‘Few things of beauty were intended to be cut loose in a Minimalist void’: How context enhances art

The Sassoon exhibition at Parham House, West Sussex, demonstrates why decorative art flourishes in a domestic setting.

Although there was an admirable attempt in the 1980s to treat contemporary decorative art with the respect it deserves, the fundamental mistake was to display it in the same way as pieces of conceptual art.

Colour, texture and raw brickwork tend to offer a much more sympathetic setting, compared with lonely plinths, downlights and crisply plastered walls.

Not only is no man an island, but few things of beauty were intended to be cut loose in a Minimalist void. Decorative pieces look so much more engaging set among furniture, paintings, bowls or flowers (and even a smelly old dog or two).

Context is one of the many reasons why the exhibition curated by Adrian Sassoon at Parham House, the exquisite Elizabethan pile in West Sussex, should be embraced with open arms.

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First, of course, it’s an actual exhibition, where you can enjoy the long-lost pleasure of seeing things in glorious 3D, illuminated in natural light and possibly get a cup of tea and a postcard (hooray for old normal!).

Another is that works by an impressive stable of artists, including Felicity Aylieff, Takahiro Kondo, Hiroshi Suzuki and Angela Jarman, are displayed against a backdrop of its breathtaking interiors.

A further magnetic draw is exerted by the work of Kate Malone, the esteemed ceramic artist and judge of BBC2’s The Great Pottery Throw Down, whose pieces feature in collections from the V&A Museum to the Cooper Hewitt.

At Parham, her work will be found in various settings around the house, including in the magnificent panelled long gallery, bedrooms and out in the glass houses.

‘I love the intimacy of the interiors at Parham, in particular the tapestries, so many of which were stitched by women,’ says the artist, who, five years ago, was the focus of a major exhibition of work at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire that was inspired by its collections, archive and gardens.

In their setting at Parham, her distinctive pieces, which celebrate the intricate detail and voluptuous shapes of the natural world, express, rather eloquently, how new and old make such happy bedfellows.

There’s another lesson offered by the Parham show; namely, that decorative arts are there to be lived with, adding interest, soul and distinction to ever-evolving domestic interiors. ’Twas ever thus.

‘Adrian Sassoon at Parham: A House Of History’, runs from July 21 to August 31

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