In 1993 Madeleine, Countess of Bessborough, moved her gallery, the new Art Centre, from Sloane Street, London, to the family home, Roche Court in Wiltshire. The elegant grey stone house was built in 1804 as a retirement home for Lord Nelson but never occupied by him. It is surrounded by mature gardens which now contain one of the largest outdoor collections of modern sculpture in the country, including works by Barbara Hepworth, of whose estate the owners are custodians. The original walled kitchen garden has become an enclosure for works by letter cutters. The orangery houses smaller works. The buildings and garden walls are Grade II star listed.
All the art is for sale. As the business expanded additional space for paintings and smaller sculpture was needed. A new gallery, designed by Munkenbeck & Marshall, provides this. The brief called for a space which would link the house with the orangery, show the works in a garden setting and provide an evenly lit wall for paintings. Most importantly it should provide a friendly welcome to the public.
The new gallery is a 20m long by 4.5m wide single-storey space set between the house and the orangery. The rear south wall is formed by the brick wall of the kitchen garden. The new north wall, 20m long, is made of unframed glass panels which rise to eaves height. Set between them are two oak doors of the same height They are secured open on warm days to invite the public inside and allow the garden to merge with the gallery. The main public entrance is through the orangery, which has been restored.
The gallery steps down in three broad planes to accommodate changes in level between the house and the orangery. It is covered with a sloping roof supported by cranked steel beams which span between the rear wall and tubular columns concealed in the door frames (see Working Detail overleaf). The roof is clad on the inside with aluminium panels which reflect light down on to sculptures. It slopes upwards, tapering and extending beyond the glass wall with a delicate 'nose-cone' edge of aluminium. The effect is of a roof plane of sharp-edged aluminium with no apparent support.
The rear wall, slightly increased in height, has been clad with plasterboard and studwork for the display of paintings. A continuous rooflight, canted towards the north, runs above it. The plane of the the aluminium ceiling underlaps the rooflight, concealing halogen lamps which provide additional and artificial light. A box gutter next to the rooflight drains the sloping roof and the rooflight; the rainwater downpipe runs within the side wall of the gallery and is discharged through the rear wall into the kitchen garden.
The annealed glass sheets which make up the north wall are 19mm thick. Their size, 2.5 x 4m, was limited by a low bridge on the road to Roche Court. As the gallery is not an inhabited space double-glazing was not a requirement. To give ventilation and achieve the humidity requirements for some of the timber sculptures, 6mm gaps were left between the sheets of glass and between the glass and the oak doors.
The doors are of ledged and braced oak strips with rounded edges. They have no handles. In warm weather the doors are left fully opened, padlocked to stainless steel flats fixed to the concrete floor slab, so that visitors can walk into the gallery from the lawn. When closed they are padlocked to another set of angles fixed to the slab just inside the gallery. Surfaces in the gallery are simple and restrained. The floor has a screeded finish matched by walls of putty-coloured plaster.