THERE’s a streak of mischief running through Cecily Brown’s landmark Blenheim Palace show.

She may be one of the world’s most respected – and certainly most interesting – painters, but she is also a rebel. And this London-born, Surrey-raised, but New York-based artist is having fun.

Having spent her childhood being dragged around stately homes, she has now been given free reign over the greatest of them all. Her show at the UNESCO World Heritage site is the visual equivalent of blowing away the cobwebs and turning up the speakers.

Her show for the Blenheim Art Foundation is in stark contrast to last year’s exhibition by Maurizio Cattelan, which made headlines around the world when its infamous solid gold toilet was audaciously ripped from its plumbing and stolen in a nighttime raid.

Instead of arch, high concept statements designed to shock, her work is, ostensibly, far more traditional – they are, after all, proper paintings. But the content – which rewards close and repeated inspection – is no less provocative.

She is the first British artist to have been featured by the art foundation at the palace – which has previously hosted work by Yves Klein, Jenny Holzer, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Lawrence Weiner and Ai Weiwei – all very different to the plain speaking, engaging Brown.

Cecily admits that, for a British artist, it’s a dream come true. “I’m English and I am working in a palace!” she chuckles. “Who gets to work in a palace?”

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She describes the process of pulling the show together as one of ‘infiltration’. She may be English but she’s no aristocrat, and she know she doesn’t belong. Despite living across the Atlantic for 25 years, class weighs as heavily on her shoulders as for the rest of us.

“An English person is used to visiting places like Blenheim as a child – whether you you like it or not. We are steeped in class consciousness, so there is something fun about going back to somewhere posh where I would never otherwise have been invited to.

“I’ve come into the palace as an artist but I don’t quite fit in.”

She talks of creating “a jarring effect” a “jigsaw” and “treasure hunt” – with recurring elements – visual clues to which are laid out under a glass top table in the Great Hall.

“It’s like seeing the ingredients in a recipe” she says.

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Michael Frahm of the Blenheim Art Foundation

The only disappointment is not being able to get to the palace to supervise the show’s installation, or join the traditional launch party.

“It’s so sad I wasn’t able to get there,” she says, talking from her studio in the Big Apple. “It’s bittersweet as installation is one of my favourite parts of the process. It was heart-wrenching not being there but it’s not like I was doing it blind – 90 per cent of it was already decided and the rest we did by whatsapp and video. Because of the time difference, I would be waking up to 20 videos a day!”

Unable to travel, Cecily supervised the installation remotely. She is no stranger to the palace and painted each picture specifically for its location within the rooms, galleries library and hall. Each work intimately responds to its setting, mimicking or satirising existing portraits and hunting scenes, chiming with the themes of heraldry and military might and complimenting the grand architecture and pastoral views outside.

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Picture by Tim Hughes

It is the very definition of site-specific – and the pictures range from playful – insolent even – to terrifying. She sabotages the forbidding classical art, adding in elements of savagery and death.

Tapestries of the Duke of Marlborough’s troops marching into battle are juxtaposed with violent swirls of colour which reveal horrific abstract hunting scenes. Cecily, a vegetarian, hates hunting. These pieces are her way of ‘sticking it to the man’.

Dogs feature heavily, taking on the role of observer.

A highlight is her distortion of one of the palace’s most famous pictures, Reynolds’ The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family from 1777-78. She admits to finding the work sinister – and darkly erotic. Her version, The Children of the Fourth Duke is at first glance a lively copy, only something is missing. Several things. She has ‘censored’ it, smudging and obscuring the (admittedly already absent-looking) Duke, his wife and their male heir, and leaving only the four girls playing with their spaniels.

It is a huge improvement on the original. Regular visitors may also notice that it replaces a more classical copy of the painting.

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Picture by Marc West

While the work was completed before the current row on ‘decolonisation’ built up its head of steam, it strikes a strong contemporary chord. It’s a little piece of class war and feminist activism – and is great fun.

Less fun, but even more impressive is the show’s monumental final picture, The Triumph of Death. Painted in four parts (to fit the constraints of her studio) it was assembled for the first time at Blenheim. It’s a vibrant but terrifying piece, featuring a skeletal horse and rider – a horseman of the apocalypse, maybe – trampling over soldiers or huntsmen in scarlet coats, red poppies while finely dressed ladies sip champagne and look on oblivious to the horror.

The surrounding countryside, with its own Blenheim Palace is transformed into a scene of carnage.

The message is clear and powerful. Despite first impressions it is not a reference to Covid. It was conceived before the pandemic.

“I am very glad it’s dated 2019 as I don’t think I would have painted it now. It would have seemed too heavy handed; too callous,” she says.

With masks and strict social distancing de rigueur, and only a handful of people allowed in each room at a time, there is an intimate feel to the show. Every visit is a private view. And that adds to the journey of discovery – the fun is spotting Cecily’s work – some of which fits in uncannily with its surroundings.

“It’s surprisingly seamless,” she says. “But I didn’t want to make it look old.”

“I love the idea that there will be a different audience at Blenheim – who are not the same people who would come to a gallery in New York. There may be a tendency of visitors to Blenheim to baulk at contemporary art; this is not your typical ‘white cube’ audience.

“But I love the materials of the building, the colour of the stone and the scale of the Great Hall.”

And while she was allowed almost free rein, there were somethings which were out of bounds. “I had them take down the taxidermy, which I hated,” she says. “But I was not allowed anywhere near the topiary. That wasn’t possible!”

  • See Cecily Brown at Blenheim Palace until January 3, 2021.
  • Details on how to book from blenheimpalace.com