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A Talking Point: Adrian Sassoon on the value of mixing contemporary design with historic architecture at Parham House

Inigo discovers an innovative exhibition of contemporary decorative objects at one of the country’s most beautiful Elizabethan homes

A Talking Point: Adrian Sassoon on the value of mixing contemporary design with historic architecture at Parham House

At first glance, little has changed at Parham House since it was built almost 450 years ago. Like many historic homes, the beautiful Elizabethan manor, set in 650 acres of West Sussex parkland, seems to be fixed in time; an artefact of the 16th century. Yet, with an exhibition of contemporary decorative art shortly to open at Parham, curated by Adrian Sassoon, there comes a timely reminder that houses – and the objects we place in them – are living things that continue to grow and change.

For Adrian, one of the country’s leading dealers in antique 18th-century porcelain and contemporary ceramics, glass and metalwork, the collaboration with Parham is part of a wider philosophy that runs through his diverse practice. Where the world of art and antiques tends to compartmentalise periods and styles, Adrian takes a more holistic and international approach: pairing the celebrated work of the established British ceramicist Kate Malone, for example, or the large-scale steel sculptures of Kazuhiro Toyama – seen here for the first time outside Japan – with Parham’s collection of antique furniture, textiles and paintings. “I’m a huge believer that there is no such thing as ‘new’”, he explains, “there have been centuries of human creativity before.”

It’s this sense of the lineage of art, of each artist passing their work down to the next, that defines the exhibition at Parham. Through Adrian’s subtle curation, placing the objects as though they are part of the house’s permanent collection – on windowsills, tables and the landscaped grounds – the artworks are brought into conversation with the house. Australian artist Pippin Drysdale’s colourful porcelain works, which are inspired by the way water shapes the Australian landscape, have been placed in front of the linear forms of a 17th-century Flemish tapestry. Junko Mori, a Japanese artist who works in Wales, has created a vast sculpture using thousands of forged steel elements that now sits in the mouth of the fireplace in the Great Hall. “You begin to see all these relationships of line, form and texture, as well as material,” Adrian says.

Though there is a great diversity in the disciplines of decorative art represented at the exhibition, nearly all the artists employ techniques – like throwing clay on a wheel or blowing glass – that have been around for centuries, and sometimes millennia. Felicity Aylieff’s monumental pots, produced in the traditional centre of Chinese porcelain production in Jingdezhen, or Hiroshi Suzuki’s hammered silver vessels, demonstrate, as Adrian puts it, how “amazingly inventive” these artists are. “You have to be particularly brilliant and talented to come up with something new using these ancient techniques,” Adrian enthuses. “All these artists very much have their own vocabulary, their own sense of shape and line and colour.”

In many ways, Adrian is simply continuing Parham’s long tradition, balancing care and respect for the past with modernity. Bought in 1922 by Clive and Alicia Pearson, the house has been extensively and painstakingly restored to its Elizabethan grandeur under the supervision of architect Albert Heal, who removed the later additions while installing cleverly concealed plumbing and wiring. The couple also curated an impressive collection of paintings, furniture and early needlework, many of which had originally been at the house, and which is today presided over by the Pearson’s great-granddaughter, Lady Emma Barnard.

Yet the exhibition is also a product of the unique times that we are living in today. It follows on from the success of the ‘House of Modernity’, where Adrian displayed contemporary objects and furniture from mid-century Nordic design specialists Modernity in a Palladian mansion in London – an initiative that developed as a consequence of the fairs that he usually exhibits at being cancelled because of the pandemic. Now swapping the clean, minimal backdrop of the art fair booth for the distinctive personality of Parham, Adrian hopes it will encourage those viewing the exhibition to be more creative with their own decoration, whether they are introducing contemporary objects into historic homes or vice versa. “It’s one of the lovely things in this country, that people live in houses from so many different centuries,” he says. “I want to show people that the unusual can also be terribly normal, and how easy it was to place these objects here.”

Adrian is not sure when the house will open to the public – he believes it is should be late June when we speak – but while the pandemic continues to create uncertainty, he has taken the opportunity to produce a series of films and catalogues with Parham that explore the collection, the house and its heritage. Together with insight from artists, curators, historians and garden designers, the exhibition can at the very least be experienced online as an innovative digital experience, continuing Adrian’s initiative to transcend the barriers between art and object, style and period.

“I’ve always tried to bring contemporary objects to a broader audience,” he says. “But it’s important to look at new work without pretending that people haven’t also been doing beautiful things for the last few centuries.” With the collection exhibited at Parham House – an exemplar of Elizabethan architecture that has been recognised for its careful connoisseurship and sensitive restoration – this idea has found its best expression yet.

Adrian Sassoon at Parham
A House of History
Online | Until 31 August
In situ at Parham House | 21 July – 31 August

All images courtesy Adrian Sassoon

Further Reading

Issue One: Adrian Sassoon at Parham, a House of History

The history of Parham House

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