Physic garden

Art - Sarah Jane Checkland on some good chemistry between industry and art

The Boots Company in Nottingham prides itself on a reputation for benevolence towards both its workers and clients, although there will always be cynics who consider this policy self-serving. Ever since the founder, Jesse Boot, first set up shop in 1871, the company has offered medicines at cheaper prices than its rivals; in the early days, Jesse's wife, Florence, plied workers with cups of cocoa in order to boost both their sugar levels and their morale.

In the 1930s, this singular culture extended to the physical appearance of the Boots factory itself, when the boss's son John returned from a trip to the United States and commissioned the modernist architect Sir Owen Williams to design a sleek new factory on American lines. The result, recently refurbished at a cost of £20m, is now grade-I listed and rated as one of the finest modernist buildings in Britain.

Now, with Boots as a plc and the family long disassociated from the firm, this aesthetic tradition has taken a new turn. The 8,000 people who work in the Nottingham compound have been given a millennium garden to soothe and inspire them, complete with aromatic herb garden and woodland designed by the landscape architect Mark Lutyens, and nine specially commissioned sculptures. It is the first such example of contemporary industrial art patronage. Although the artefacts often contain references to the herbs that contribute to many of Boots's products, the company has steered clear of the medicine cabinets of Damien Hirst, and the whole project has cost approximately the same as two such cabinets: £440,000.

The project is the brainchild of James Knox, who runs Art for Work, a company that commissions works for the corporate sector, and Lord Blyth of Rowington, Boots's out-going chairman. Many was the time when Knox arrived on site to liaise with the sculptors and the team of Boots engineers who co-ordinated the installation of the works, only to be wafted into Lord Blyth's office for heated discussions on art. Both men are messianic about the merits of the figurative tradition, and the resulting commissions are also wonderful breaks for a group of talented but neglected artists, whose works Knox believes are "far better than anything at Tate Modern".

They include a huge rearing horse by the Nottingham-based sculptor Neale Andrew (a three-dimensional version of the mighty warhorses in the paintings of the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello); a 15ft monument to Milton by the Scottish neoclassical artist Alexander Stoddart; and a 20ft statue of the earth goddess Gaia by the Yorkshire-based Edward Cronshaw - Gaia's body is clothed in 3,000 succulent plants intended to suggest the transitory nature of life, and the statue was cast by means of the ancient lost wax method.

Only a handful of companies have a tradition of art collecting, although the numbers are growing. Unilever, for example, purchased its first works by Augustus John and William Roberts in the Thirties, and Lever Brothers - a branch of the firm - is now daringly acquiring high-risk works by controversial young British artists. Over the years, the merchant bank Robert Flemings Holdings Ltd has acquired an enviable collection of Scottish paintings, including works by the Scottish colourists. With the current merger with Chase Manhattan Bank, this has been transferred to a separate foundation, which will continue to lease works out to the company.

As other companies begin to appreciate the kudos and investment value of owning art, however, we may be on the brink of a golden age for business patronage. At its London headquarters, Deutsche Bank has a collection of such quality that some say it rivals that of the Tate Gallery, while Seagrams bought extensively from 1996 to 1999 and is now branching out into photography.

But such art tends to be bought on spec, rather than commissioned, as is the case at Boots, and it gravitates to boardrooms and entrance foyers, thereby contributing to the corporate feel-good factor, rather than being for the benefit of the mass of employees. Arts & Business, a body that sets out to encourage businesses to buy art, has recently persuaded the government to back its new Partner Programme, with the result that whatever monies a given company puts up for commissions will be matched by public funds.

"We believe such projects are very much part of morale-building," says Colin Tweedy, the chief executive of Arts & Business. "We want other people to follow Boots's example." James Knox and Mark Lutyens hope they will, too, and they already have their eyes on Lord Blyth's new posting as chairman to the food and drinks conglomerate Diageo plc. Given that his stable of businesses includes Smirnoff, Burger King and Haagen Dazs, we can perhaps look forward to the sight of art, as well as menus, behind the counters.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky