Martin Gayford

Seeing the light | 11 June 2015

Martin Gayford talks to the pioneering light artist about his resplendent new show at Houghton Hall

James Turrell gave me extremely precise instructions. After dinner, I was to walk out through the grounds at Houghton Hall to the skyspace he has built. Here I should observe the gradual darkening above as brightness fell from the Norfolk air. At 9.40 p.m., I was to join him and the Marquess of Cholmondeley to witness the illumination Turrell has devised for the west front of the house.

So we stood in the chill air of an English summer evening and watched as a slowly changing sequence of pinks, mauves, blues and reds lit up the colonnades and Palladian windows designed in the 1720s by Colen Campbell and the domes added by James Gibbs. ‘I feel,’ Turrell remarked, ‘that buildings often have a workaday aspect that you see during the daylight hours, and a more resplendent side that emerges after dark.’

‘Resplendent’ is certainly an apt word for the metamorphosis he has worked at Houghton. Turrell’s illumination brings out the modernist simplicity of Georgian architecture, and underscores the way his own art stands in a tradition. He has embellished the great house just as a baroque firework display would have done, and transformed the entire prospect around it. As darkness increased, the colours on the stonework grew richer, and so too did the mulberries and purples of the cloudscape above.

The façade illumination is part of an exhibition of works at Houghton, LightScape (until October 24), which also includes an array of works by the artists that have been collected by David Cholmondeley over the years. Turrell has been at work here before. The skyspace, entitled ‘Seldom Seen’ — hidden away behind the hedges of Charles Bridgeman’s formal park — dates from 2002 (pictured below) and ‘St Elmo’s Breath’, installed inside a Georgian water tower, from 1992.


Turrell is an artist who works in light.

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