The new Hepworth gallery in Wakefield, which opened in May 2011, has been beautifully thought out and designed by David Chipperfield. It is a stark, low key building for a down to earth city which has seen hard times with the demise of much of the mining industry, a series of quietly elegant grey blocks rising up out of the River Calder on an industrial island. It has been built to a very high standard of finish inside and out, and given the current economic climate it is already hard to imagine another major project of this kind being built in the near future. The city is lucky to have it. There was some wild talk of Wakefield getting a Guggenheim for the North of England but that isn’t what has happened. Frank Gehry’s masterpiece would be far too in your face for the sometimes dull flat light of Northern England, too flashy for a dour Yorkshire landscape and far too much of a show off to house the quietly elegant work of Barbara Hepworth. This gallery just sits there. It doesn’t advertise itself, it prefers to wait quietly for you to find it. In the same way its home city is proud of it, but we don’t shout about that kind of thing much in Yorkshire.
The interior galleries are beautiful spaces with slot windows giving views of the river and the cathedral, allowing an unsentimental and clear sense of space. We are in the real world and never forget it as we look through the sculptures into the outside. The windows provide dramatic light across the spaces, augmented by added filler light from top light strips. This is most effective in Gallery 5, the plasters gallery, which is a truly stunning space lit like a piece of theatre from one end with light falling across the pieces from above. When I walked in there for the first time the room attendant smiled at me when she saw my jaw drop. Like the exterior of the building everything is quietly and carefully finished, from typeface to stairwells to locker spaces, designed to create a universal language for the building. It really works. Everything is just as it should be with no false notes or distractions.
Barbara Hepworth has been given an enormous posthumous gift, a permanent home for a large selection of her own work, much of which has been generously donated by her family. It sits alongside that of some of her contemporaries and more than holds its own in a great era for sculpture. Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, John Skeaping, Paul Nash and Constantin Brancusi are all represented in the collection and it is a great chance to see them all up against each other. There are clear resonances between their work as well as contrasts and you come away proud of the way a woman was able to succeed in what was very much a man’s world, making strong pieces that were full of presence and vigour. Sculpture is a very physical craft and it is rather wonderful that in Hepworth’s work this strength is combined with a quiet feminine elegance. Clean, clear lines and curves are combined with muted colours and textures to form works that are simple and perfectly balanced. As well as seeing the works themselves the gallery gives us an insight into how Hepworth worked. Her bench and some of her tools are there on view, a physical reminder of a very physical craft and the most stunning gallery is the one full of plaster working models, which are work in progress, fortunate survivors and pale ghosts of what they were about to be. They are impressive works in their own right, well worth looking at and quite different in feel to what they would become when cast. I think that Hepworth possibly realised this and this is why they were kept.
As well as the permanent collection there are four galleries which are kept for temporary exhibitions. In December 2011 when I visited these housed The Unquiet Head, an exhibition of the work of Claire Wood, brightly coloured, twisting and tormented landscapes on a huge scale, made especially for the Hepworth, and it was satisfying to see that the gallery spaces worked just as well for the work of an artist who couldn’t be more different from Hepworth herself. There were clear echoes of the work of Paul Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland in her bravura sense of colour and drama, so it was clear that a tradition of landscape painting was being developed and taken forward and her work richly deserved its place. She has also been working on a massive outside wall for the 2012 Olympic park and I should imagine that it will be stunning.
Just to add the icing on the cake I can report that the food at the Hepworth is very good indeed, not at all overpriced, and the staff are friendly, polite and informative……. even when you inadvertently attempt to take a picture where it is not allowed.
All photos are copyright Patricia Rogers. Please respect this.