Under Norfolk Skies: Sean Scully at Houghton Hall, King’s Lynn

Sean Scully, 'Heat', 'Doric Night' © Sean Scully. Photo Pete Huggins.
Sean Scully, 'Heat', 'Doric Night' © Sean Scully. Photo Pete Huggins.

Sean Scully: Smaller than the Sky

Sep: Wed, Thu, Sat, Sun. Oct: Wed, Thu, Sun 11:00 – 17:00 

From: 23 Apr 2023

To: 29 Oct 2023

Houghton Hall
King’s Lynn, Norfolk
PE31 6UE

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In a prolific career spanning more than five decades, Sean Scully is known for his large-scale abstract paintings, comprised of gradated and shifting colours. However, in his current exhibition Smaller than the Sky, at Houghton Hall, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, it is his more recent sculptures which take the lead.

Monumental pieces of stacked steel, stone and glass create impressive silhouettes both against and within the rooms and gardens of Houghton Hall. Climbing the stairs through the Hall, you encircle Sharpening Stack – produced for the exhibition and cleverly positioned under a marble baldaquin. Made by layering reused cylindrical millstones which are rough and tactile, it is a reminder of the coins Scully’s father, a barber, would keep next to his cutting chair. Perhaps the reason why, despite the sculpture’s mass, the stack is at the same time precarious.

'Sharpening Stack' © Sean Scully
‘Sharpening Stack’ (2023) grindstones. Courtesy of the artist

Inspired by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Scully’s works express the physical and emotional experience of trauma and memory. However, unlike his predecessors, the art holds specific relevance today, as the exhibition’s title suggests, considering humanity’s destruction of, and place within, the natural environment. 

Houghton’s intricate Palladian architecture puts it in diametric opposition with Scully’s language of geometric shapes and brutal materials. However, the contrasts complement each other perfectly, to the extent where displaying these works in a White Cube setting is almost inconceivable – an opinion not helped by the slightly disappointing South Wing Gallery alongside the Hall, where certain large paintings such as Heat and Doric Night are cooped up.

'Heat', 'Doric Night' © Sean
‘Heat’ (1984), oil on linen, and ‘Doric Night’ (2011) oil on aluminium

Curator Sean Rainbird writes that despite its title, the exhibition ‘lacks nothing in its ambition to articulate and fully inhabit its seemingly infinite environment’. Nowhere is this more evident than in Crate of Air: long steel lines reflect the ground’s expansive vistas and Scully’s own fascination with the horizion. Placed within the gardens, the material against the natural seems to reflects Scully’s own life, born in 1945 in rural Dublin, and growing up in South London.

Dominating the land just outside the Hall’s main entrance, the twenty metre long by four metre wide open structure dwarfs the viewer, but, in turn, is also engulfed by the house. The pairing constructs a new composition; the house is revealed through the scaffolding like sculpture, drawing you to new details in Houghton’s facade. 

'Crate of Air', 2018, © Sean Scully. Photo Peter Huggins
‘Crate of Air’ (2018), Corten steel

Made of Corten Steel to withstand the North Norfolk climate, the rust-coloured beams glint deep orange in the sun, but presumably also in the rain. It is the changing climate which helps bring this and other pieces to life. The hollow, rectangular slabs of hand-blown Murano glass in Venice Stack reflect the light which filters in through the tall windows of the Main Hall, outshining the intricate stonework surrounding it. Scattering bright tropical colours across the tiled floor – perhaps a reference to Scully’s interest in endangered birds, another of the exhibition’s themes. 

'Venice Stack', 2020 © Sean Scully. Photo Pete Huggins
Venice Stack’ (2020), Murano glass. Courtesy of the artist

The house’s layout means you re-enter this main room through a different entrance, where the light, and thus the art may have changed, creating a new atmosphere and the work’s temporality.

The sculpture reflects Scully’s distinctive form of abstract painting; coloured bars and horizontal beams, seen also in his sketches, revealed in the Hall’s curving Colonnade Gallery.

Photo Pete Huggins
Detail of wall at Houghton Hall

Having seen himself at war with the Minimalist movement, you could continue to unpick Scully’s work, riddled with metaphor and emotion. However, what makes this exhibition is that you do not have to. You can attempt to understand Scully’s own complicated relationship with the natural world, but you can also just appreciate the way this exhibition links the natural and the material.

With limited instruction other than his scribbled notes displayed alongside work, you can wander the grounds at leisure. The abstract works are both honest and expressive and are emotive no matter the level they are understood. This exhibition offers a unique opportunity to take in the optical effects which are only enabled by the symmetry and scale of the Hall, and Scully’s own ingenuity.

With thanks to Nelly Laycock for this review. All works © Sean Scully, and photo’s Pete Huggins.

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