The Hepworth Wakefield

Susie Stubbs
Image courtesy of The Hepworth Wakefield

The Hepworth Wakefield, Gallery Walk, Wakefield, WF1 5AW – Visit Now

The rising popularity of Barbara Hepworth’s namesake gallery shows no sign of slowing down.

There is something incredibly pleasing about anything new. It’s the shininess, the crinkle of unwrapped  cellophane or, in a building, all that clean space as yet unspoiled. And so the fact that we like The Hepworth Wakefield, arguably Yorkshire’s most successful arts development in recent years, will come as no surprise: the vast, David Chipperfield-designed building is gorgeous in its novelty.

Strictly speaking, though, the gallery is past the first flush of youth. It clocked up one million visitors in December 2013, some two and a half years after it opened. Yet the place remains keen: its staff are as chipper as Chipperfield, its displays stand in galleries flooded with natural light – and new developments, such as the opening of adjacent gallery, The Calder, keep things fresh. As you walk across the bridge to the gallery you’re greeted by the adjacent boat yard’s response to their neighbour: a giant clown, crafted from bits of plastic, a cheery grin plastered across its bucket face. That The Hepworth (and its clown) isn’t even a little jaded is a surprise when you realise that the gallery was only scheduled to receive around 400,000 visitors in its first few years.

The gallery’s popularity must come down to this: great art. The building itself is a work of art, a triangulated structure that mirrors the form of many of the 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 middle of the city,” says Hepworth curator Sam Lackey. “It’s completely the opposite to the Barbara Hepworth Museum in Cornwall, or even 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, while The Hepworth 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.”

She was motivated by the industry of the area & the figure in the landscape, not just by the landscape

Local lass Barbara 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 watercolours and collages of, say, Eduardo Paolozzi a contrast to Hepworth’s perfect forms, in turn a contrast to the contemporary (and often newly-commissioned) artworks that also fill the temporary galleries. The Hepworth’s collection is substantial, its 5,000 permanent works drawn from the original Wakefield Art Gallery that preceded it; the collection displays are also beefed up by loans from the likes of the Tate and the British Council.

As for Barbara Hepworth, there is one particular work that sums up what makes her 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. For a long while after The Hepworth opened it was placed in the gallery opposite Pelagos, a show-stopper sculpture on loan from the Tate (now returned) 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 when we opened said 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 the adventure playground – that nevertheless gets the attention of art-lovers from across the country. For all its high art content, it 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.

  • Gallery Walk
  • Wakefield
  • WF1 5AW
  • View map

Opening Hours

  • Mon: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Tue: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Wed: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Thu: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Fri: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Sat: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Sun: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Always double check opening hours with the venue before making a special visit

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