“We spend every penny we have on art,” says Nicky Wilson with delight, “and I work every hour god gives me.” The growth and success of Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park just outside Edinburgh which Nicky and her husband Robert opened to the public in 2009, certainly demonstrate that substantial commitment. Nearly a million people have visited and there are now nearly 40 specially commissioned artworks scattered carefully through the landscape.
“One of the reasons we commission artists is to experience their intellectual rigour first hand,” says Robert. Most come and stay with the Wilsons, sometimes for considerable periods, working up ideas and selecting their own spot for installation. There is an amethyst-encrusted grotto by Anya Gallacio, a buried rusted cage by Anish Kapoor. Cornelia Parker chose to lean a nine-metre-tall shotgun against a tree (“I didn’t want to do anything sweet,” she says). Joana Vasconcelos lined a swimming pool with a swirling pattern of vibrant Portuguese tiles and inaugurated it by walking into the water dressed in a silk kaftan and performing some aqua gymnastics. “She blessed her own work,” says Nicky.
Its education outreach, established from the beginning, has a similar dynamism. A sculpture park in the Minecraft video game, where people could design their own artworks, was developed during lockdown and went global. A version of Rachel Maclean’s “upside mimi ᴉɯᴉɯ uʍop”, a creepy toy shop with a film that delves into young people’s issues — identity, self-harm, the confusions created in the digital age — will be touring Scotland, starting in an empty shopfront in Perth.
School visits are heartily encouraged and carefully organised: Claire Feeley, the head of exhibitions, is also the head of learning. “We’ve had 80 schools through in the last two months. In fact, we had a whole school come the other day,” says Nicky, “loads of 13- to 18-year-olds. I can’t be bothered with bullshit, with fake learning programmes. They need to have an impact.”
The park’s latest acquisition certainly made the children look. Tracey Emin’s six-metre-long bronze figure of a naked masturbating woman, lying in a secret clearing among old woodland, is the first outdoor work that the Wilsons have acquired rather than commissioned. “Rules are made to be broken,” says Nicky. “We saw it at White Cube and knew she had to come here. Then Tracey came and chose the site.”
Mythically vast, with her bottom in the air and her vagina in full view, Emin’s woman makes the younger children giggle, according to Nicky Wilson, but for the older ones it encourages conversations around masturbation and body positivity. “She is the muse of the 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 other than moving their family out of a more constricted life in Fulham, west London. They brought the 1708 building — “puritanical Scottish with weird turrets”, says Nicky — up to scratch and raised five children there, while Robert was chair of Nelsons, the homeopathy company known for its Rescue Remedy that his family had acquired in the 1970s.
Both had collecting in their blood. Nicky’s parents were keen on Scottish art; Robert’s were part of Dublin’s cultural set in the 1970s. “Seamus Heaney was a friend. They collected lovely Irish art, like Basil Blackshaw and Colin Middleton, Ireland’s only surrealist painter,” he says. “I bought my first piece around 1985, from a primitive painter called Gretta Bowen who didn’t start making work til late in her life. I’ve still got 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 artworks. I was given a leaky boat once,” says Nicky, whose degree-show work was a billboard of vacuum-packed breasts and fairy lights. “I’ve had menopausal moments of wanting to be an artist again, but I know if my energy went into making my own work, it would be Jupiter’s loss.” Instead her creativity is poured into the park. “I’ve taken over the café and all the food is pink and green now,” she says. “I can’t cook, I just design it.” A delicious burrata comes on a plate rimmed with bright pink lips.
Inside the house, which is a riot of bright colour and shagpile rugs, is an impressive collection too. “I have nothing in common with other collectors, though,” says Nicky. “They never have greasy hair, they never use dry shampoo.” She says that Lindsey Mendick, a young artist who the Wilsons have championed, thought she was the cleaning lady the first time she came to the house. Then she hoots with laughter.
Some works are gifts from artists: an atmospheric black painting adorned with a furl of cedar wood 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 embellished with roses by Jim Lambie. A snake-venom painting by Cornelia Parker is on loan to Tate Britain for the artist’s show. Both a drawing and a painting by Emin hanging in the house’s former ballroom — now a public gallery — will enter the collection too. “Beautiful, juicy works about waiting for a lover,” says Nicky. “There is a gut feeling,” says Robert about the collection. “You buy work that resonates.”
“But it’s far from scattergun,” adds Nicky. “We do a lot of research and have to be sure of an artist’s direction of travel, of their intentions. We need to understand their practice. Oh, and a lot of them are women.”
Thirteen years on, it’s hard to imagine that Jupiter Artland was never planned. (It is named after “the god of creativity and partying and joy”, according to Nicky.) In fact, it began with a call to the postmodernist theorist and architect Charles Jencks, who agreed to make a work at the entrance to the estate. The grassy landscape of terraced earthworks and glittering lakes he created in 2008 kick-started the Wilsons’ passion for outdoor art and still greets every visitor today.
“I cannot overestimate his support for us — it came at exactly the right moment, it’s what I want to do for younger 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.