“We spend every penny we have on art,” says Nicky Wilson happily, “and I work every hour that God gives me.” The growth and success of Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park just outside Edinburgh that Nicky and her husband Robert opened to the public in 2009, certainly demonstrates this substantial commitment. Nearly a million people have visited and there are now almost 40 specially commissioned works of art scattered neatly across the landscape.
“One of the reasons we commission artists is to experience their intellectual rigor first-hand,” says Robert. Most come and stay with the Wilsons, sometimes for long periods of time, brainstorming ideas and choosing their own location for installation. There is an amethyst encrusted cave by Anya Gallacio, a rusty cage buried by Anish Kapoor. Cornelia Parker chose to lean a nine-foot-tall shotgun against a tree (“I didn’t mean to do anything nice,” she says). Joana Vasconcelos lined a swimming pool with a swirling pattern of vibrant Portuguese tiles and kicked it off by walking through the water wearing a silk kaftan and performing aqua aerobics. “She blessed her own work,” Nicky says.
Its educational action, established from the outset, has a similar dynamism. A sculpture park in the video game Minecraft, where people could design their own works of art, was developed during the lockdown and went global. A version of Rachel Maclean’s “upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop”, a spooky toy store with film that delves into youth issues – identity, self-harm, the confusions created in the digital age – will be on tour in Scotland, starting with an empty storefront in Pert.
School visits are strongly encouraged and carefully organized: Claire Feeley, responsible for exhibitions, is also responsible for education. “We have passed 80 schools in the past two months. In fact, a whole school came the other day,” Nicky says, “loads of 13 to 18 year olds. I can’t be bothered with bullshit, with fake learning programs. They must have an impact.
The latest acquisition of the park has certainly made children dream. Tracey Emin’s six-meter-long bronze figure of a masturbating nude woman lying in a secret glade in the middle of an ancient forest is the first outdoor work the Wilsons acquired rather than commissioned. “Rules are meant to be broken,” says Nicky. “We saw her at the White Cube and we knew she had to come here. Then Tracey came and picked the site.
Mythically expansive, buttocks up and vagina in plain sight, Emin’s wife makes younger kids laugh, according to Nicky Wilson, but for older kids she encourages conversations around masturbation and body positivity . “She is the muse of wood. Big and beautiful and extremely powerful.
The Wilsons bought the semi-derelict Bonnington House and its accompanying 80 acres in 1999, with no plans but to get their family out of a tighter life in Fulham, west London. They refurbished the 1708 building – “puritanical Scotsman with bizarre turrets”, says Nicky – and raised five children there, while Robert was president of Nelsons, the homeopathy society known for its Rescue Remedy that his family acquired in the 1970s.
Both had a collection in their blood. Nicky’s parents were fond of Scottish art; Robert’s was part of Dublin’s cultural ensemble in the 1970s. “Seamus Heaney was a friend. They collected fine Irish art, like Basil Blackshaw and Colin Middleton, Ireland’s only surrealist painter,” says “I bought my first work around 1985, from a primitive painter called Gretta Bowen who didn’t start working until late in her life. I still have it. It’s joyful.”
Nicky is a trained artist. She was taught by Helen Chadwick and Phyllida Barlow at Chelsea College of Art and made radical sculptures. “We were encouraged to find things to turn into works of art. I was given a leaky boat once,” says Nicky, whose graduation work was a poster board of vacuum boobs and string lights. “I had times during menopause where I wanted to be an artist again, but I know that if my energy was invested in creating my own work, it would be Jupiter’s undoing.” Instead, her creativity is poured into the park. “I took the coffee back and all the food is pink and green now,” she says. “I don’t know how to cook, I just design it.” A delicious burrata sits on a plate lined with bright pink lips.
Inside the house, which is a riot of bright colors and shag carpets, is also an impressive collection. “I don’t have anything in common with other collectors, though,” says Nicky. “They never have greasy hair, they never use dry shampoo.” She says Lindsey Mendick, a young artist whom the Wilsons championed, thought she was the housekeeper when she first came to the house. Then she screams with laughter.
Some works are gifts from artists: an atmospheric blackboard adorned with a cedar wood scroll by Martin Boyce; a “Slinky” painting by Tara Donovan. There are works on paper by Antony Gormley, Pablo Bronstein and Nathan Coley; a floating globe by Sam Durant; a photograph of Mick Jagger adorned with roses by Jim Lambie. A snake venom painting by Cornelia Parker is on loan to Tate Britain for the artist’s exhibition. A drawing and painting by Emin hanging in the house’s former ballroom – now a public gallery – will also enter the collection. “Beautiful juicy works about waiting for a lover,” says Nicky. “There is an intuition,” Robert says of the collection. “You buy work that resonates.”
“But it’s far from a scattergun,” adds Nicky. “We do a lot of research and you have to be sure of an artist’s path, of their intentions. We need to understand their practice. Oh, and a lot of them are women.
Thirteen years later, it’s hard to imagine that Jupiter Artland was never planned. (He’s named after the “god of creativity, partying, and joy,” according to Nicky.) In fact, it started with a call to postmodern theorist and architect Charles Jencks, who agreed to do a work for the entrance to the domain. . The grassy landscape of terraced terraces and shimmering lakes he created in 2008 reignited the Wilsons’ passion for outdoor art and still welcomes all visitors today.
“I can’t overstate his support for us – it came at exactly the right time, that’s what I want to do for young artists,” Nicky says of Jencks, who died in 2019. “He could be ridiculous “but he was also amazing. You don’t often get access to people like that. Except the Wilsons do, very often indeed.”