I am standing on the deserted shop floor of a Victorian mill in Wakefield, with the industrial history of Yorkshire spread out before me like a map. Down below, the River Calder, once so busy, is now a leisurely, peaceful place. Children play beside the water. There are fishermen on the banks. It’s a lot prettier than it used to be. It’s also a lot less businesslike. But among these redundant warehouses, a strange renaissance is taking place. This derelict mill reopened last month — not as a factory but as a new annex of the Hepworth, a museum that has welcomed nearly a million visitors in its first two years. Incongruously Yorkshire, a county built on hard graft, is becoming increasingly renowned as a centre of the sculptural arts.
The director of the Hepworth, Simon Wallis, shows me around this restored mill, now renamed the Calder Gallery. ‘There were piles of bird excrement — literally mountains of it!’ he says. ‘I don’t think anybody had been in here for about 30 years.’ When Wallis opened the Hepworth, in 2011, he hoped to attract 150,000 visitors per annum. In fact, three times as many turned up, boosting the local economy by £10 million, and making David Chipperfield’s bold new building one of the most popular galleries in Britain.
With hindsight, the popularity of the Hepworth should have come as no surprise. Here in Yorkshire, sculpture was already part of the scenery. The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is a research institution of worldwide renown. Yorkshire Sculpture Park draws well over 300,000 visitors every year. So is it just a coincidence that Britain’s greatest sculptors, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, were both born here in Wakefield? Or is there something about Yorkshire that makes great sculpture happen here?
Travelling around West Yorkshire, I’m reminded that this is a supremely sculptural county. Its standing stones have living names: the Twelve Apostles; the Bear; the Cow & Calf…Its bare hills and weathered boulders could have been carved by giant hands. Yorkshire’s industrial conurbations grew up amid this muscular terrain. Even in its city centres, the countryside is omnipresent. There’s no urban sprawl. The boundaries between town and country are abrupt. Hepworth called the West Riding ‘a land of grim and wonderful contrasts’. It was this contrast that excited her — the jarring juxtaposition of rugged moors and ugly slagheaps. This isn’t a panorama you’d want to paint in pretty watercolours. It’s a panorama you’d want to sculpt.
The current display of Hepworth’s work in her eponymous museum shows how much she cared for the landscape of her early years. Though she settled in Cornwall, she carried Yorkshire with her in her heart. ‘What one wants to say is formed in childhood, and the rest of one’s life is spent trying to say it,’ she wrote. ‘All I felt during the early years of my life in Yorkshire is dynamic and constant in my life.’ The opening of the Calder Gallery, in this mill beside the museum that bears her name, feels like the completion of a long quest to bring Yorkshire’s sculptural heritage back home.
That quest began seven miles from here, at Bretton Hall near Barnsley. In 1949 this stately home became a college of further education. In 1977 one of the lecturers, a man called Peter Murray, had the bright idea of creating a sculpture park in the parkland that surrounds it. Murray’s idea was inspired. His genius was in how he made it happen. Slowly, steadily, Yorkshire Sculpture Park has grown into a stunning 500-acre site, adorned with works by every sculptor you can think of (and quite a few you can’t) from Anthony Caro to Joan Miró — plus Moore and Hepworth, of course. Arriving on a sunny day, the surrounding moors are lit up like an enormous amphitheatre. It’s a remarkable creation, a great artwork in its own right.
Alan Mackenzie, head of Sculpture & Estates, takes me on a Land Rover tour around the grounds. Even these formal gardens are a product of Yorkshire’s industrial past. ‘It was coal that provided the money for the estate,’ he says. We’re out and about for several hours, and we still haven’t time to see half of it. On our way back to Bretton Hall we bump into Peter Murray. He’s busy installing a group of warlike figures by Elisabeth Frink in a copse beside the lake. ‘We’ve learned how to understand the landscape — it’s taken us a long time,’ he says. When Murray learns I’m here for The Spectator, his eyes light up. The Spectator was one of his earliest supporters, he says. Although he has his hands full with Frink’s fierce warriors, he asks one of his colleagues to find me a copy of the article. It clearly meant a lot to him.
I finish my Yorkshire sculpture trail at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. When Moore was a boy he walked into Leeds Central Library and asked to see some books about sculpture. ‘What’s sculpture?’ replied the librarian. Moore vowed that if it were ever in his power, he’d establish somewhere in Leeds where no one with a love of sculpture would ever be rebuffed like that again. ‘Our job is to fulfill that young man’s dream,’ says Lisa Le Feuvre, the Institute’s head of Sculpture Studies. ‘It’s for that bright 16- year-old, to come in and for their world to be changed.’
The Henry Moore Institute is an academic treasure trove of books and documents and artworks, but anyone can come here to learn about sculpture. You don’t need to be doing a degree. A glass pedestrian bridge (like all the best architecture, both practical and symbolic) links it with Leeds Art Gallery, where sculptures by Moore and Frink rub shoulders with works by Rodin and Duchamp. In the street outside, unnoticed by passers-by, stands a small monolithic sculpture made by Joseph Beuys.
The Hepworth, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute form a triangle on the map of Yorkshire, and now these three institutions have come together to make the most of this proximity. There are various reciprocal arrangements (joint tickets and suchlike) but Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle is more than just a PR stunt. This trio of institutions has no equivalent — three places, a few miles apart, where you can see the best sculpture in the country, in the rural and industrial setting that inspired it.
On the train back to London, I read The Spectator article that Peter Murray gave me. It’s by the late Bryan Robertson, a great critic and an important curator too. ‘The context is ideal,’ he wrote in 1978. ‘The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is off to a flying start.’ Robertson was quick to spot the county’s unique potential as a sculptural arena. ‘In Yorkshire, the convergence of an educated idealism among students, a perfect venue of cultivated and wild landscape, access to works of art and a responsive public seems without precedent,’ he wrote, in a subsequent essay in 1980. ‘This convergence could gradually affect the character of sculpture in England.’ Half a lifetime later, that vision has become a reality. Moore and Hepworth had to leave Yorkshire and go to London to become sculptors. For tomorrow’s sculptors, Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle is now the best place to make a start.
The Hepworth’s Calder Gallery is now open. For information on Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, visit www.ysculpture.co.uk