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Culture: From Van Dyck to Ai Weiwei, Blenheim Palace makes room for art's new master: Artist under house arrest in China oversees details of his biggest UK exhibition

August 29, 2014

Maev Kennedy

Ai Weiwei, confined to his house and studio in Beijing, his passport confiscated by the state, has been roaming the corridors and state rooms of Blenheim Palace - birthplace of Winston Churchill and one of the grandest houses in England - using a 3D computer model.

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 UK. When it opens on 1 October, more than 50 new and archive works will sit among the Van Dyck portraits of Churchill's ancestors and tapestries of battles fought and won 300 years ago.

"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 Edward Spencer-Churchill said. "So, in the end, we lasered all the rooms to make the model for him."

Michael Frahm, the director of Spencer-Churchill's newly founded Blenheim Art Foundation said organisers were still hoping that Ai would be able to attend.

"That would be the greatest blessing for this exhibition," said Danish-born Frahm, who has visited the artist several times in Beijing.

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 Shanghai studio.

Blenheim palace, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1705, and later landscaped by Capability Brown, is a stupendous building covering seven acres, and has been a Unesco world heritage site since 1987. One of its most celebrated spaces is the 55-metre library, which holds the largest pipe organ in any private house in Europe, a giant marble statue of Queen Anne, an array of ducal coronets and ermine-trimmed robes. Soon, those treasures will be joined by pieces including a hand-carved marble model of one of the security cameras that watch the artist's every move.

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 Beijing until they were looted by Anglo-French troops during the opium wars, will keep watch in the enormous dining room, which is still used by the family on grand occasions. Since Ai first drew attention to them, many of the original heads have been returned to China by wealthy collectors, including two that resurfaced at the auction of the collection of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent.

Spencer-Churchill, whose mother Rosita Douglas is an artist, collects contemporary art - including the Chapman brothers, though he doesn't think Blenheim is quite ready for their work.

He says Ai was aware of the history of the palace, including the connection with Winston Churchill, born there in 1874, the child of a younger son of the seventh duke who proposed to Clementine in a temple folly in the grounds.

The palace was originally conceived as a gift from a grateful nation to the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, for victory during the war of the Spanish succession; after marching his army 250 miles, he defeated the French at the battle of Blenheim.

His formidable duchess, Sarah, was first the best friend and then bitter enemy of Queen Anne. When they fell out, funds for Blenheim, only half-built with pounds 220,000 spent, stopped abruptly.

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 Metropolitan Museum in New York - and a Raphael. However, the most spectacular fundraiser was not the auction room but a wedding, when the ninth duke married the American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, securing a gigantic dowry, a fortune in shares and an annual allowance. The house flourished but the marriage was bitterly unhappy and ended in divorce.

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 National Trust, have spotted a potential new audience through exhibiting contemporary art.

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. "

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace, 1 October - 14 December 2014


Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, above; one of Ai's golden zodiac animal heads, below, and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, bottom Photographs: Pete Seaward; Gao Yuan

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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