It was an article in the weekend paper that finally prompted me to take a trip to Hauser & Wirth Somerset UK – a place that’s been on my wish-list for a long time. A write-up of an exhibition by the multi-disciplinary artist Thomas J Price caught my eye, and I decided it was time to see if the gallery lived up to its hype.
It was something of a surprise when art power couple Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser chose the quiet West Country village of Bruton to open their new gallery back in 2014 – previous outposts were located in Zurich, New York and London’s Mayfair. Hauser & Wirth Somerset has been a huge success though, and has helped put Bruton firmly on the map. Since then, Hauser & Wirth have opened galleries in Hong Kong, St Moritz, Menorca, Los Angele and Monaco and have also bought a new flagship space in London’s Mayfair.
In their Somerset outpost, contemporary art is showcased in restored farm buildings, with an acclaimed restaurant and gardens created by the designer of the High Line gardens in New York.
BOOKING AND ARRIVAL
I arranged to visit with my father as a belated birthday treat. Booking was simple – entry is free, but you have to book a timed slot online via the website. They emailed me confirmation and a booking number to use on the day.
I also booked to go for lunch at the Roth Bar & Grill, which can be done online, but I phoned up to ask some questions, and they were friendly and helpful.
We drove from Bristol. When we got to Bruton, Hauser & Wirth was signposted on brown tourist signs through the village, although the signage on the entrance is not very visible, and we drove past it and had to turn around and go back.
The buildings housing Hauser & Wirth Somerset comprise renovated farm buildings dating back to the 1760s with new purpose-built galleries added by architect Luis Laplace and designed to complement the original buildings.
As soon as you get out of the car, you feel you’ve stumbled on somewhere special. The site is set in beautiful Somerset countryside; the entrance leads to a courtyard surrounded by the stone farm buildings, and featuring large public sculptures – currently there are two large-scale pieces on display by Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida.
In the soft autumn sunshine, it all looked stunning; the dramatic artwork, displays of squashes and gourds outside the Roth Bar & Grill, the restored stonework and huge floor to ceilings windows in the main barn.
At the reception, which is next to the gift shop, we showed our online tickets and were directed to the galleries via a pretty courtyard.
I walked into the first gallery showing Thomas J Price’s sculptures, and stopped dead. His contemporary sculptures of people of colour range in scale from small figures to a monumental 12ft bronze artwork called All In. Seen together, against a simple backdrop of white walls and stone flooring, the figures have an immediate and dramatic impact. I instantly wanted to know who these people were, what had inspired the artist to create them, and what he was trying to explore with his art.
As luck would have it, there was a guided tour taking place, led by a curator, who explained that he had spoken at length to Thomas J Price so he could translate his ideas. He talked very knowledgeably about the artists’ ideas, processes and techniques, explaining that the exhibition aims to confront preconceived attitudes towards representation and identity. The tour really made the exhibition for me; I felt I had a much deeper understanding of the work and the artist.
I’ve read a great deal about the gardens at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, and about landscape designer Piet Outdolf, who is also responsible for the landscaping on New York’s High Line. On an early autumn day, ‘Outdolf’s Meadow’ looked absolutely beautiful – soft sunlight falling onto the meadow-style planting, with bursts of late colour from the grasses and wild flowers. It has been planned very cleverly, so it flows harmoniously, and the decaying seed heads and plants added to the beauty of the landscape.
We stumbled on a talk by one of the gardeners, who outlined Oudolf’s approach and spoke about what’s involved in the maintenance of his vision. The white cocoon-like Radić Pavilion – bought from the Serpentine Gallery in 2015 – perches on boulders at the far end of the field, looking somehow perfectly at home in its Somerset landscape.
THE ROTH BAR & GRILL
The Orangery tent opened in September 2020 to provide a safe, well ventilated space for diners; it’s light and welcoming, with large olive trees in pots and red metal tables and chairs.
There’s a focus on sustainable produce at the restaurant, sourced where possible from Durlsade Farm. We drank local craft beer, and I had roast chicken with miso breadcrumbs and charred hispi cabbage, while my father had Chermoula spiced mackerel. For pudding we had Bakewell tart with custard and good coffee.
The food was absolutely delicious, and the service was excellent – it feels like a special occasion, standalone restaurant, more than a visitor attraction food offer.
The prices were on the higher end of the scale – this is more of a special occasion eatery than a place for everyday lunches – but the food and the attention to detail are so good that it really feels as though it’s worth it.
I’ve been meaning to visit Hauser & Wirth Somerset for absolutely ages and I’m so glad I finally made it. Everything about it just works – the art is well displayed in beautiful surroundings, and it makes for a whole day out. They put on family events, and I’m definitely going to return with my children for some art followed by cake and drinks in the cafe.