William Cook

How a Somerset farm became a hub for modern art

How a Somerset farm became a hub for modern art
Text settings

I’m standing in a farmyard in Somerset, drinking in the clear country air, soaking up the summer sunshine and marvelling at the lovely view. However this view is rather different from the sort of thing you tend to see on most farms. I’m here to see some modern art, stuff my face and enjoy a stroll round the stunning gardens. Welcome to Durslade Farm, the grooviest art gallery in the West Country, and one of my favourite days out.

Durslade is the brainchild of Swiss couple Iwan and Manuela Wirth. Together with Manuela’s mother, leading art collector Ursula Hauser, they run one of the world’s hippest galleries, Hauser & Wirth. Hauser & Wirth have premises all around the world, in swanky locations like Monaco, St Moritz, Zurich, Hong Kong, New York and LA. So why Somerset? Well, it all started when Iwan and Manuela moved here from London, to create a better lifestyle for their children (as Manuela observed, there is magic in this landscape) and found a rundown farm that had been disused since the 1980s. They bought it and set about transforming it into a new kind of gallery.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset opened seven years ago, in July 2014. Right from the start, it felt like a novel experience. These tastefully converted farm buildings showcase some of the biggest names in contemporary art, and it won’t cost you a penny to see them. Admission is free. However the art is only half the story. There’s also a stylish restaurant, a lively bar and those gorgeous landscaped grounds. It’s not just a gallery, it’s a Gesamtkunstwerk – a total, integrated work of art that satisfies all the senses.

‘We knew that in Somerset we had found a very special place where we could bring all of our interests together,’ said Iwan. ‘Art, architecture, landscape conservation, gardening, food, education, community and family.’ ‘But who’s going to come?’ wondered Manuela, before they opened. You can see her point. They’d spent several years converting the site, a massive undertaking, and though the setting is idyllic, it does feel rather off the beaten track. Bruton is just down the road, but it only has a few thousand inhabitants. Frome and Yeovil, the nearest big towns, are both a good drive away.

She needn’t have worried. Turns out Durslade’s secluded location was all part of the appeal. People come from miles around: 130,000 people in the first year alone. If you want to stay over there’s a smart guesthouse on site, lavishly decorated with original works of art. I’ve been here several times and each time I come the place is busy. For some visitors, the artworks are the main attraction. For others, it’s the gardens. Some folk just come for lunch. For me, it’s the mix of all three that makes coming here so special. Durslade has become a rendezvous, somewhere to meet up and hang out.

Over the past seven years, Hauser & Wirth have shown a wide range of artists, everyone from Elisabeth Frink to Phyllida Barlow (they’ve shown Don McCullin’s photographs, too). If you’re not a big fan of abstract or avant-garde art, you might find some of these shows a bit annoying, but the great thing about this set-up is that you can take it or leave it. You might discover something new, something you really like, but if it’s not your cup of tea you can go outside and stretch your legs or grab a bite to eat. The food is all seasonal, locally sourced, and full of flavour. The restaurant is relaxed and informal. There are DJs and bands in the bar on Friday nights.

Stars like Martin Creed and Mark Wallinger have been to live and work here, as artists in residence. ‘The change in pace and scene was very welcome,’ said Wallinger. ‘Only with this distance from urban habits does your time become your own.’

The main show this summer is a serene and meditative survey of the art of Eduardo Chillida, the great Basque sculptor whose timeless, elemental works feel like ancient relics from a forgotten age. I went down to Somerset for the press view and the sculptor’s grandson, Mikel Chillida was there to show us round. ‘My grandfather used to say that in all the arts there are two essential ingredients – construction and poetry,’ said Mikel, as he walked us through the exhibition. He was talking about the way his grandfather went about his business, the combination of practical and lyrical elements in his sculpture, but he might just as well have been talking about Durslade Farm.