Cultural Landscapes of Compton Verney

by | a Day in the Life

Dr Steven Parissien talks to GDC Interiors Journal about his typical day as Director of Compton Verney – museum and art gallery – in Warwickshire, England. The 18th century country house surrounded by 120 acres of Capability Brown landscape, is the magnificent setting for a broad permanent collection and exhibitions of an international standard. Running any art establishment these days requires not only an aesthetic vision but business skills. Successfully bringing great art to the provinces however, is an even greater challenge and one to which Steven Parissien has enthusiastically risen.

Dr Steven Parissien is the Director of Compton Verney museum and gallery in Warwickshire, England, and is also Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, and the University of Warwick. He was born in London and raised in Buckinghamshire.

Steven has published extensively on architectural and cultural history. His books include Adam Style, George IV: The Grand Entertainment, Interiors: The Home Since 1700 and The Life of the Automobile.

sphinx at Compton Verney

A museum director’s life is inevitably a varied one. There are few set patterns and routines; aside from staff meetings that have been planted in the diary months previously, s/he must be prepared to rearrange their time – often giving up evenings and weekends at short notice – to seize opportunities, take advantage of VIP visits, exploit the sudden availability of key partnership and PR targets, develop unexpected media openings and jump at what we might charitably call lucky chances – to paraphrase the tortuous words of Donald Rumsfeld, the unknowable knowns.

So let’s just take a day at random. Call it Tuesday. At 7.45 I leave home in central Oxford, where I live with my daughter. (She’s currently completing a Foundation course in music production, and will go on to study this subject at a specialist university in September. It’s a condensed degree, with no vacations; so, sadly, she will be moving out for good. Though of course they always come back…) It’s usually a relatively trouble-free, 45-minute journey: the queues are all going the other way, often reducing the A34 and M40 to bumper-to-bumper gridlock. (How do they do it every day?) And of course I drive at a sedate 50 mph all the way. Well, sort of.

Compton Verney is a glorious site: a national museum and art gallery set in 120 acres of breathtaking, historic Warwickshire landscape. It’s such a joy to walk up from the car park, across the Robert Adam bridge, and be able to look across the lake and the Georgian park. The view down to the Lower Bridge is magnificent: one of those picture-postcard vistas that define what’s best about England. Added to that, there are always birds and animals to glimpse: recently, the great crested grebes have been tutoring their noisy young in swimming lessons; on the north bank, the pair of swans are still sleeping; whilst above them terns jink and whirl in search of early morning insects. Rabbits are usually the only animals up and about at this time of day: the many badgers have all retired to their setts and, while there are otters lurking by the south bank, they rarely present themselves to the cameras.

Compton Verney is a glorious site: a national museum and art gallery set in 120 acres of breathtaking, historic Warwickshire landscape.

It’s a familiar cliché to say that Compton Verney is unique, but in this case it’s true. There’s nothing like us anywhere else: a relaxed, refreshing museum and gallery where you can take things at your own pace and where children – and adults, too – can roam around the grounds and visit the fabulous, eco-friendly playground. The Dean of Coventry visited us recently and, bowled over by what he had seen, described Compton Verney as an intensely uplifting, spiritual place: a typically perceptive summary of this rich and varied site.

RSC exhibition Midsummer Night's Dream by W. Balls (c) Compton Verney

RSC exhibition Midsummer Night’s Dream by W. Balls © Compton Verney, photograph by Jamie Woodley

Sadly, though, I can’t linger in the park all day, tempting as it is. Off to my office for the inevitable series of meetings. First up: an exhibition review with members of the Programming department. Like all larger museums and galleries, we plan some years ahead; we are, for example, currently evaluating exhibition proposals for 2018 and 2019. However, this meeting is designed to review where we are on the upcoming shows: the exciting, groundbreaking chemistry/art crossover exhibition Periodic Tales, to be staged in the autumn of 2015; the major show we are developing with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Painting Shakespeare, which will map key Shakespeare plays which have inspired important artists across the ages; and our summer 2016 offer:  Britain in the Fifties, which is explores the relationship between the average consumer and design in the 1950s using the choices of a notional married couple through the decade.

All three of these exhibitions present unusual challenges. They all involve loans of unfamiliar areas from unusual sources: from the fragile and occasionally volatile subjects of Periodic Tales to the privately-owned ‘treasures in the attic’ we are seeking for Britain in the Fifties. There’s always a financial imperative, too. As an independent charity which relies enormously on statutory grants, awards from trusts, individual giving and commercial and hire income, and with no regular government funding, we have to be very careful how much we spend. Art transport is by far the largest cost for any exhibition, so we must try and minimise the journeys taken to fetch loans (which these days have to be sourced within the UK: few galleries outside the UK capitals today can afford overseas transport). At the same time, we are looking to create a powerful exhibition narratives which will engage, delight and say something new. As with any business, reconciling such diverse criteria is never an easy task.

Although they are very important to us in attracting visitors, exhibitions are by no means the only thing we have to offer. We also have six fascinating permanent collections, from ancient Chinese bronzes to the collection of the noted designer Enid Marx. Second meeting of the day is with the Collections Manager, to rehearse the business which we will put before the collections board that meets in a fortnight. (Compton Verney has been an independent charitable trust since 1993, but its collections are the responsibility of a separate charity.) During the winter we successfully reinterpreted our Chinese collection – one of the top five of its kind in Europe, and designated as being of national significance – thanks to grants from the Arts Council (who have consistently proved a huge help and ally in these fiscally troubled times) and the inestimable DCMS/Wolfson Fund. The results have been spectacular: the new galleries, designed by Stroud-based design practice Schimmer Child, not only look stunning, but have also won us many new visitors, whose excellent feedback we will be reporting back to the board. Our next target for comprehensive reinterpretation is our British Folk Art collection – possibly the best in Britain but, 11 years after it was first displayed, now in need of rethinking and refreshing. Our discussion isn’t just about how we can best display the Folk objects; to do this we need external funding, so we discuss potential targets with our experienced Head of Development – one of the most crucial roles we have here.

Chinese collection at Compton Verney. photo by Jamie Woodley

Chinese collection at Compton Verney, photo by Jamie Woodley

The aim is to enhance, restore and interpret the work of the great Georgian garden designer, ‘Capability’ Brown

Not every meeting is about the galleries. Late morning we have a status meeting about our ambitious, £3.7 million Park Restoration Project, for which we won a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund earlier this year. The aim of this scheme is to enhance, restore and interpret the work of the great Georgian garden designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who transformed the landscape here after 1768 – and whose birth, 300 years ago, is being nationally celebrated in 2016. Work is about to start on the first element of this project: the exciting new Visitors Centre, which must be open by next March and will enable us to open the park all year round.  

No time for lunch, as usual. (I only visit our splendid restaurant when I have VIP visitors to entertain, honest.) Instead, I check we are all set up for my post-lunch lecture. Compton Verney offers a regular series of accessible but authoritative public lectures and tours connected with the exhibitions and collections, some of which I deliver. As a former academic I rather enjoy lecturing, and it’s good to keep up the habit – whether the subject is Canaletto in Britain or Warwickshire Airfields in World War Two.

I rather enjoy lecturing – whether the subject is Canaletto in Britain or Warwickshire Airfields in World War Two

Image: Canaletto, London The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards the City
Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Mid-afternoon sees an important external visit: Darren Henley, the new Chief Executive of the Arts Council, is visiting us with some of his key staff. The Arts Council’s support and encouragement is vital to independent museums such as Compton Verney, and it’s a great fillip for us all that Darren has taken time out of his busy schedule to meet with us. He’s also keen, after our meeting, to talk over tea with our colleagues in the regional cultural alliance we’ve recently helped set up. ‘CW8’ (‘Coventry and Warwickshire 8’, which comprises the Directors/CEOs and their deputies from the RSC, Coventry Cathedral, Culture Coventry, the Belgrade Theatre, Warwick Castle, Warwick Arts Centre and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as well as Compton Verney ) has been created to lobby regional and national government, national arts bodies (such as the Arts Council) and, most importantly, regional businesses, not just for funding and sponsorship purposes but in order to encourage them to place culture at the centre of their corporate agendas and to help them to realise their staff development and community engagement goals.

All is not over at 5pm. Tonight we are hosting one of our many after-hours drinks receptions for corporate members, who bring their clients and families and have a private, director-led tour of the current exhibitions. It’s a chance for us to meet local people who may not have been before, while at the same time provides our corporate members with an impressive business opportunity. So everyone is happy. I just wish I didn’t have to drive home afterwards.

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