The Hepworth Wakefield

I, the sculptor, am the landscape.  I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour.
– Barbara Hepworth, 1961

On our way back from the Yorkshire Dales, we made a detour south to Wakefield – to investigate the new Hepworth Wakefield gallery which opened in May. It’s the largest art gallery to be constructed in this country since the Hayward opened in London nearly 50 years ago.

The Hepworth stands by the River Calder, surrounded on two sides by water, and is approached over a new pedestrian bridge across the river.  It’s a striking, modernist building, formed from monolithic grey blocks, in stark contrast to its surroundings –  19th century industrial buildings, a gothic chapel and a boatyard.

But it’s when you go inside and enter the galleries that the architectural achievement becomes obvious.  The galleries are on the first floor: high-ceilinged rooms of brilliant white, lit by natural light from concealed skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows which look out over the rushing water of a weir.  It’s a superb showcase for the exciting art works on show.  As Richard Dorment commented in The Telegraph: ‘The Hepworth Wakefield is designed to serve the art, not the other way around’.

Barbara Hepworth was a local lass, born in Wakefield, and the Hepworth has been designed to accommodate the gift of a unique collection of over forty working models in plaster and aluminium from the Hepworth Estate, alongside the existing collection of Wakefield Art Gallery which includes a particularly strong group of works by twentieth century British artists. From the 1930s, and even in times of economic hardship, the Wakefield Gallery had an exceptional record as a determined buyer of contemporary British art. Three curators in turn – each of them tough characters – convinced sceptical Labour councillors that it was right to buy important works of modern art.  The result is a rich and varied collection of  6000 works of early 20th-century British art and 1200 watercolour views of Yorkshire, which the new Hepworth can now present in spacious and beautiful surroundings. The Hepworth will also become a major venue for temporary exhibitions in the North.

The Hepworth Wakefield has already been fantastically successful: the gallery hoped to attract 150,000 visitors in its first year, ut reached 100,000 within five weeks of opening (while the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, just down the road, broke all its own records in April with 45,000 visitors in that month alone).

See the gallery below for images of some of the sculptures and paintings mentioned (click on an image to enlarge it).

The first gallery introduces Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture, exploring the connection between material, method and subject matter. There are only five pieces, including  Figure (Nanjizal) from 1958 and Spring (1966). We learn from a video recording how the countryside was crucial to the artist, who as a young girl was taken by her father, a civil engineer, on his working trips across the county. In the extract from a BBC TV film made in 1961, she says:

I remember moving through the landscape with my father in his car and the hills were sculptures, the roads defined the forms. … Sculpture is the creation of a real object which relates to our human body and spirit as well as our visual appreciation of form and colour.

Barbara Hepworth: Two Forms with White (Greek), 1963

I was impressed by a display of a small group of ancient objects, abstract yet representational in form (below). They were collected by Hepworth and were a source of inspiration for her.  She had a particular interest in ancient art and sought its simplicity of form in her own sculpture.

The second gallery displays a selection of works from the Wakefield art collection – including pieces by leading British artists including Harold Gilman (Portrait of a Man, 1905), Roger Fry (Boats in a Harbour, 1915),  John Piper (Entrance to Fonthill, 1940), Henry Moore (Four Grey Sleepers,1941) and Patrick Heron (St Ives Churchyard 1950).  From its opening in 1934, Wakefield Art Gallery quickly developed to become one of the most forward thinking galleries of its time, with a reputation that belied its provincial status, collecting works by some of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century.

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1936

The next gallery does an impressive job of placing Hepworth in the context of her European contemporaries.  We are able to see how her ideas about sculpture were influenced by an awareness of artistic developments in Europe – in both sculpture and painting.  There are examples of work from the earlier generation of sculptors who had already broken away from the tradition of classical representation to explore new possibilities in the simplification of form – artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (represented here by the plaster relief Wrestlers from 1914 and a lovely little alabaster statuette, Boy, 1913) and Jacob Epstein (his solid, heavy Doves of 1914).  Gallery notes explain how these sculptors influenced Hepworth and Henry Moore through their development of direct carving, a sculptural principle of truth to materials whereby the sculpture’s form is dictated by the shape, density and the integral markings of wood grain or stone.  Henry Moore is represented by Reclining Figure (1936, above), his response to seeing a plaster cast of a Toltec-Maya sculptural form, the Chac Mool.  The reclining figure was to have a profound effect upon Moore’s work, becoming the primary motif of his sculpture.

A Chac Mool stone statue, Yucatan, Mexico.

On the surrounding walls of the gallery are examples of paintings by members of the inter-war European avant-garde that helped move Hepworth towards abstraction. Hepworth made repeated visits to Paris and she lived there for several years with Ben Nicholson, her second husband, having gone there specifically to learn about abstract art. She befriended artists such as Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp and Jean Hélion.  In 1934 the avant-garde group Unit One, of which both Hepworth and Nicholson were members, presented their first exhibition in London, coinciding with the publication of Unit One: the Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, edited by Herbert Read, to which Hepworth contributed an essay.

Paul Nash, Kinetic Feature, 1931
Paul Nash, Kinetic Feature, 1931

Several of the Unit One painters are represented here: Ben Nicholson by1933 and June 1937, Paul Nash by Kinetic Feature 1931, Piet Mondrian by Composition C (no. 111), Winifred Nicholson by Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteuil and John Piper by Forms on a White Ground.

Barbara Hepworth: Mother and Child, 1934

At the centre of this gallery is the small piece Hepworth made in 1934 entitled Mother and Child (above)  in which Hepworth, for the first time, created an object based on two separate forms that draws as much attention to the air within the sculpture as the space around it.  The writer and artist Adrian Stokes wrote of this:

The stone is beautifully rubbed.  It is continuous as an enlarging snowball on the run;  yet part of the matrix is detached as a subtly flattened pebble.  This is the child which the mother owns with all her weight, a child that is of the block, yet separate, beyond her womb yet of her being.

The next gallery, Hepworth at Work, explores Hepworth’s studio environment and her working practice.  Tools and materials on display (above) were Hepworth’s own and have been drawn from her second studio in St Ives, the Palais de Danse. There is a step-by-step reconstruction of the bronze-casting process, photographs of works in progress and four specially commissioned films containing archival footage of the artist in her studio.

The tools a sculptor uses become his friends, and they become intensely personal to one; the most precious extensions of one’s sight and touch.
– Barbara Hepworth, 1961

Barbara Hepworth in her studio

The adjoining gallery introduces The Hepworth Family Gift, a unique collection of Hepworth’s working models that will be on permanent display at The Hepworth Wakefield. These represent the first stage of the creative process and offer an invaluable insight into her practice and her approach to working with plaster (see photo at top of this post).

There are pictures, newspaper cuttings and prototypes of some of her best-known sculptures, including the aluminium, 19-foot Winged Figure (1963), commissioned for London’s John Lewis department store. There are versions in wood and bronze of Chun Quoit, the inspiration for the Single Form that was unveiled outside the United Nations building in New York in 1964. Single Form was Hepworth’s largest and most important public commission, and helped to seal her international reputation. She was approached to undertake the project in memory of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in a plane crash in September 1961 (coincidentally I’d just been reading about the circumstances of his death in this Guardian article).  Hepworth was a friend and admirer of Hammarskjöld, who in turn loved and collected her work. He felt that her Single Form sculptures in particular embodied the spirit of the United Nations. Immediately after his death, Hepworth made the bronze Single Form(Chun Quoit) which she re-interpreted at over six metres in height for the United Nations.

Single Form being hauled into position at the UN

Single Form was installed in the plaza outside the United Nations in June 1964. At the unveiling ceremony Hepworth said:

Throughout my work on the Single Form I have kept in mind Dag Hammarskjöld’s ideas on human and aesthetic ideology and I have tried to perfect a symbol that would reflect the nobility of his life, and at the same time give us a motive and symbol of both continuity and solidarity for the future.

This is a great art gallery.  Michael Glover wrote of the Hepworth in The Independent:

And what a museum it is. All the galleries, each distinctively shapely in a quirky way, are on the first floor of the building, and the fact that they follow the curvature of the river means that the museum is able to profit – and be symbolically enhanced – by the presence of rushing, raging water just beneath its windows.

The museum tells its story fully and intelligently. We begin with a display of major works. We then pass through a gallery which dissolves Hepworth in the two- and three-dimensional works of some her British contemporaries. She then plays a significant role in a gallery devoted to the European influence upon British sculptural practice, with significant loans from Tate and other institutions so we can compare British modes of abstraction, painted and sculpted, with works by Mondrian and others.

Then we pause for a gallery of pure didacticism. We examine objects from Hepworth’s studio – her badly punished work bench, her bradawl, adze and gimlet. Silent films – the screens are embedded (with great sensitivity) into the wall – show her at work, and the fact that the films are silent means that there is no irritating noise seepage from room to room.

Next up is Gallery 5, the pièce de résistance of the enterprise, in which the largest and most significant plasters are on display and the window space expands in size, as if to mirror the enormity of the three-dimensional works. We feel that she is just about to walk in, hair in headscarf, axe in hand.

Antony Gormley has said:

The Hepworth Wakefield will become a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of sculpture and now with the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, Yorkshire will be a place of inspiration for all.


A tour of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery

The Gift at The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth: The Hepworth Family Gift



5 thoughts on “The Hepworth Wakefield

  1. Great post. A very thorough review. We went over on Saturday and thought it was an excellent Gallery. Some fantastic works of art.

    1. Thanks Kevin & ms6282. Must get down to the Margate Turner sometime. I think the English are very suspicious of modern architecture. But I think there have been some great buildings in the last decade. In the NW the Lowry & Imperial War Museum come to mind, even the much-maligned Museum of Liverpool – though that may be the inverse of the Hepworth – looks good on the outside, but perhaps doesn’t work so well inside, whereas the Hepworth has a plainness outside but perfectly serves the art inside.

  2. Thanks, Gerry. I think Wakefield has the best concentrated UK art collection outside London. World class (and in easy reach of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park). But I think the new gallery’s architect – David Chipperfield – deserves more praise and recognition in his home country (here!). He’s had two great buildings open this year (the other is the Margate Turner) and, whilst he is a star in Germany and known widely in Europe and world-wide, he has been overlooked in the UK. I hope this building changes things. I don’t see why, if Guggenheim = Gehry, the same shouldn’t apply here.

  3. Peter Lanyon, Moor Cliff Kynance 1953:

    I’m afraid this painting is shown the wrong way up. (It’s also upside-down on the Arts Council website.)

  4. Thanks for pointing that out, Martin! I have corrected the image in the post – I imagine that returning home after seeing the painting I couldn’t remember it precisely and simply assumed the Arts Council site had it right. If anyone should know, I guess it’s you!

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