A visit to the Hepworth

‘The West Riding of Yorkshire is a producer country…a land of grim and wonderful contrasts….It is a country of quite extra ordinary beauty and grandeur, and the contrast of this natural order with the unnatural disorder of the towns, the slag heaps, the dirt and ugliness made my respect and love for men and women all the greater’
Barbara Hepworth

The Hepworth Wakefield is a triumph.

The gallery effectively tells two interweaving stories – firstly that of Barbara Hepworth herself, her influences and her work and secondly one about Wakefield and the wider Yorkshire region. The simplicity of the telling presents an intriguing tale, adding clarity and depth to my own understanding of Hepworth’s work.

So in the first gallery you are introduced to the calming, beautiful and quietly dramatic works of Hepworth – in a way both the beginning and end of the story. Then your led through the history of Wakefield Art Gallery ‘one of the most forward thinking galleries of its time’ who- through its commitment to contemporary art championed both Hepworth and Henry Moore. The frame broadens now and Hepworth’s work is placed in relation to her European contemporaries – artists such as Henri Gaudier Brzeska whose Bay 1913 is on loan from Dartington Hall.

[The role of a provincial gallery – page from Helen Knapp’s (former curator of Wakefield Art Gallery) notebook]

Gallery 4 begins to bring the two strands of the story together – exploring Hepworth relationship to Yorkshire, her studio environment and her process. Its a neat prelude to the piece de resistance of The Hepworth Plasters. Gallery 5 (the only one in the whole gallery which feels slightly crowded) houses a remarkable collection of plaster working models for her sculptures. Towering over it is the proto-type for Winged Figure (at six meters high it practically nudges the ceiling) but unlike the real thing at the Oxford Street store of John Lewis you can practically stand inside and wonder at the internal detail.

As fascinating is the model for Spring 1966 – a work previously seen in gallery 1. Finally in an extended epilogue gallery 6 contrasts the two major locational influences on Hepworth’s life – Yorkshire (including Turner sketch of Wakefields Chantry Chapel) and St Ives.

[The Chantry Chapel, and the view of the Chantry Chapel from one of the Picture Windows at the Hepworth]

There are some stunning moments. Sit in the right place on the bench in gallery 3 and initially your eye is drawn to Moore’s magisterial reclining figure 1936 ( ‘my home town has got what I think to be one of my best carvings’).

Slowly though your eye begins to take in its near neighbours. Firstly – peeping above the middle portion of the figure is a small sculpture by Constantin Barncusi’s and behind that – rising above the head of Moore’s figure is Hepworth’s Two Forms. The whole scene is looked over by by a huge canvas by Hepworth’s second husband Ben Nicholson. It was a perfect tableau and for one brief moment the gallery emptied to allow me to enjoy it alone.

Equally as stunning is the building itself. It feels as though David Chipperfield Architects have taken both Hepworth’s work and words totally to heart. The buildings straight, clear lines contrast well with Hepworth’s more undulating shapes. The grey facade (pigmented concrete) looks sculptural and echoes (for me at least) the rugged beauty and industrial heritage of the Yorkshire landscape. Natural light flows into the gallery from large clear windows – placed at irregular intervals across the facade mirroring the opening’s in Hepworths own work. Those windows give the gallery spaces an airy, light feel which perfectly off set the sculptures – equally as important they offer tantalising glimpses of the landscape that so inspired Hepworth’s work. Just as the ‘picture window’ at The Collection frames Lincoln Cathedral here the windows frame snapshots of a post industrial Yorkshire (a rushing river, a sleepy canal, an aging Chantry chapel, high rises, empty warehouses, a mish mash of old and new).

There are loads of finishing touches which made the visit. Small touches admittedly but all of which contributing to a unique experience. Throughout our visit the staff were extremely helpful (providing an extra large locker for my suitcase, answering questions with a smile and just generally being friendly), the gallery interpretation was clear and easily digestable as were the free gallery guides and the cafe food was excellent with a menu that catered for our various needs served promptly. Several of my party were happily waylaid in both the shop and the learning studios for far longer than is required for a simply cursory visit. And there was plenty we didn’t see (the outdoor sculptures for example)..so much so we were all planning repeat visits – mum with the grandchildren, us for the Clare Woods exhibition (22 October-29 January).

Apparently already 145,000 have come through the doors since they were first thrown open in May (four months ago). Their target for the first year was 150,000. Its figures like that which adds real weight to Cllr Box – leader of Wakefield Council –description of the gallery ‘embod[ying] the forward looking spirit of civic pride, confidence and ambition’ in Wakefield (our walk from Westgate station to the gallery suggests though that there is still much to do!) .

And now its over to Colchester – where First Site is making final preparations for its September opening – the third of this years big Visual Art space openings (following in the foot steps of the Hepworth and the Turner Contemporary). If its anywhere near as successful as the Hepworth it will hopefully shut that projects critics up too!

[The new First Site building – photo taken from
15 Queen Street]

[Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1936]


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