It's a stunning gallery, a brilliant day out and the country’s most exciting sculpture exhibition is now bringing Capability Brown’s extraordinary landscape to verdant life, too.

But Compton Verney’s director isn’t prepared to rest on his laurels.

When Dr Steven Parissien joined the Warwickshire art gallery five years ago from being the Director of Education at The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, visitors to the 18th century mansion house numbered 38,000 per annum.

Last year they went up to 60,000 and, with the current Moore Rodin exhibition already proving to be a big hit, he’s bullishly forecasting 75,000 visitors for 2014.

By 2017-18, the target is 90,000 with the dream of reaching 100,000 in 2020.

Compton Verney (Compton Verney House Trust) is an unincorporated registered charity established by trust deed on August 27, 1993.

After a decade of building work, it opened as an art gallery in March, 2004, with a mission to “share our passion for art with as many people as possible to help them gain something of intellectual and spiritual value from their encounter with Compton Verney”.

Its setting is what helps to make Compton Verney special – and difficult to market.

More than any other tourist attraction of its quality in the Midlands, it is hard just to describe where it is.

Director of Compton Verney Dr Steven Parissien
Director of Compton Verney Dr Steven Parissien
 

Yes it’s just 31, 11, 10 and six miles from the centres of Birmingham, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick and the M40 J15 respectively, but there isn’t even a known village nearby.

And so, while the gallery nestles in 120 acres of one of Warwickshire’s most beautiful Grade II listed corners, people still need to know where it is to make the effort to discover it for themselves.

Its current director is adamant he wants it to become an essential destination, not a potential one.

His vision is for families to want to visit and to feel compelled to return in the same year.

A £3.7 million Heritage Lottery Funding bid to build a new visitor centre with extra catering facilities has passed the first stage.

And Dr Parissien would like to beef up the adventure playground close to a remarkable 1860s’ avenue of Giant Redwood trees – again with catering facilities nearby.

All that on top of a remarkable art collection, including the Golden age of Neapolitan art from 1600 to 1800, which will always be a draw for purists.

“We want to make a lot more of our site including developing circular walks,” says Dr Parissien.

“The Moore Rodin exhibition is a brilliant attraction to help us to do that – we don’t want to give those pieces back!

“Our landscape is what makes us different and what means we are not competing with Thinktank and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

“We want to make Compton Verney a relaxing day out.”

I’d already recently spent a day there myself when I meet Dr Parissien in the built-up heart of Birmingham.

He’s en route to a meeting at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, now run by new director and long-time friend Dr Ellen McAdam.

While they both face similar challenges in the post credit-crunch marketplace, Dr Parissien is particularly open to the benefits of becoming more commercially minded.

Pictures by Graham Young, Birmingham Mail. Rodin's Cybele, large model (1905). Some highlights of the Moore Rodin exhibition at Compton Verney, Feb 15-Aug 31, 2014 re Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin in landscaping designed by Capability Brown. Just 31 miles from Birmingham city centre, Compton Verney¿ address is simply Warwickshire CV35 9HZ. Take the M42 / M40 (J15). Brown signposts off the Wellesboune to Kineton B4086. The 10th Anniversary Year ¿ore Rodin¿exhibition is on until Sunday, August 31, 2014 (season ends December 14). The Gallery is open Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays, 11am-5pm. Admission: adults ¿15, conc ¿13.50, children ¿3, family (up to 2+4) ¿30. Under 5s free. Free daily exhibition tours at noon. Details: www.comptonverney.org.uk or 01926 645500 - check the website for more family events.Words and pictures by Graham Young, Birmingham Mail.
 

And, whatever he does, he’ll probably never face a bigger physical challenge than installing the Moore Rodin exhibition.

What is truly striking when you see them is just how large some of pieces are – especially Moore’s Three Vertebrae.

“That is actually three interlocking pieces,” Dr Parissien reveals.

“Even so, it arrived in the worst of the winter weather and even though we built a temporary road for the lorry it still got stuck!

“I thought it was going to become part of the show so we had to ask a neighbouring farmer if we could borrow his tractor.

“We also lost one of our cedars. It was very windy, but the tree surgeons were brave climbing up to cut off the offending limbs.”

Rodin’s Monument to the Burghers of Calais (1889) is a favourite piece of Dr Parissien’s, especially as his own family were Huguenots.

“It is normally outside of the Houses of Parliament, but nobody knows much about it these days,” he says.

“We have such a lovely landscape to show it off – I think it looks far better here!

“Musee Rodin, Paris, were fabulous and lovely people, they know our exhibitions are of an international standard.”

Another attraction later this year will be First World War Trench Art (July 16) showing what the troops did and the gallery’s Folk Art collection will be re-emphasised.

“The way ahead for us is to offer a far more well-rounded day out and to make much better use of the landscape,” says Dr Parissien.

“We have fabulous flora and fauna here, with everything from osprey to otters.

“We don’t want to be about forcing people to look at the art – they might not do that on their first visit.

“Having more visitors will make us financially secure, because we don’t get any grants from regional authorities or government.

‘The endowment left to us by our founder Sir Peter Moores helps to maintain the house and grounds. It doesn’t go any further.

“We are an independent charity and, when I arrived, his foundation was always going to pull back.”

Dr Parissien might be a most affable man who smiles readily, loves his arts and has written extensively on architectural and cultural history, but at 55 he also sounds like a true captain of industry when describing the reality of his situation.

“I had to start to restructure as the euphemism goes,” he recalls.

“It was tough for everyone. We are now a leaner and fitter organisation and morale is really good.

Rodin's Monument to the Burghers of Calais (1889)
Rodin's Monument to the Burghers of Calais (1889)

“We are all in it together. We are all fund-raisers and hopefully successful at that.

“We have a fabulous restaurant and a shop that has a higher spend per head than the Tate Modern.

“In the old days it was as a case of ‘if you build it they will come’. Or would want to come.

“We can be different. We have a 1770s’ chapel that can be a music venue – another way of getting people involved.”

Looking ahead to the immediate future, Dr Parissien says two events will help to grow the business.

April 23, 2016, will be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and be a good opportunity to collaborate with the RSC,” says Dr Parissien.

“Everyone working together is the way forward so we are trying to promote our proximity to Stratford.

“Some international tourists visit there, get off a coach, don’t even go into the birthplace museum and then head off to somewhere like Edinburgh.

“We are never going to get those to Compton Verney and I don’t want them. We are a resource for locals.

“August 30, 2016, is also the tercentenary of Capability Brown’s birth – and we’d like Compton Verney to be the Midland’s hub for events to commemorate that.”

Capability Brown (1716-83) designed more than 30 Midland landscapes. Where does Compton Verney rank?

“I think we’re up there with the best,” beams Dr Parissien.

“There’s Charlecote, Croome Court... both owned by the National Trust.

“We are similar to the latter, with an ice house and chapel.”

Considering how open the site is to the road and the art treasures within, he has to be ultra security conscious.

“There are cameras everywhere and in places that are not obvious,” he stresses.

“That didn’t stop someone from trying to steal our beehives...” which, he adds, preparing his own joke, “the police were able to recover in a sting operation. That alone gave us lots of publicity.”

What is his ‘Mona Lisa’?

“I think it would have to be Mrs Baldwin (1792) by Joshua Reynolds,” he says, without pointing out that it was bought by Compton Verney for a reported £3,365,600 at Sotheby’s in July, 2004.

And yet... even if the HLF funding bid fails, Steven could not sell on Mrs Baldwin to fund any of his plans to making Compton Verney’s future more sustainable, not even if it guaranteed 100 years of prosperity.

“As a National Collection, we can’t sell any of our collection to pay for running costs because then you would lose your accreditation,” he explains.

“But you can sell something and use that to add to your collection.”

“Once you have sold something you can’t sell the family silver again,” he reasons.

‘You can’t do it. Nor would I wish to do it.

“We want to attract people, not to hold a fire sale.”

Now that Compton Verney is almost 10 years old and established, it’s quite possible that the level of bequeathed donations to its acquisitions fund will begin to increase in the decades to come as people who love the place pass away.

“Sometimes we are also left things which are not appropriate,” he smiles.

“Someone left us 200 moustache cups.

“One might have been something, but we don’t want to be the national museum for moustache cups. How would we fund the display cases?”