Looking at Powell’s collection it’s difficult to agree with his typically modest statement. The work is wonderfully varied and impeccably crafted. His signature piece is the skeleton, often made out of bronze and cast in a variety of macabre and witty poses which summon up the delicate balance between strength and fragility. Many of these delightfully playful pieces can be found in his 10-acre Sculpture Park, in Churt, which he will drive me to later on in the day.
But for now, our first port of call is Powell’s shop, Miscellanea of Churt, a fascinating emporium catering to every conceivable interior design need. Powell has had the business since 1980 and even used to live in the deceptively small white cottage which is now packed with bathrooms, kitchens and accessories that range from 14th-century Mediaeval to 21st-century High Tech.
“It’s as good as anything you’ll see in London,” he mutters, as he introduces me to the shop’s manager Leigh Courtnage, to whom he credits the business’s success. “We’re after anything that gets a ‘wow’ from the customer,” he continues as we saunter through a maze of some of the finest and most bizarre furniture I have ever encountered.
I’ve been with Powell for just half an hour now and am as intrigued by his personal story as by his shop. Outwardly, he’s unassuming: he speaks in a soft, Welsh accent and seems to take everything in his stride. But it soon becomes apparent that he’s one of life’s characters. There’s a mischievous glint in his eye. He’s a serial entrepreneur who has run everything from a hotel to the only bathroom company in the country that continues to offer suites in every imaginable colour. What drives him, I ask. “The search for contentment, I suppose,” he muses. “I’m an obsessive trader. I think I have a bit of OCD with that, actually. Not a day goes by when I haven’t bought or sold something.”
As we talk he is preparing for one of the biggest sales of his career – a major auction of his personal collection of sculpture and photography. Many pieces have appeared in his Sculpture Park. “I get so inundated with people wanting to display their work in the park that unless I sell work off I have no room,” he explains.
I thumb through the auction catalogue as Powell points out some of the artists he most admires. Many of the most eye-catching pieces are his own. I gaze at a sculpture of a foetus (which Powell confirms is real) with images of Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa beside it. “Well, it fuels the abortion debate, doesn’t it?” he winks as the car turns another corner, burrowing deep into the Sussex countryside.
Powell first came to Surrey from south Wales in 1975 when he began a course at the Guildford School of Art, which was later amalgamated with West Surrey College of Art and Design to get university status. He finished a degree in photography and sculpture and then “stayed on in this area to take money off the English,” he laughs.
Although Powell says that he wouldn’t define his work in any particular way, the natural world is clearly the dominant influence. A series of images depict animals in captivity as part of a Man and Beast project. Then there are more of his favourite skeleton motif. At this point Powell casually tells me that his park provided all of the sculptures for the 2012 Olympic Games. Where do his ideas come from? “Life,” he succinctly answers and he leaves it at that.
“I’m more excited buying than selling,” Powell says as his Volvo estate turns into the grounds of Summers Place Auctions, in Billingshurst, the company charged with selling his collection. “Yes, I’m actually quite disappointed when I sell. I’d rather own the piece.” But with his business having to turn over a minimum of £20,000 – £30,000 a week this is, unfortunately, not an option. Powell has survived recessions before, and is confident that he will also ride this one out, but “it’s been particularly bad this time around,” he acknowledges.
A large bust of Winston Churchill greets us as we enter the showroom. This, Powell says, is one of the most important pieces of Churchill memorabilia to come on the market. It’s the first time Powell has seen it since it arrived from the foundry and he is noticeably impressed.
“I bought the original plaster about eight years ago,” he says, “but then had to negotiate with the estate of the artist to get posthumous editions done. I’d had six done which we’ll sell worldwide over however many years it takes.” I’m in no doubt that Powell will achieve this. He exudes a quiet confidence – this is a man who gets things done.
The car sweeps out of Summers Place Auctions and back on to the main road. We’re heading for the jewel in Powell’s crown, the business that he is now internationally celebrated for: the Sculpture Park. He owned the hotel opposite the site and when the land went on sale he decided to buy it. Back then he hadn’t decided what he was going to do with it.” It was a whim really,” he admits. “Initially I thought I may build log cabins there to extend the hotel’s accommodation.”
The hotel was sold and the park has taken over. It now houses some 600 sculptures by more than 300 artists, set in 10 acres of arboretum and wildlife-inhabited water gardens. There are two miles of paths, laid out across heathland, and three lakes which are fed by two natural springs. It’s open seven days a week; Powell tells me that he’s been known to pop down there for an appointment on Christmas day. Work, he admits, is not something he switches off – he enjoys it too much.
Nothing prepares me for stepping inside the park. We meander across the rhododendron-framed paths, through tunnels of trees, up and down steps and past the lakes. Around every corner I’m greeted by yet another piece of sculpture. The variety of work is staggering.
Powell is approached by between eight and ten artists a week who want to exhibit in the park. They come from all over the world. He has to turn down 98% of what he is offered. What is he looking for?
“I’m always wanting to fill another niche in the market and am looking to improve on quality rather than quantity. But I love big sculptures. The bigger the better. We specialise in big awkward pieces that other people are not so keen on.”
The last thing Powell wants are “middle of the road pieces”. He aims to elicit a strong response from visitors. “It’s about providing a cross section of work that suits everyone. There’s no one particular style. There’ll be things as an individual that you’ll love and those that you hate.”
He stresses that although he is obviously in the business of selling sculpture, he doesn’t just select work because it’s commercial. Yes, there are pieces that he knows will become impulse buys for visitors, but these are “generally not terribly fine art”. Above all, he is looking for something that is visually interesting. What type of pieces sell the best?
“Generally people are fairly conservative,” he says. “They’ll buy something that they can easily identify with: animals, figurative work, nice shapes. The more challenging stuff is more difficult to find a home for.”
The collection of work on display is utterly beguiling. I follow Powell as we walk past greyhounds, flamingos, kicking donkeys and vibrant flowers – made in bronze, steel or stone. I pause in front of the stark metal framework of what was a student’s room. Elsewhere empty gas cylinders are coated with moss and have become one with nature. In the middle of a lake is a water-spouting monument that resembles a mammoth, urinating vagina. Everything blends in perfectly with the natural surroundings. This is, without a doubt, one of the most tranquil places I’ve ever visited.
Powell leads me to a wooden gazebo where I take a seat next to a giant metal sunflower.
“I’ve had so many different businesses over the years, but this, I think, is the best,” he says, gesturing towards a lake and the tall trees that sit beyond, swaying gently in the afternoon’s warm breeze as birds chirp overhead. “Well, it’s something to leave the children,” he smiles.