A Week of Culture – Part 4 – The Hepworth Wakefield Gallery

Part Four of our culture week sees us visiting the new Hepworth Wakefield Gallery within the city of Wakefield in Yorkshire. Wakefield has been graced with a new gallery partly dedicated to the work of Barbara Hepworth as it was the city of her birth.

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We had seen photographs of this newly constructed gallery and had wanteded to visit since its opening. The building itself is an imposing grey structure based on slightly irregular cubes and cuboids. A long dramatic walkway over the canal took us over moored barges with their wood fires adding the aroma of burning wood to the misty damp atmosphere.

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From the walkway we spied this character hanging from a crane in the metal reclamation yard alongside the canal. He is made up of all sorts of scrap materials and from a distance he looks as if he is made of huge sweets – liquorice allsorts.

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As we got close to the entrance we realised just how vast this gallery is with its grey slabbed sides rising up above us.

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Inside, the building is equally dramatic with deeper greys and black being the dominant colours in the spaces outside the gallery rooms themselves, which as expected are all of a stark white. The outside surfaces are matt in sharp contrast with the shining interiors.

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With all these straight lines and monochrome surfaces that constitute the fabric of the buiding the art work on show would need to be good and well displayed to brighten the visitors’ experience along with some comfortable seating on which to sit and appreciate the art works. People also make a difference and we received a warm welcome from the smiling face behind the reception desk.

The first gallery contained a couple of pieces by British sculptor Henry Moore – Reclining Figures. They looked good with plenty of space around them and with bright even lighting. But our warm welcome from the receptionist was somewhat negated by the steward in this room who called across at me “You are not allowed to touch them!” when I was pointing out a particularly nice curved line. Sadly because of this we didn’t stay so I failed to photograph Moore’s work. We put it down to bad training and moved on quickly to the next gallery where a delightful surprise awaited us.

We were taken aback as we were confronted by a crazily overcrowded room set. This was the collection of William Alfred Ismay. At first it looked a jumble of worthless pieces of junk thrown together in what is often put forward by some artists as sculpture. We once saw a garden shed in a gallery  full of old dusty tools looking as if it had been lifted from a vegetable patch and dropped in the gallery – it even had a radio playing. The gallery presented it as an important installation and went on to propound its value as a work of art. We didn’t buy into that and we had a feeling we might be in for a similar experience here. But no! Here was a collection accumulated over decades by a local Wakefield librarian who became an obsessive collector of quality ceramics. His home became filled to the brim with them covering every surface even the table at which he ate his meals, leaving a little gap just big enough for his plate! A close look among the jumble of items led us to discover pieces from potters whose work we recognised. Most of the well-known 20th century potters and ceramists were in fact represented. Wandering around the room set became a voyage of discovery picking out beautiful pieces from amongt the cheap white goods of his era. The pieces were displayed on pieces of Ismay’s furniture and the whole set up was like looking into his house with the walls stripped away.

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In the gallery where Ismays collection was displayed we were again made to feel uncomfortable. A black line surrounded the display and a sign asked visitors not to step over it. Sadly as we walked around the young room stewards followed our every move keeping a close eye on our feet. This must again reflect their training because when we engaged them in conversation they were very pleasant, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

The third gallery we entered was spotlighting the work of American artist Dana Schutz. This is the New York based painter’s first UK exhibition. Her large extremely colourful work did not appeal to either myself or Jude as we found them disturbing in an unpleasant way. This gallery though did give them the space needed to appreciate them coupled with excellent lighting. If you were a Schulz fan you would have appreciated how good they looked in this setting. You can see the hard surface of the bench here. It didn’t invite you to sit and peruse the paintings and did nothing to soften the hard lines of the building and whiteness of the room. Comfortable benches which invite the visitor to sit and consider a piece in more depth are sadly lacking throughout the gallery.

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We moved through galleries displaying the work of Albert Wainwright whose work varied a great deal, from simple book and magazine illustrations to landscapes of Northern England and the occasional poster. Photography was not permitted in this room.

We moved on to Galleries 4,5 and 6 where the work of Barbara Hepworth was on show. Her work suited the style of gallery with their huge walls of glass which let the light stream in. The views out of these windows were out over the river towards the city.

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We were pleased to see a full sized prototype of the well known piece “Winged Figure” which was designed to grace the John Lewis store in Oxford Street. We think of Hepworth as being just a sculptor so it was interesting to see some of her 2-D graphic works. It was a great privilege to get really close to this iconic piece and see the variety of textured surfaces.

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It was strange to see some of her work in glass cases but I can appreciate that these particular pieces are delicate.

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Enjoy this set of photos showing the variety of Hepworth’s work.

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If we look at the following set of 5 photos we can see they feature a similar simple circle. The first photo is a close up of the last piece in the set of photos above, then we have a photo of the whole of a different piece of work followed by a close up of it. The final shot looks as if it fits with them but all it is is a shot I took accidentally as I walked through the gallery. I was carrying the phone set on camera mode facing down and inadvertently took a photo of the floor with a circle of an electric socket cover. Strangely in keeping!

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We finished our visit by going back outside to look at the rest of the building itself and a few pieces displayed on the grassed areas alongside, including more of the Barbara Hepworth “Family of Man” pieces some of which we had already enjoyed at the sculpture park.

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We were also able to view the old mill building, The Calder, which will hold exhibitions in conjunction with the Hepworth Wakefield. These old warehouses present a stark contrast to the modern geometric architecture of the new gallery close by.

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So that is two parts of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle visited which just leaves the venues in Leeds, The Henry Moore Institute and the Leeds Art Gallery, to discover sometime in the future.

About greenbenchramblings

A retired primary school head teacher, I now spend much of my time gardening in our quarter acre plot in rural Shropshire south of Shrewsbury. I share my garden with Jude my wife a newly retired teacher , eight assorted chickens and a plethora of wildlife. Jude does all the heavy work as I have a damaged spine and right leg. We also garden on an allotment nearby. We are interested in all things related to gardens, green issues and wildlife.
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