Sculptor Pye unlocks Brighton’s walled secret

One of Britain’s leading sculptors, William Pye, is helping to bring back to life a small part of Brighton’s history. Simon Tait investigated

Nine years ago the Secret Garden in the seaside city’s Kemp Town district, part of its Regency past, was on the brink of making way for development. It was saved by the determination of local residents who persuaded Brighton City Council not to give planning permission, and eventually it was consigned to a specially created charitable trust.

Its chairman is Gavin Henderson, a nearby resident and former director of the Brighton Festival, who not only plans to restore the garden but for it to host regular outdoor sculpture exhibitions that will help raise funds for the garden’s upkeep. “It’s a delightful piece of history, almost completely unknown, and with exhibitions like this we hope to make certain of its future” he said.


In the early years of the 19thcentury many of Brighton’s great houses had large walled gardens accessible by tunnels, but only one has survived. The Secret Garden had belonged to No 32 Sussex Square, which in 1830 was bought by Laurence Peel, brother of the prime minister Sir Robert Peel.

It fell into disuse and part of it was lost to development, but in 1950 it was bought by the family of Antony Dale who, as a civil servant in the Department of the Environment in the 1960s, introduced the listing of historic buildings. He had earlier founded the Regency Society in Brighton and led the fight to save Brunswick Square and Adelaide Crescent, and prevented the gardens of Regency Square from becoming a car park.

He and his wife Yvonne nurtured the garden, deflecting offers from developers, and when Antony died in 1993 aged 81 his widow carried on the care of the garden with undimmed enthusiasm. Before she died eight years ago she gave the trust £100,000, which has enabled it to create a proper entrance, a ramp for disabled access, to bring power and plumbing into the space and to replant the garden. Fittingly, in 2014 the garden was listed Grade II for its unusually constricted walls.

“This part of the garden was originally the recreation area – so, tennis courts, and there’s a croquet set still – but we had no idea of how it would have been planted originally” said the Secret Garden’s plantsman, Nick Dwyer. “So we’ve visited a lot of the great gardens, like Nymans and Great Dixter, to get ideas and it’s wonderful to see it coming back to life”. His design is an ingenious recreation that includes the space to mount exhibitions


William Pye is best known for his water-based sculptures, ingenious manipulations of steel and water which have made him one of Britain’s most successful living artists. One of his own pieces, Zemranat London’s Southbank Centre, is itself listed Grade II.

 But for the 80-year-old artist the exhibition is an important landmark, coming after a difficult year during which his wife, the painter Susan Pye, died. Later this summer he is due to fly to the Chinese city of Hangzhou to plan a commission for a large-scale sculpture.

There are ten of his pieces in the Secret Garden show, which is part of this year’s Brighton Festival. “I’ve never seen so many together before” he told me. “Instinctively, I’ve always thought one should separate work to that you can see them in isolation, but here you can take them all in in one sweep of the head, and for me what is exciting is that you’re able to see all the different aspects of manipulating water. It’s more intimate, and I see them now as garden sculptures”.The tunnel to the garden is still there but has been blocked off, with at its end the only one of the Pye sculptures not to involves water, Charioteer, inspired by the Parthenon in Athens.


The opening of the exhibition marks an appeal to raise £120,000 needed for the upkeep of the garden, but also to create new visitor facilities commissioned Landivar Architects, and to create a study centre lon the history of Kemp Town. The trust, said Henderson, a graduate of the Slade School of Art but now  principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama,  intends to curate two exhibitions a year. “It seems the perfect way to bring new life to an historic and quite private space” he said.

The exhibition opens to the public on 4 May at the Secret Garden, Bristol Gardens, Kemp Town, Brighton BN2 5JE, and is open Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays, 11am – 5pm, 4 May – 2 June.




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