While previous inhabitants of Leonardslee House & Gardens have brought together natural wonders from around the world, this breathtaking and historic estate now also offers works from the planet’s most exciting creators. Its beautiful woodland is now home to Anton Smit’s The Walk of Life. The art trail offers the largest collection of the artist’s work outside of his native South Africa.
When Penny Streeter OBE acquired the gardens, the entrepreneur originally envisaged the estates as a hospitality venue. But soon she realised it would be an ideal place to exhibit the work she’d acquired by Smit. “He wasn’t that well-known in the UK,” Veronica Olsson, Leonardslee’s Sculpture Park Curator, tells me.
“It’s the first time his work has come here in any quantity. We brought over 120 works, of which about 80 are in the gardens, and about 30 or so smaller works inside the mansion house.”
Largely self-taught, Anton Smit’s work resonates with European and African influences, referencing South Africa’s rich cultural mix. He discovered art as teen, after seeing a book on Michelangelo‘s work. “He couldn’t quite believe that a man created these things. That sparked his interest, and he started to explore art more. He got involved with local drop-in studios, met other artists and started to learn about sculpture.” In 1977, he entered one of his early pieces in an art competition and won first prize. And it grew from there.
“You can see other artist’s influences in his work,” Olsson tells me. “Some of the abstract works you could link to Hepworth. The face figure could be compared to Gormley, but he still keeps his faith in his core subject matter of the adult human form and exploring that in many different ways.” The pieces on display at Leonardslee range from the elegant beauty of his reclining female figures beside the lake to the bombastic majesty of Faith, his 7m tall form which towers over the valley. Also notable is his Kungwini Head. Named after a Johannesburg suburb, it focuses on his homeland’s history and the need for unifying symbols in the future.
“It is a bit of a retrospective, as we’ve got works from the early 90s, right through to 2021.
He’s chosen the works which came here himself, and decided where they should be exhibited in the gardens. He’s considered each space, and which work would complement that. It’s not a case of ‘We’ve got 80 works, where should we plonk them?’ It’s been a considered exercise.”
Recognised for overwhelming heads and monumental African sculptures, which evoke themes of suffering, reconciliation, glory and sublimation, Smit’s work often offers the illusion of movement or gesture. There are bodies curling up or limbs reaching out. Alongside groundbreaking shows at NYC’s Grand Central Station to Singapore’s Sweeguan Art Gallery, and the South African Embassy in Bonn to the Youngblood Gallery in Cape Town, his works also grace public and private collections across the world.
“He has explored some areas of abstractions. But he primarily focuses on the human form, and using that to express emotion. He doesn’t shy away from some of the more difficult aspects of humanity. We’ve got some works which are quite sensitive in the way they’re made, but quite challenging. Burning Man effectively is a larger-than-life male figure, but in a very vulnerable situation. That’s not an easy subject to think about, but Smit has created the figure and overlaid it with rusting steel to convey flames.”
She describes her own role as the classic art curator job.
“Obviously, this is a commercial enterprise, so the overall aim is to sell the sculptures. But it also involves the normal things that a curator does. This includes researching the artists’ works and their philosophy, negotiating with clients, helping them understand how to install and conserve work they’ve bought. In addition, part of my role is to offer free guided tours around some of the sculptures. I help people understand the work of the artist as part of our visitor offer.” She tells me about Smit’s practice, and how he uses Bronze casting or glass fibre and polymer resin to create his figures. He runs two studios in south Africa. One near Pretoria has its own sculpture park, which will be one day left to the nation, and is where he works with and nurtures new artists.
His other studio is in Cape Town, the country’s manufacturing hub. Here, he collaborates with the metal workers who cast his larger bronze sculptures. “He spends quite a long time with the people at the foundries, working on the production of his pieces. Here, he develops new works and processes in conjunction with the metal casters’ expertise. “A lot of Anton’s work is coloured, because he works with patternmakers, who use chemical components, like a potter uses slip, to create different colours on the cast bronze. That chemical reaction requires quite a lot of skill.” The other thing he embraces is emerging technology, using 3D scanning to enable the creation of work in varying sizes.
Much of Olsson’s research and knowledge has been presented on an audio tour, which is available to Apple or Android for free via the Candide app. Partly narrated by her, this features in-depth information about a selection of the sculptures. It forms part of Leonardslee’s mission to make their art as accessible as possible.
“We’ve also published a book to celebrate the exhibition, which features essays about the history of Leonardslee, along with three pieces about the artists – south African art historian’s view of the artist’s work.”
“Past owners of Leonardslee collected plants instead of art, so maybe we’re trying to change that a bit. The last owners, the Loder family, when they had the estate open prior to 2009, did have small sculptures exhibitions. I know they had the work of Phillip Jackson here at one point.” The focus now is on complimenting the heritage of this Grade I listed house and gardens with quality works of art. While Anton Smith is their primary artist, Fri 14 July – Sun 20 Aug sees the Surrey Sculpture Society returning for a third exhibition of work. This brings in over 100 works by various celebrated artists. A series of paintings by contemporary South African artists are also being installed in the house, joining its ten boutique hotel rooms, tea offerings and a Michlin starred restaurant. Moving forwards, there are various discussions behind the scenes about how far this new era for the estate could go.
“Every day when I’m in, I hearing people talking about the art. We get a lot of feedback about the pieces.
We’ve got a lot of local and international artists here, but this is just the beginning of something. Our owner does want to develop what’s offered at Leonardslee. There is contemplation of a bespoke gallery which would be wonderful to have a properly designed space where we could have revolving exhibitions. It’s a living thing, this location. It’s not a sense of ‘Oh, this is old, and this is what we’re sticking with.’”