by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hepworth Wakefield/photo Hufton + Crow
The Hepworth Wakefield Museum in Yorkshire, England,
was designed by David Chipperfield Architects and opened in 2011.

Sculpting a position on the global cultural map

By Roderick Conway Morris
LEEDS, England 4 December 2013


Two giants of 20th-century sculpture, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, were born within a few miles of each other in the English county of Yorkshire; Moore in Castleford in 1898 and Hepworth in Wakefield in 1903.

The Yorkshire they came from was one of the most thriving industrial areas in the world, with a plethora of mines, textile mills and other factories. (Moore was a miner's son and Hepworth the daughter of an engineer.) Yet by the time Hepworth died in 1975 and Moore in 1986, almost all of these industries were in irreversible decline.

Now a series of local artistic initiatives, fueled by the association of these pioneers of British modernism with the region, have placed Yorkshire firmly on the international cultural map and are contributing to its economic revival.

The first of these ventures was the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which opened in 1977 with Moore as its first patron. The park is now at the heart of an alliance of institutions called the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, which includes the recently renovated Leeds Art Gallery, the adjoining Henry Moore Institute (opened in 1993), and the Hepworth Wakefield Museum, inaugurated in 2011.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park was the brainchild of Peter Murray, who was born in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire. He became principal lecturer at Bretton Hall, an arts education college, established in 1949 in an 18th-century country house in an extensive landscaped park about 27 miles, or 44 kilometers, south of Leeds.

'Much of what I have done has come out of being involved in art education,' Mr. Murray said at the sunlit cafe-restaurant in the visitors' center, looking out over the park's rolling hills and lakes. 'I found there was a lot of emphasis in art education on making art but very little on the aesthetics of how to show and view art. And there is still a strong educational motivation behind what we do.'

'There was no sculpture park anywhere in this country when we started this one,' he continued. 'But this was not just a question of putting sculpture outside, but of creating an outdoor gallery. Most outdoor galleries of sculpture have started indoors and expanded outdoors. We started outdoors and now have some spaces indoors. We wanted to stage exhibitions, but exhibitions in the open air. And by doing this we actually stimulated a trend for showing sculpture outside.'

From its modest beginnings, when the first sculptures were placed between Bretton Hall and the lakeside, the park has grown to embrace 500 acres, making it the largest sculpture park in Europe, and attracts 350,000 visitors a year. Apart from one of the best collections of bronzes by Moore and Hepworth, there are permanent and long-term installations by the likes of Antony Caro, Helen Escobedo, Brian Fell, Elisabeth Frink, Andy Goldsworthy, Antony Gormley, Richard Long, Joan Miró, David Nash, Isamu Noguchi, James Turrell and Ursula von Rydingsvard. Around 60 works are on show at any given time, and these are constantly changing, along with the exhibitions in the park's five indoor galleries.

As is the case with all the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle venues, entry is free, the only charge at the Y.S.P. being for parking. But the large number of visitors attracted to the area by the park has brought significant financial benefit to the surrounding area. 'We achieved a kind of critical mass and showed that the visual arts could make a contribution to economic regeneration in this region,' Mr. Murray said.

One of the principal sources of funding of the Y.S.P. is the City Council in Wakefield, roughly seven miles away. Encouraged by the park's success, it decided to invest in an entirely new museum to house its existing art collection and major donations from the Hepworth family, and to provide space for temporary shows.

The council held a competition for the 35 million pound, or $55 million, project, which was won by David Chipperfield Architects. Based on a group of 10 trapezoidal blocks internally illuminated by natural light, the Hepworth Wakefield is on a promontory on the banks of the River Calder, with part of the building extending down to the water line and even constituting a section of the river's flood defenses. In a neighboring 19th-century canalside warehouse, an additional site for contemporary exhibitions, the Calder Gallery, was opened this summer, and there are plans for further expansion.

'We were hoping for 150,000 visitors in the first year, but between 2011 and 2012 we had 530,000. We will soon be welcoming our one-millionth visitor,' said Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield, whose office, like many of the gallery spaces and public areas, has splendid views over a weir on the River Calder and Wakefield's townscape.

'Something that Yorkshire has long been famous for is the relationship between the rural and the urban,' he added. 'There is little urban sprawl and there are large areas of unspoiled countryside very close to the centers of its towns and cities. There is a very strong sense of place here - something that appeals to people when so much of the country seems to be in the process of being homogenized. But at the same time the area is very accessible - only about two hours away from London by train.'

Wakefield Council has calculated that the project has brought a further £350 million of investment in the waterfront area and an estimated £232 million in revenue between 2011 and 2012 from tourism.

Around 12 miles to the northwest of Wakefield is the apex of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, which consists of the Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute. Standing side by side in the city center and linked by a glassed-in bridge, they work closely together.

The Leeds Art Gallery opened in 1888. In the mid-1930s and 1940s, under the forward-looking directorship of Philip Hendy, the gallery helped promote contemporary artists, notably Moore, Hepworth, Ben Nicholson (Hepworth's second husband), Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland. In 1958 it inaugurated its first gallery dedicated to sculpture. Thanks to further acquisitions the gallery can now claim to have 'the best collection of British art and sculpture outside the Tate in London,' said Sarah Brown, its curator of exhibitions.

Sculpture was given even greater prominence with an extension to the front of the building, the Moore Gallery, inaugurated in 1982. The newly refurbished space is used for temporary exhibitions curated in partnership with the Henry Moore Institute. 'Polychromies: Surface, Light and Color' (which continues until March 1), includes pieces by Canova, Rodin, Frink, Marcel Duchamp, Charles and Ray Eames and Barry Hart (who taught Moore and Hepworth stone carving at the Royal College of Art).

The Henry Moore Institute has an amusing foundation myth backed up by unpublished letters written by Henry Moore, according to Lisa Le Feuvre, head of sculpture studies there. While in his teens, the aspiring young artist visited Leeds's public library, which still shares the same building as the Art Gallery, and inquired about books on sculpture. 'What's sculpture?' was the response. Moore is said to have made a vow to remedy the situation.

A century later, the institute, which acts as a kind of academic dynamo at the core of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, has become a unique international research center with more than 24,000 books and pamphlets on sculpture. It also holds conferences and finances publications, and hosts exhibitions in its own purpose-built gallery. 'Dennis Oppenheim: Thought Collision Factories' opened Nov. 21 and continues through Feb. 16.

Together, Leeds, Wakefield and the Sculpture Park offer an unparalleled and regularly renewed conspectus of modern and contemporary sculpture throughout the year. And Yorkshire has reaffirmed its position on the global arts map.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023