to say about freedom of speech and personal liberty".
Many of the works planned for Blenheim make subtle reference to Ai's situation. A towering cabinet will be emptied of spectacular Meissen porcelain - reputedly swapped by a Churchill ancestor for a pack of hunting dogs - to hold plates being handpainted with the artist's "freedom flowers".Frahm witnessed how, every morning, Ai puts a flower into the basket of the bicycle in his yard, which he will continue until he is free to ride it out through the gates.
A brilliantly coloured cast of 2,300 porcelain river crabs, which will fill one of the grandest state rooms, relates to a party he threw for hundreds of guests, with crabs the main delicacy at the feast, before the government destroyed his
Blenheim palace, designed by Sir
Soft Ground, a carpet, is being woven specially for the echoing double height great hall, Spencer-Churchill's favourite room. "Blows me away every time," he said cheerfully.
The golden heads of zodiac animals, a reference to the famous set that decorated a fountain in an imperial palace outside
Spencer-Churchill, whose mother
He says Ai was aware of the history of the palace, including the connection with
The palace was originally conceived as a gift from a grateful nation to the first Duke of Marlborough,
His formidable duchess, Sarah, was first the best friend and then bitter enemy of
The Churchills were forced into exile, but returned on the queen's death. They banned Vanbrugh from the site and paid his former friend and partner Nicholas Hawksmoor to continue. The house was finished, after Sarah insisted on cheaper materials and lower wages, long after the duke's death in 1722, including a chapel with his towering sarcophagus dwarfing the altar.
The building almost bankrupted generations of Marlboroughs, who sold some spectacular works of art including a Van Dyck, a Rubens - now in the
Blenheim opened to the paying public in 1950, following the lead of many stately homes forced by soaring costs, taxes and death duties either to sell up or to open their doors. Recently, many of the grandest, including Chatsworth, family home of the Duke of Devonshire, and Waddesdon, a Rothschild home now owned by the
Spencer-Churchill hopes the exhibition, and others to follow, might help break down the barriers between the gallery-patronising art crowd and the country house-visiting crowd.
"Downton Abbey is a disaster," he said. "People expect to look in through the window and see us living a totally Downtonised life. But these houses can't just stand still, frozen. They have to find a way of showing that they still have relevance today. "
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