I lived in Wakefield for a few years, in the 1970s. Back then, it was a gritty industrial town, surrounded by pit villages such as Crofton, Sharlston and Lofthouse. It was the home of Double Two shirts, and the administrative capital of the now-defunct West Riding. You’ll still find Wakefield Prison here, the largest high-security prison in Western Europe. And Wakefield is still part of the unique ‘Rhubarb Triangle’, an area between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell where, in the cold early months of every year, delicate pink forced rhubarb is grown in darkened sheds for a public still eager to buy.
Wakefield had its elegant quarters too, largely built round the Georgian St. John’s Church, and there was a decent market as well, and a good Art Gallery and Museum.
What it didn’t have in those days was the Hepworth Gallery. So we paid it a visit on Sunday. It’s on an unpromising site by a fairly unlovely stretch of the River Calder, alongside a busy dual carriageway and various semi-industrial sites. But with its austere pigmented concrete facade, the building itself rises energetically and imaginatively from the midst of the industrial landscape in which it’s situated. We went inside, to a cool, clean and calm space. With an excellent café. This did seem promising.
Neither of us liked the current exhibition showcasing Lynda Benglis. But we’d really come to see Barbara Hepworth’s work. She was a Wakefield lass, a contemporary, friend and colleague of Henry Moore. I’ve known and admired her work for much of my life, but most enjoyed it when visiting St. Ives some years ago. Hepworth lived there from the 1950s till her death, and much of her work is exhibited at the Tate Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. It was the sculpture garden that did it for us then: plants and sculpture co-exist in intimate harmony, each enhancing the other in ways that have stayed with us in the years since we were able to spend time there.
The time we spent with her work in the Gallery was enhanced by glimpses of her working life: the tough and workmanlike bench with its tools laid ready for use; the videos showing her working, or her pieces being prepared for casting in bronze in busy foundries.
What makes this exhibition interesting is that most of these works are full-size prototypes, in plaster or aluminium of works that would later be realised in bronze. It’s clear that she needed to work even at an early stage on the same scale as she would on the finished article. What could she gain by trying her ideas out in miniature?
These pieces are reminiscent of the rolling character of the Yorkshire landscape round Wakefield. To achieve them, Hepworth chipped, carved, smoothed and worked away at her pieces: it was solid manual labour, not so very far removed from the labour of the miners and workers who also lived in the community where she grew up. It’s a man’s world, and Hepworth was extraordinary not only for being a woman studying sculpture, but for reviving the art of carving her own work. In the Edwardian age, sculptors had merely moulded their maquettes and left masons to do the hard graft.
Yet her work is sensual and invites contemplation. I relished the chance to do so in this light and airy gallery, with its backdrop of the city of Wakefield seen through the vast windows, allowing the daylight to illuminate her work.
Wakefield from the windows of the Hepworth Gallery.