Glenkiln Sculpture Walk - country walk with an artistic twist
Photographs by and copyright of Allan Devlin
Friends from Glasgow chose a perfect Saturday in September to make their first visit to Dumfries and Galloway. The weather was wonderful, high blue sky and real warmth in the sunshine. The countryside looked its best, the leaves just beginning to try out their red and gold colours for autumn. The difficulty was going to be how to show off as much as possible of the area in the limited time available. Rachel and Dee solved my dilemma by asking to see the sculpture at Glenkiln reservoir, six miles west of Dumfries. The perfect solution – providing not only a walk in one of the loveliest parts of the region, but with a slice of culture thrown in as well, as the area is also a unique open air gallery of sculptures by Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein and Auguste Rodin.
The late Sir William Keswick, who owned the Glenkiln Estate, had a vision of sculpture displayed within landscape, which he achieved when he created the world’s first collection of sculpture in a natural setting. He was a close friend of Henry Moore, whose work he greatly admired and it is said Moore believed the landowner and art lover was the first to understand the power of the sculptor’s work in an outdoor setting. Between 1951 and 1976 Sir William bought a number of pieces – four by Moore and one each by Rodin and Epstein – siting them imaginatively around his estate close to the reservoir.
The Guardian newspaper included the five-mile walk in its guide to Britain’s ‘50 Best Walks’ and so, armed with the relevant page and a printout from a website we set out for the Glenkiln reservoir. Turning off the A75 at the Shawhead sign we made the right turn – as in turned right, correctly – in the village. Somehow, though we missed a left turn because even driving very slowly on the narrow road we took far too long to cover the couple of miles to the reservoir. However, it was a lovely day, the scenery was enchanting, especially to my two city-dwelling friends, so we were relaxed about being lost. Eventually, coming across a man beside a tractor we stopped for directions – women don’t mind doing that sort of thing. Without ever pausing in the consumption of a bag of crisps – hand from bag to mouth to bag was a study of perpetual motion – he explained where we had gone wrong and assured us we would arrive at the reservoir, if we kept straight on, after crossing a cattle bridge. Revelling in the changing scenery from tree-lined narrow roads to farmland to open moor my passengers and I agreed there are sometimes advantages in detouring from the recommended route.
Immediately we crossed the bridge we realised we were driving past Henry Moore’s ‘Standing Figure’ but averting our eyes, to better enjoy viewing it when following the guide, drove the distance to the reservoir. The small car park is dominated by the powerfully impressive figure of Rodin’s ‘John the Baptist’, striding naked towards us, as though he had just walked out of the Marglolly burn behind him.
August Rodin, perhaps best known for ‘The Kiss’ and ‘The Thinker,’ originally part of an unfinished work called ‘The Gates of Hell’, had a profound influence on modern sculpture. Born in Paris in 1840 he was three times refused admission to the Ecole des beaux Arts and earned his living working on decorative stonework. When his sister died, Rodin, grief-stricken, entered a monastery where his talents were recognised and encouraged. After six months he left the monastery and met Rose Beuret who became his companion and the model for many of his works. His sculpture ‘The Age of Bronze’ provoked a furore when it was exhibited in Paris with many art critics refusing to believe such realism could not have been achieved without casting from a life model. ‘John the Baptist Preaching’ is certainly a dramatic piece, full of a sense of life and movement.
Turning right, out of the car park we headed back towards the hump-backed bridge to where Henry Moore’s ‘Standing Figure’ stands on a rock beside the road. This was the first sculpture Sir William bought and it seems to have caused some controversy at the time, even, reputedly, being mistaken for a tractor spare part. We are not well acquainted with tractor spares and when Rachel commented it was more like those space aliens who used to advertise a certain brand of mashed potato we had to agree. Following the suggested itinerary we retraced our steps to the car park and carried on along the road beside the reservoir, where two black swans were swimming, serenely ignoring the cacophony of quacks from a great many ducks having a major discussion. As were we, about which gate we should go through to reach Moore’s ‘King and Queen.’ The directions said to follow the road until gate on right. Deciding against the first, beyond which there was no discernable path, we chose the next and soon discovered we had made a mistake. In fact, the path to the sculpture is through the third gate on the right after the car park.
Before continuing our search for the ‘King and Queen’ we decided to make the climb up to Moore’s ‘Glenkiln Cross’, which we could see on the skyline, high on the hill above us. Henry Moore was born in Castleford, Yorkshire, the son of a mining engineer, in 1898. He enlisted in 1917 and was sent to France. When he returned in 1919 he studied at Leeds College of Art before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London where, some years later, he taught sculpture. In the 1930s he was associated with avant-garde groups such as Unit One to which sculptor Barbara Hepworth and painter Ben Nicholson belonged. His work expanded beyond carving until modelling and casting in a variety of materials took precedence. His first major commission was the ‘Madonna and Child’ for St Mathew’s Church in Northampton. Moore’s work, characterised by flowing lines and fluidity is known throughout the world and within a few years of his death in 1986 his collection of sculptures, drawings and prints was valued at £130 million.
It was well worth the extra effort to make the climb. The view from the top, looking down over the sparkling waters of the reservoir to the great stretch of moor beyond it, was spectacular. So, too, is the 11 feet high cross, created by Moore in the mid-50s and his interest in Mexican and Mayan art is demonstrated in the carvings around the sides of the sculpture.
Back down the hill and across a dyke we reached the iconic ‘King and Queen.’ Moore created the bronze sculpture in 1952/53, in response to public enthusiasm about the forthcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth. The sculptor worked with Sir William Keswick to choose appropriate sites for his work and the positioning of the ‘King and Queen’ is perfect. It is a stunning piece. Although it is a stylistic composition with tiny heads, the figures keeping a serene watch over a landscape to which they seem to belong are, unlike his ‘Standing Figure’, very human. They have a timeless quality and, despite being situated in the middle of nowhere, have an air of being wise to all the ways of the world. Definitely our favourite piece in the collection.
From the ‘King and Queen’ an easy track leads upwards towards a stand of Scots pine in which Epstein’s ‘Visitation’, is to be found. Jacob Epstein, who received a knighthood in 1954, was born in New York in 1880. He worked for two years in a bronze foundry while studying drawing and sculpture in the evening. In 1896 he went to Paris before moving to England in 1905 where he settled. In 1908 he created 18 figures in various stages of undress to decorate the new British Medical Association building in London. They caused a public outcry and over the next 30 years Epstein only received three commissions for major public sculpture – one of which, the tomb of Oscar Wilde in Paris, was considered so indecent the police covered it in tarpaulin. It was 1949 before he started to receive commissions again. It seems artistic genius and a scandalised public often to go together – the one taking a while to catch up with the new ideas of the other. Epstein’s wife, Margaret, died in 1949 and in 1955 he married Kathleen Garman, who had been his mistress since the 1920s.
We noted a standing stone to our left while, on the right, just off the track and not mentioned in the guide, we spotted a stone cube, a memorial to Henry Moore. We glimpsed the ‘Visitation’ from some distance and I have to admit, had I been alone on the walk, I would have been quite spooked by the sight of the figure standing so still amongst the trees. “Oh, she seems so sad,” said Rachel, as we reached the life-size bronze sculpture. Epstein had intended to create ‘The Visitation’ as a pair, depicting the Virgin Mary coming to tell her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, the news of her pregnancy. Mary stands with her head bowed, her hands clasped somewhat awkwardly, raised in front of her breasts, almost as if to draw the eye towards her stomach. Whether it is sadness or grief or the figure’s humility, something almost tangible was in the air, invoking a feeling of discomfort. We were glad to move out of the shadow of the trees to continue the walk.
The track continues towards a gate back onto the road but once again we deviated slightly, thinking we could take a short cut across a field. In fact we still had about the same distance to cover but, once again, made a discovery we would have missed had we kept to the track. A stone gatepost stands in the field, completely detached from any gate or dyke. Dee and I both noticed what looked like Chinese characters carved into the stone. On the other side a carved inscription, headed with the letters R P F, “For many years behind this dyke he smoked his pipe and waited for pigeons. August 1971.” So far I have not been able to discover the identity of R P F, or why the monument to him exists. On the Internet I found a comment on a web forum, suggesting it is a monument to Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond author Ian. Emailing the site has elicited no response – perhaps readers might be able to shed some light on our mysterious RFP – and the connection to the Chinese characters?
The last piece of sculpture is ‘Two Piece Reclining Figure No 1’, perhaps the most enigmatic of Moore’s pieces we had come across. “Sculpture should always at first have some obscurities and further meanings,” the sculptor himself, said. “People should want to go on looking and thinking; it should never tell all about itself immediately.” I think the three of us agreed this particular sculpture had enough obscurities to keep us puzzling over possible meanings for quite some time.
At a T-junction a large topiary bird helpfully points out the route back to the car park. We left behind wild moor land scenery and found ourselves walking along a tree-lined road through a landscaped part of the estate, past several lovely houses – strangely, all the houses we saw were painted the same shade of pink. Although we had not met any other walkers, half a dozen more cars had arrived since we set out. The walk took us about two hours, including the extra detour up to the ‘Glenkiln Cross.’ “Just the right length for a walk,” Dee said. And just the right amount of exercise to justify tucking into a substantial picnic in the sunshine, at the feet of ‘John the Baptist.’
The Glenkiln sculpture walk deserves its place in the list of 50 top walks – glorious countryside and the opportunity to enjoy some works by the greatest modern sculptors in the world, displayed in a natural environment.
Glenkiln Sculpture Walk
A walk with a difference taking in some of Dumfries and Galloway’s glorious scenery with the added attraction of a collection of modern sculpture by Henry Moore, including his world-renowned King and Queen statue, August Rodin and Joseph Epstein situated at various points on the route.
How to find it: Travel west from Dumfries on the A75 for 6 miles to the Shawhead signpost. Turn right at the signpost and drive into the village. Turn right, then left and follow signs for Dunscore. There is no sign for the walk itself. Parking space is at the head of the Glenkiln reservoir. Open all year round.
Map: OS Explorer 321: Nithsdale and Dumfries
Distance: Beginning and ending at the reservoir car park the walks is about 5 miles.
Time: Allow approximately 2 hours. This is an easy walk but stout footwear is advisable as it can be boggy in places.
Highlights: Apart from the sculpture, glorious views of moor and hills, great variety of birds on the reservoir; woodland including Scots pine.
Take a picnic as there are no facilities close by
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