A barn­storm­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion

Once home to Bri­tain’s great­est art col­lec­tor, the Fonthill es­tate has re­vived its artis­tic con­nec­tions with a new con­tem­po­rary cen­tre in its as­ton­ish­ing medieval barn. Cather­ine Mil­ner talks to its founders

Country Life Every Week - - Properties Of The Week - Pho­to­graphs by Mil­lie Pilk­ing­ton

Is Tis­bury the birth­place of art? It’s not a ques­tion many pon­der as they stare out of the train that stops at this modest Wilt­shire town, yet it’s some­thing that art dealer Johnny Mes­sum has thought a lot about. A 400,000-year-old lump of coral that orig­i­nated from here has made him won­der whether Ne­an­derthals, hith­erto re­garded as lit­tle more than apes, could have had an aes­thetic sen­si­bil­ity.

The coral, which has a crys­talline, star-span­gled ap­pear­ance and may de­pict a hu­man face, was trans­ported by hand from Tis­bury to swanscombe in Kent, sig­ni­fy­ing, he ar­gues, that be­ings way be­fore Homo sapi­ens may have prized items of beauty. ‘Why would a Ne­an­derthal bother car­ry­ing it all that way oth­er­wise?’ he asks.

The fos­sil pro­vides a po­etic link to the present, for Mr Mes­sum is in the process of es­tab­lish­ing Tis­bury as a cen­tre for the art of to­day. He has opened a gallery in Bri­tain’s big­gest medieval barn—also one of the coun­try’s largest thatched build­ings—which stands on the fringes of the lit­tle town next to the un­der­ground reef of an­cient coral. Place Barn be­longs to Alas­tair Mor­ri­son, 3rd Baron Mar­gadale, owner of the 9,000-acre Fonthill es­tate, its wolds of beech trees and chalk down form­ing one of the most ro­man­tic tracts of land in the West Coun­try.

sit­ting at an oak ta­ble in a clev­erly de­signed cafe at one end of the barn, the two men are dwarfed by the tow­er­ing walls and lofty pro­ces­sion of curved oak beams van­ish­ing be­hind them like the ribs of a cathe­dral. This ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal im­pres­sion is not en­tirely fan­ci­ful. The barn was built at the end of the 13th cen­tury for the Abbess of shaftes­bury to store grain and was owned by shaftes­bury Abbey un­til the dis­so­lu­tion of the monas­ter­ies. To­gether with a farm­house and gate­houses, it is part of one of the finest sur­viv­ing groups of monas­tic grange build­ings in the coun­try.

‘Like most es­tates, we have to move with the times,’ ex­plains Lord Mar­gadale,

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