Looking for things to do in Yorkshire? Forget the Dales – The Hepworth Wakefield (and its neighbour, Yorkshire Sculpture Park) is where it’s at
There is something incredibly pleasing about anything new. It’s the shininess, the crinkle of cellophane unwrapped or, in a building, all that clean space as yet unspoiled. And so the fact that we like The Hepworth, Wakefield’s gallery of the moment, will come as no surprise: the vast, David Chipperfield-designed building is gorgeous in its novelty.
Strictly speaking, though, the Hepworth gallery is just past its first flush of youth. It clocked up 500,000 visitors on 12 May; it celebrated its first birthday a week later. Yet the place remains keen: its staff as chipper as Chipperfield, its displays standing fresh in galleries flooded with light. As you walk across the bridge to it you’re greeted by the neighbouring boatyard’s response to their neighbour: a giant clown, crafted from bits of plastic, a cheery grin plastered across its bucket face. That the Hepworth gallery (and its clown) isn’t even a little jaded is a surprise when you realise that the gallery was only scheduled to receive 150,000 visitors in its first year.
Its status as top dog for art in Yorkshire must come down to this: great art. The building itself is a work of art, a triangulated structure that mirrors the form of many sculptures created by its namesake, Barbara Hepworth. Its slate grey exterior reflects the River Calder that it rises out of, and signals that this is a gallery with intent. “They dammed the river to build it so that the gallery was right in the middle of the river, and in the city,” says Hepworth curator Sam Lackey. “It’s completely the opposite to the Barbara Hepworth Museum in Cornwall, or Yorkshire Sculpture Park.”
YSP, a short drive away, is indeed the polar opposite. The majority of its sculptures sit in 500 acres of rural parkland; at the Hepworth, the gallery overlooks a dual carriageway. “The decision was made to put it in the city because Barbara Hepworth came from a northern, industrial town,” says Lackey. “She was motivated by the industry of the area and the figure in the landscape, not just by the landscape.”
Local lass Hepworth drew parallels between the “grim industrial towns” of Yorkshire and the “magnificent beauty of the West Riding”, and once wondered if it would be possible to “just put sculptures on hill sides”. At YSP she got her wish – her magnificent The Family of Man is on show here – yet inside The Hepworth, the enormous, punched-out windows also make visual the connection between her work and the landscape that inspired them.
Although dedicated to the sculptor, the work on display here is diverse: the abstract painting of, say, Victor Pasmore a contrast to Hepworth’s perfect forms, in turn a contrast to the contemporary artworks that fill the temporary galleries. As for Barbara Hepworth, there is one particular work that sums up what makes her new museum work so well. It’s a white marble sculpture called Quiet Form. On loan from Wakefield Girls’ School, it sat in the headmistress’s office for years, unseen by anyone other than errant schoolgirls. Opposite sits Pelagos, a show-stopper sculpture that has been, as Lackey puts it, “an international cover star”.
“We work with international artists,” says Lackey, “but we do it here in Wakefield; to have this internationally-travelled piece next to Quiet Form says it all about the way we work.” This is a gallery rooted in its community – during the weekend, locals pour across the bridge, shopping bags in hand, kids charging about its adventure playground – that gets the attention of art-lovers from across the country. For all its high art content, this is a wonderfully welcoming place. As Sam Lackey says, “I think we are phenomenally lucky, I really do.” The novelty, it seems, is showing no signs of wearing off.
The Hepworth Wakefield, 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday, free. The Hepworth has been shortlisted for the 2012 Stirling Prize, held in Manchester on 13 October 2012 – read our interview with Rowan Moore about the British architecture, published ahead of the awards ceremony. We visited the gallery as part of our first Blog North event.
Images (top to bottom): The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo © Iwan Baan; The Hepworth’s 1st birthday clown, Creative Tourist; Blog North at The Hepworth; Hepworth Wakefield, Photo ©Hufton+Crow.