'These Passing Things' at Studley Royal water garden

'Bridged' by Steve Messam These Passing Things at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

Discover bold and colourful surprises in the water garden this summer with a new contemporary exhibition and learn more about the history of this World Heritage Site through art.

What's happening?

From 10 July 2021 until autumn 2021 Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal will be hosting a new art exhibition by artist Steve Messam. Studley Royal has been host to contemporary artworks with its follies and sculptures for centuries. These Passing Things is fantastical and bold, uncovering the story of the water garden, and revealing new perspective.

In total, 2 full-time and 1 part-time pieces will transform existing historic buildings and landscape:

  • Drifted - 12 Floating pyramids in the canal – with inspiration taken from a lost pyramid folly.
  • Bridged – a scarlet contemporary bridge sitting across the river Skell, close to the site of a lost iron bridge from the 18th century.
  • Spiked - An inflatable artwork which will appear to burst through the columns of the Temple of Piety. This is an occasional piece which was on display for opening weekend and will return to the garden on 21 August.
'Drifted' by Steve Messam These Passing Things
Drifted by Steve Messam These Passing Things
'Drifted' by Steve Messam These Passing Things

What’s the connection with art and the water garden?

The original designers of the Studley Royal Water Garden, the Aislabie family, created many sculptures and follies to surprise and delight their 18th century guests. Since 2015 The National Trust at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal have been celebrating these fashionable and whimsical structures and the Georgian water garden they sit within, through pop-up art installations

The follies and sculptures you see in the water garden now would have been contemporary artworks in their time
Water garden at Fountains Abbey 2021
The follies and sculptures you see in the water garden now would have been contemporary artworks in their time

The original Georgian follies were designed as ‘eye-catchers’ – ornate, eccentric installations in the landscape, designed to draw the eye and convey a sense of exoticism and playfulness.

When John and William Aislabie created the garden, their designs deliberately included curious, fanciful objects and alternative viewpoints of the landscape.  The idea behind These Passing Things is to develop and re-imagine these concepts through art for our visitors today.

'Spiked' will appear in the water garden from August 21
Drifted by Steve Messam These Passing Things
'Spiked' will appear in the water garden from August 21

What’s inspired this exhibition?

These Passing Things is inspired by designs for a 16-metre-high funerary Pyramid which estate archive records show was commissioned by William Aislabie in the 18th century, after his father’s death. Despite scale drawings and detailed costings for the piece, no further mentions of the pyramid were ever made no record or evidence exists of this mysterious pyramid ever being built.

The artworks for These Passing Things will be designed by artist Steve Messam and will feature two full-time installations as well as an occasional installation. The artworks can be seen from 10 July until autumn 2021. 

The funary pyramid, commisioned by William Aislabie, is a mystery
A scan of the funerary pyramid from the archives
The funary pyramid, commisioned by William Aislabie, is a mystery

Meet the artist

Steve Messam is an artist based in the North of England. He likes to embrace the history and culture behind a place when creating his work, working within the natural assets of a landscape.

He has a particular interest in the cultural reference points inherent in the work of artists living in rural communities and exploiting the assets of landscape, agriculture and community for challenging the preconceptions of contemporary rural arts practice.

These Passing Things artist Steve Messam in Studley Royal water garden
Artist Steve Messam in Studley Royal water garden in North Yorkshire
These Passing Things artist Steve Messam in Studley Royal water garden

His works explore the colour and scale of place. His inflatable textile works include a suite of pieces that filled historic ruins in a Scottish castle gardens and wrapped a seating shelter in Blackpool.

Other works include PaperBridge(2015), a functioning packhorse bridge made from 22,000 sheets of paper in the Lake District; and Hush(2019) - a lead-mining scar in the North Pennines landscape filled with over five kilometres of saffron-yellow fabric. 

Previous art commissions by the National Trust at Studley Royal

Studley Royal, the large Georgian water garden, is what makes visiting Fountains Abbey stand out from the crowd; it's the main reason behind the site being granted World Heritage Site status. To celebrate this classic example of an English water garden with its many follies we've been running art programmes since 2015.

'Scavenger' with the artist Gary McCann, folly! 2015
'Scavenger' with the artist Gary McCann
'Scavenger' with the artist Gary McCann, folly! 2015

What's going on throughout this year?

This year is about embracing art, playing with new views and encouraging creativity. Not only will there be two full-time artworks and one pop-up surprise in the water garden but lots of opportunity to take inspiration from These Passing Things yourself. You'll be able to see the artworks from 10 July - autumn 2021. 

Pick up trail maps (there's one for kids and one for grown-ups too!) from admissions and take inspiration from the artworks and the way nature has sculpted the design of the garden. See how different colours interact with fabrics by watching natural dye demonstrations at Swanley Grange on selected weekends.

You can also join a 'walk and talk' with the artist Steve Messam on the following dates. The talks are free but normal admission applies. 

Wednesday 25 August - 11:30am and 2:30pm 

Tuesday 14 September - 11:30am and 2:30pm 

Saturday 9 October - 11:30am and 2:30pm 

Did you know?...

When the first follies and sculptures that we’re used to now were built at Studley lots of visitors didn’t like them at all. With contemporary art well rooted in the history of this World Heritage Site, it's a debate that's still running centuries later.

" "The walk around the gardens is a circuit of four miles and exhibits many scenes which nature has made so beautiful, that not even the paultry and puerile taste of the late proprietor has been able completely to destroy... to render the havoc of its beauty more complete, spotted about are a variety of ill placed and disgusting statues The buildings swarm in every part of the place. All that are of wood are painted white for fear their impropriety should be concealed; and wherever a view is to be looked at, no way less artificial than that of shaving trees for the only purpose…”"

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