‘It would be very nice just to put sculpture on hillsides or in small valleys - for everyone to enjoy,’ said the great British sculptress Barbara Hepworth. When she died, in 1975, her vision was just a pipe dream. Despite a fine sculptural tradition and countless acres of glorious parkland, there were no dedicated sculpture parks in Britain, just a few statues in the grounds of stately homes. Half a century later, what a lot has changed! Today Britain has loads of super sculpture parks, there’s bound to be one not far from you, and while visits to indoor galleries remain restricted, now is the ideal time to go.
Seeing sculpture in a sculpture park is completely different to seeing it in a gallery. Personally, I far prefer it. Of course, that’s partly because being out and about is so much nicer than being stuck indoors, but there’s more to it than that. Staring at a sculpture in an air-conditioned gallery, you can easily end up trying far too hard to think it through, rather than simply letting it wash over you. It becomes an intellectual exercise (never a good idea) rather than a sensual experience, which is what sculpture ought to be.
Seeing the same sculpture in a sculpture park, it becomes part of the scenery. Like the landscape that surrounds it, you appreciate it for what it is rather than wondering what it might mean. Gardens and sculptures enhance each other: the gardens frame the sculptures; the sculptures become focal points. Placing sculptures in a pastoral setting is an artform in its own right - stage management and set design on a monumental, elemental scale.
Another great thing about sculpture parks is that they’re different every time you visit, in changing weather and changing seasons – in sunshine, rain or even snow. Sculptures that stand alone in winter are often cloaked in foliage come summertime. Sculptures that look serene on a summer’s day look much more dramatic beneath stormy skies. That’s why I never tire of sculpture parks – even the ones I’ve been to lots of times. Here are a handful of my favourites. In each of them, each time I return, I find something that surprises me. I can’t wait to revisit them - I like them more each time I go.
Crosby beach is the outdoor arena for one of Britain’s largest and loveliest artworks, which attracts loads of visitors to this Liverpudlian suburb every year. Antony Gormley’s gigantic sculpture comprises a hundred life-sized figures, cast in iron from a mould of his own body, strewn across several miles of shifting sand. ‘I love the way they took their place so well amongst the great drainage outflow pipes, the estuary and the passing ships,’ he says. Powerful tides make this a work of perpetual motion, as these ghostly figures are submerged, buried and revealed by the restless sea.
Fans of Barbara Hepworth are spoilt for choice, with several superb venues where you can enjoy her sculptures in the open air. The Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden in St Ives is the most evocative place to see her art. It’s housed in the cottage where she lived and worked, and the walled garden is delightful. However this compact venue can get very crowded, and is still subject to Covid restrictions, so in the meantime why not pay a visit to the Hepworth Wakefield, in her hometown? If you’re there before the indoor gallery reopens, you can still enjoy the Hepworth Garden. It’s a relatively small space, but there are several fine sculptures to admire, and the striking Hepworth Gallery, designed by British starchitect Sir David Chipperfield, is an artwork in its own right – even seen only from the outside. There are more Hepworths in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a short drive away.
Henry Moore Studios and Gardens
Britain’s greatest sculptor was born and raised in Yorkshire and spent his early adulthood in London, but after his Hampstead home was bombed in the Blitz, he moved out to an old farm called Hoglands in Perry Green, near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire. He remained here until he died, and many of his most famous sculptures were conceived in his farmhouse studio. Since his death in 1986, at the grand old age of 88, Hoglands has been open to the public – not just his atmospheric studio, but also the 70 acre estate, where 20 of Moore’s timeless sculptures are on show in the gallery he liked best of all, the great outdoors. As he said himself, quite rightly, ‘Sculpture is an art of the open air.’
In 1999, Robert and Nicky Wilson bought a handsome Jacobean hunting lodge amid 100 acres of woods and fields, a few miles west of Edinburgh. Twenty-two years later, they’ve transformed it into one of Britain’s most spectacular sculpture parks. Many of the sculptures are hidden in the forest. For kids it’s like a treasure hunt, a game of hide and seek. Nicky and Robert invite artists to come and stay, and create their works in situ, so they’re all site specific, custom-built for this estate. There are dozens of artworks, by some of the biggest names in modern sculpture: Nathan Coley, Andy Goldsworthy, Charles Jencks, Anish Kapoor… Look out for the five Weeping Girls by Laura Ford. It’s like a surreal scene from Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens
This secluded Cornish sculpture park features works by Royal Academicians like Richard Long and James Turrell, but the gardens are just as big a draw. A sheltered valley just a few miles from Penzance, Tremenheere basks in a balmy microclimate, a paradise for all sorts of subtropical plants. Originally owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount, across the bay, and then run by the Tremenheere family for 600 years (they planted the oaks and beeches in the 19th Century) it’s the brainchild of a local doctor, Neil Armstrong, who bought the site in 1997, cleared the bracken, brambles and rhododendrons, and transformed it into the dreamlike landscape you see today.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park
In 1977 a man called Peter Murray, an art teacher at Bretton Hall, a Further Education College in Yorkshire, had the bright idea of starting a sculpture park in the grounds of this Georgian mansion (now a posh hotel). ‘There was no curatorial tradition of siting sculpture in the open air in this country,’ he told me. ‘We had no staff, we had no money.’ And yet his scheme took off, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park was born (I came here with my mum in 1978 – I’ve been back many times since then). Forty-four years on, YSP now encompasses 500 acres of rugged countryside, midway between Wakefield, Huddersfield and Barnsley - a natural forum for British artists like Elisabeth Frink and Anthony Caro, plus international stars like Eduardo Chillida and Ai Weiwei. Admission is free. You only pay to park your car.