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From Vienna to Norfolk

By Spalding Today Columnist

The exhibition was meant to be in Vienna. But due to some last-minute changes, this eye-popping collection, from one of Britain's most famous contemporary artists, ended up in the grand setting of Houghton Hall in Norfolk.

The home of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, Houghton Hall, was built in the 1720s, a fine example of Palladian architecture. Walpole's descendant, the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, took the enlightened decision to remove the old family portraits from the state rooms in March this year and replace them temporarily with Hirst's new Colour Space paintings. Out with Great Granny and in her place, canvases filled with multi-coloured spots.

Hirst is well-known for his Spot Paintings series but this new collection, never shown in public before, continues the theme, with no two colours of exactly the same shade repeated on any one canvas.

In the magnificent Stone Hall, there are two perspex boxes full of plastic balls which are propelled into the air with blowers. Whether you recognise this as art or wonder if the National Lottery draw is about to take place, you can't help but be surprised, shocked and amused.

In the grounds, you can see a number of Hirst's best-known sculptures from the last 15 years. Standing over 10 metres high, The Virgin Mother (2005-6) is positioned on the lawn, in all its anatomical glory. The colours are vivid and plasticky and yet it's constructed from bronze.

In front of the hall are similar brightly-painted bronze figures of a unicorn and winged Pegasus: Myth (2010) and Legend (2011).

There are also permanent works by other contemporary artists in the grounds. Rachel Whiteread's inside-out Houghton Hut can be found amongst the trees and it's worth hunting out James Turrell's Skyspace: Seldom Seen, just to take a breather in this reflective space.

The house itself, with or without Hirst's additions, is fabulous. I was particularly taken with the green velvet 'shell bed', designed by William Kent and the dining room, or Marble Parlour, dedicated to Bacchus.

In the stable block is a wonderful collection of model soldiers, started by the sixth Marquess of Cholmondeley. Numbering about 20,000 tiny figures, it's one of the largest in the world. Here you can see recreations of the Battle of Waterloo and The Great War in exquisite detail.

In the grounds you are close to deer and you can see the cattle at the other side of the ha-ha. The walled garden is also delightful: look out for Jeppe Hein's Waterflame feature. The cafe is also worth a visit: excellent food in very pretty surroundings.

Houghton Hall will still be there to visit when Damien Hirst's exhibition closes on July 15. But I think it would be such a shame to miss this, if you're at all curious about his art.

The exhibition, including access to house and gardens, continues Wednesdays to Sundays from 11am to 4pm (last entry). It costs £18 for adults, £10 for students and children under 17 are free. For more information, contact www.houghtonhall.com.


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