The leafy splendour of Belgrave Square will be well known to many devotees of Open Garden Squares Weekend, one of the few garden squares that has welcomed visitors every year since the scheme began in 1998. Its magnificent trees shelter not only the lawns, sitting-out places, arbours and tennis courts within, but also the various works of sculpture that can be found both in the garden itself and at each of its external corners, outside the railings. However, what may come as a surprise is a nearby exhibition of contemporary art currently being held in an unusual setting: the residence of the German Ambassador at 22 Belgrave Square.
The neighbourhood has become the seat of numerous foreign embassies and the central garden's sculptures themselves have a strongly international flavour, so this temporary exhibition sits well here. The initiative of two German art curators currently working in prestigious London galleries, Marlene von Carnap and Coraly von Bismarck, 'Home is not a Place' presents work by nine contemporary artists – either German artists working in London or English artists working in Berlin – celebrating the vital cultural exchange between these capital cities, which I sincerely hope is not about to be compromised by the current negotiations. Indeed, the tide arose from a piece of graffiti that the curators caught sight of in Oxford Circus a few days after the Brexit vote last year. The artists explore notions of home and identity, belonging and displacement, geographical and political boundaries. In his welcoming address at the exhibition launch in early June, Ambassador Peter Ammon spoke of the artists: 'For them, living and working in another country comes quite naturally. For them, Home certainly is not a place'.
Among the exhibits, one intriguing work sited in the garden particularly piqued my interest and for me has resonance with its location here in Belgrave Square. This is Julius von Bismarck's 'History Apparatus', a site-specific sculpture created especially for the paved courtyard garden behind the house – a stately oak tree has apparently been felled, leaving only its poignant stump. On first sight this appears plausible – perhaps chopped down to open up this pleasant courtyard to the sky above. However, on descending to the garden proper on a lower level, it becomes clear that where the roots should be are rooms of a kitchen area. Von Bismarck's oak stump here is the latest iteration of this concept, recalling two earlier works the artist created in Germany in 2014: a public art commission in Arnsberg, where an equally mature oak tree was apparently cut down in the cobbled tree-lined public Neumarkt square, near the Kunstverein Arnsberg, the art gallery that commissioned the work. Another version was installed outside the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where the artist currently lives. These tree stumps direct the viewer's imagination back in time and stimulate a consideration of nature and of history. What might such a tree have witnessed as it grew to its eventual stature? Who or what might have taken refuge under its spreading branches? What led to its demise? But all is not artifice; the oak stump in Belgravia was once a real tree some 150 years old, which used to stand on a sheep pasture until strong winds caused it to fall. It was donated especially for Julius von Bismarck's project by Piers and Melanie Gibson at Grove Farm in West Sussex. When it was first set up in central London, remnants of sheep's wool still clung to the bark. Its age echoes that of many of the living trees found in Belgrave Square, which celebrates its 150th anniversary, having been laid out in 1867. While I was discussing the project with the German Ambassador's wife Marliese Heimann-Ammon – a prime mover in bringing art into their embassy premises, both in Washington and London – she referred to the surprising fact that the catastrophic storms of October 1987 had not caused as much devastation in Belgrave Square as elsewhere.
Leaving the exhibition, I walked around the external perimeter of the private central gardens where there are a number of bronze statues of explorers and historical figures set on stone plinths. By different artists from multiple countries, all have been installed in Belgrave Square since 1974. The eastern corner holds a memorial to Simon Bolívar (1783-1830), the revolutionary leader who liberated South America from the Spanish. Sculpted by Italian-born artist Hugo Daini, the statue was erected in 1974. The next statue, installed in 1992, depicts Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), the work of Spanish sculptor Tomás Bañuelos. Further round the perimeter is General José de San Martin (1778-1850), the Argentinean national hero of the independence of Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spain. This statue, of 1994, is by Argentinian sculptor Juan Carlos Ferraro. Finally we find a pensive Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), the Portuguese prince whose sailors travelled to uncharted parts of the ocean during the Portuguese wars against the Moors. He later set up an observatory and navigation school whose pupils travelled widely, discovering the Madeira Islands and exploring the West African coast as far as Sierra Leone. The statue, installed in 2002, was created after a work of 1915 by Portuguese sculptor José Simões de Almeida (the younger).
Within the gardens are two more sculptures with international resonance – to the north is 'Homage to Leonardo' by Enzo Plazzotta, erected here in 1984. Finally a bust by Jonathan Wylder, installed in 2002, of George Basevi (1794-1845), the architect of Belgrave Square – almost certainly his best-known commission in London – and numerous Neo-classical churches, country houses and other buildings, of particular note the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Basevi's own ancestry has its origins outside England, Sephardic Jews who sought refuge here from persecution.
It is interesting to note that these 'private' sculptures are visible to the public outside, and indeed the plaque for 'Homage to Leonardo' is clearly directed so that those on the periphery may appreciate it.
And then I noticed an extraordinary natural sculpture, growing from the trunk of a mighty plane tree – what a pleasure to end with!
'Home is not a Place' runs until September 2017. Visiting the exhibition is strictly by appointment only. For further information please use the German Embassy's contact form, selecting 'All other enquiries': https://uk.diplo.de/contact.