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
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,