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Wilfred Cass – champion of British sculpture

— November 2014

Associated media

Wilfred and Jeannette Cass take a moment to sit down amid the celebrations for Wilfred's 90th birthday. Photo: Meliza and Chris Myburgh

Wilfred Cass, co-founder of the Cass Sculpture Foundation, was 90 years old on 11 November. The previous weekend he and his wife hosted a wonderful celebratory party. Frances Follin was privileged to attend.

Wilfred Cass, who in 1990 conceived the idea for what is now the Cass Sculpture Foundation (opened in 1992), is now 90 years old. He celebrated with his wife Jeannette and many family members and friends, at a superb party at his home and in the adjoining estate, a few miles from Chichester. This is not, in fact, a sculpture park in the traditional sense of a permanent collection – the Foundation is a unique project, as unconventional and progressive as the man himself.

Guests arriving for the celebrations were welcomed by Wilfred and Jeannette in their beautiful modernist house overlooking a sheltered garden surrounded by trees but open at the far end with a view of the West Sussex countryside beyond. We were soon to be entranced by the appearance, in the garden below, of a cloaked figure carrying two long sticks supporting an almost equally long piece of string, which he proceeded to lower into a bucket. Up came the sticks and as he pulled them slowly apart, an iridescent film could briefly be seen caught in the loop of string, before the wind blew it into a series of enormous bubbles. These were, effectively, ephemeral coloured sculptures that floated past the window, bursting on the branches of trees or just from the pressure of the air inside them. The child in everyone was enchanted.

Then we all walked through the grounds, past a variety of impressive sculptures, to the Visitors’ Gallery, which houses the Foundation’s archive of maquettes and drawings of sculptures both commissioned and considered but never made. This collection gives an excellent idea of the range of work that Wilfred and Jeanette have commissioned over the years, and the ideas that they have explored with a range of artists. The work is very varied but what it all has in common is that it is by British sculptors – not a particularly fashionable category when this entrepreneurial couple first conceived the Foundation.

Over a splendid lunch, guests ranging in age from about 18 months upwards socialized and generally enjoyed themselves. Talking to Misha Curson, the Foundation’s communications officer, I learnt that there is a lot more to the Foundation than the estate at Goodwood, impressive though that is. Wilfred Cass is a man who has spent his life as an entrepreneur, building up businesses from small or unpromising beginnings. His ambitions for the Foundation have gone far beyond the estate.

From the outset, the Foundation, originally titled Sculpture at Goodwood, had to be self-supporting. To finance it, the plan was to commission works, display them and then sell them to generate funds for more commissions. This had never been done before and Wilfred and Jeannette were told that it would not work – but they made it work, and in the process developed a unique business model of not-for-profit art entrepreneurship. So, at a time of life when most people think of slowing down, they were using the Foundation and the skills they and their team had developed in running it, to become involved in projects much further afield.

When the decision was made to fill the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square with temporary commissions, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), responsible for the project, turned to the Foundation because of its skill in commissioning large pieces of sculpture for public display. The Foundation’s funding model was also an excellent one for the Fourth Plinth project. So it was that the Foundation commissioned the first three sculptures displayed on the Fourth Plinth. One of the most memorable of all the pieces shown there over the years has to be Rachel Whiteread’s Monument, a clear resin cast of the plinth itself, standing upside down on the real plinth, a sort of solid negative image of it. A large maquette for this is in the archive.

Another project was undertaken in 2005 with the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum, whereby five sculptures were commissioned from Tony Cragg, one of Wilfred and Jeannette’s favourite artists, and exhibited in  Exhibition Road. More recently, the Foundation has commissioned another work by Tony Cragg for a site in Singapore. Clearly, the work may be British but the activities of the Foundation will know no borders.

Back at home, a new series of exhibitions and publications is planned for next year and beyond. From 3 April until early November 2015, the London-based sculptor Alex Hoda will be having a solo exhibition that will involve building a kiln in the grounds and firing elements of two new sculptures there. The resulting works should be ready to be displayed  from July onwards. Four other artists will also be showing new work from April onwards.

The works on show – as our images testify – are bold creations at the cutting edge of contemporary sculpture. The latest, digital, art is not beyond the Foundation’s remit, however, and from January it should be possible to view online A Wall, conceived by Zheng Bo, which will use text and imagery  to explore the work of socio-environmentally engaged Chinese artists. This is a joint project involving British Council China, The Space Website, the BBC and the Courtauld Institute.  This sort of collaboration is plainly the way ahead for major projects in a somewhat resource-starved period.

Wilfred Cass has consistently supported and championed British sculpture. It has to be said that his exertions in this area do not seem to have tired him out – on the contrary, many people much younger lack half his energy and drive. His hundredth birthday party is sure to be a corker!


Frances Follin
Independent art historian

Background info

For more about Wilfred Cass and  the fascinating background to the creation of the Foundation, do read Here Comes Mr Cass, in which Wilfred Cass recalls the life that led up to it and what has happened since.

The Cass Sculpture Foundation is open in the winter months by appointment only. It will re-open  daily from 3 April 2015 (until 2 November 2015), 10.30a.m. –4.30p.m.

Cass Sculpture Foundation
New Barn Hill
Goodwood, nr. Chichester
West Sussex
PO18 0QP
United Kingdom

Zheng Bo’s A Wall should be available online during January 2015 at  Beginning on 30 January 2015 there will be a series of related research seminars hosted by the Courtauld Institute of Art, London

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