Stephen McClarence discovers some of the most amazing indoor and outdoor art in Yorkshire.
I’m going on a sculpture safari, ticking off works of art rather than lions or tigers. Along the road, I pass a sign proclaiming “Arcadia”. Well, why not? The mythical rural paradise would have had plenty in common with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, give or take a few Henry Moores. The landscaped estate, set in glorious countryside between Wakefield and Barnsley, is the first stop on my tour of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle - an imaginative partnership between four venues (all open free) on three sites that puts Yorkshire proudly on the world sculpture map.
Eight miles away, there’s the Hepworth Wakefield, a gallery celebrating the locally-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth and two next-door-neighbours in Leeds – the newly refurbished Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute, dedicated to the work of arguably the greatest 20th century British sculptor. He was born in nearby Castleford and grew up there in what he later called “an awful little house” (now demolished).
The Triangle helps Yorkshire reclaim Moore and Hepworth, both of whom trained at Leeds School of Art and were inspired by the county’s landscape, though they spent much of their lives in the South of England. I’ve visited the park before but, until now, I’ve never explored its furthest-flung corners. My safari driver Freya, a Sculpture Park programme assistant is here to guide me. We trundle across the grass, past reclining bronze figures by Moore. Beyond the box hedges and the trees, beyond the lakes and the tractor-busy fields, are sweeping hills.
My visit is at the tail end of the park’s 40th year of “celebrating art without walls”. It came about thanks to Peter Murray, an art education lecturer at Bretton Hall College, an 18th century country house turned teacher training college (still on the park site, but now closed). He set up a sculpture exhibition in the college grounds and before long had the pioneering idea of expanding it into a fully-fledged sculpture park. Thanks to his vision and determination, it opened in 1977, with a £1,000 grant from the Yorkshire Arts Association.
“I’ve always believed that you should try to make art accessible – but not by dumbing it down,” he says. It’s worked. Surrounded by grazing sheep, Highland cattle, Canada geese, playing children and visitors – there are 500,000 a year - stroll from sculpture to sculpture. Both outside and in the indoor galleries and popular restaurant and café, people are relaxing on a leisurely day out.
What, I ask Murray, has been the highlight of the first 40 years? “Watching it grow. We started with 50 acres and now we manage 500. People who first came in the 1970s now bring their grandchildren.”
Back on safari, we drive to one of Hepworth’s most admired sculptures: The Family of Man, its nine abstract members skiing gamely down a grassy slope. We take in a ‘skyscape’ by the American sculptor James Turrell. Created in an 18th century deer shelter, it’s an observation chamber where, in almost meditative silence, visitors lie on benches and contemplate passing clouds through a skylight. A posse of Elizabeth Frink sculptures looms with quiet menace and lurking in the trees or by the lake there’s an Antony Gormley here, a David Nash there, an Andy Goldsworthy and an Anthony Caro. Their sitings are triumphs of thoughtful planning. “You don’t just plop sculpture down,” says Murray. “If you get it in the wrong position, it can be gobbled up by the landscape.”
As for the Arcadia sign, it’s one of several dotted around the park. Created by British artist Leo Fitzmaurice, they mimic road signs and explore, as a helpful explanation puts it, the sculptural quality of lettering and ideas of Utopia.
Further north, Wakefield’s rather less utopian Kirkgate station is ten minutes’ walk from the Hepworth Wakefield, which beat Tate Modern to be named 2017 Art Fund Museum of the Year. The judges described it as “a powerful force of energy from the moment it opened in 2011” with a “breathtaking” exhibition programme. The gallery duly pocketed £100,000, the world’s biggest museum prize.
“It’s the museum everyone would dream of having on their doorstep,” enthused one of the judges. Hepworth’s director, Simon Wallis, an enthusiastic man at the worst of times, is cocka-hoop. “We couldn’t have written it better ourselves, could we? Beating Tate Modern was wonderful,” he beams.
Hugging a bend of the River Calder and across from a boatyard, the Hepworth Wakefield is Britain’s biggest purpose-built gallery outside London. Architect Sir David Chipperfield’s angular design – an interlocking jigsaw of rooms - has always been controversial and, with its uncompromisingly grey concrete, the building has been likened to a bunker or a prison. But, as Simon Wallis says: “It’s a building that only makes sense once you’ve experienced the interior; I think this is the most beautiful suite of galleries in the UK.” He could be right. The lofty rooms have an inspiring sense of space, with skylights and huge floor-to-ceiling windows that flood it with natural light. They’re busy with visitors on the afternoon I’m there.
A coach party of seniors browse. Students sit on the floor sketching Hepworth’s Kneeling Figure, trying to capture her look of indignant outrage. One camera-touting student strolls purposefully round an exhibition of 1940s prints and drawings – photographing the captions rather than the pictures themselves. In the far corner is what appears to be a beautifully structured sculpture of a stack of folding chairs. In the event it turns out to be just a stack of folding chairs.
The Sculpture Triangle seems to be going from strength to strength. Arts Council England has awarded it £750,000 to launch a ground-breaking new project - Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019 across Leeds and Wakefield, which will be held every three years (the Triangle Triennial?). This will be a series of exhibition and commissions, archiving and academic research.
I suggest to Hepworth’s director, Simon Wallis, that sculpture sometimes has an elitist image. “Elitism is something to be wary of; expertise is something else,” he says. “Plenty of things that seem horribly pretentious go on in the art world, but we don’t want them here.
“Art isn’t just for a select group of people. Knowing nothing about art should be no obstacle to coming here and having a fruitful, inspiring visit. It’s very much about being able to relate sculpture to everyday life.
“Look at the backgrounds Moore and Hepworth came from – tough, modest, everyday backgrounds. Their art was guided by what we all see around us – the towns and countryside, that interesting combination of urban and rural.” If it’s urban you want, Leeds is the place. But it hasn’t always been the place for sculpture. In a 1981 interview, Moore alleged that, when he was launching his career, the city’s art gallery “had nothing of any value” in terms of sculpture.
No longer. Leeds Art Gallery’s principal keeper, Sarah Brown, reckons that “Leeds has the best collection of sculpture outside the Tate”. It’s celebrated both here and next-door at the Henry Moore Institute, a research centre, archive and library which also stages exhibitions.
One of Moore’s reclining nudes anchors the gallery. She lounges luxuriantly outside the main entrance, leaning on her elbow and gazing wistfully across The Headrow. Inside, one of the most striking large-scale exhibits is the bowl-like Arena, by the British sculptor Alison Wilding. Its concentric bands of transparent acrylic – “Is it a flying saucer?” asks a slightly puzzled visitor - command a substantial new exhibition space on the first floor.
During the gallery’s recent closure (almost two years) for long-needed restoration work, a barrel-vaulted glazed roof was discovered over a false ceiling and has now become a central feature, bringing light and air to the gallery. “The city needs a gallery that feels international.” Brown says. She clearly feels it’s now got one. She tours me round, lauding the gallery’s “amazing collection of 20th century British art” taking in plenty of big names (Lowry, Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Sickert, William Roberts, Francis Bacon, as well as Moore and Hepworth).
The collection is put to good use in a wall of closely hung portraits, while another room recreates the sort of exhibition staged during the decade after opening in 1888: sometimes moralistic, sentimental works. A group of busts of Victorian worthies contemplate them, doing their best to avoid each others’ gaze. The refurbished gallery has a real buzz about it, particularly in the spectacularly ornate marble-columned Tiled Hall Café, where visitors lunch under the improving gazes of Homer, Dante, Scott and Burns.
Over a contemplative coffee, I’m hard put to think of a more civilised way to spend a couple of days than exploring the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, Arcadia and all.
This article was taken from This is Y 2018