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Over the last 60 years or so the name and work of Barbara Hepworth have become synonymous with the town of St Ives. On the far south-west tip of England, St Ives has arguably become a place of pilgrimage for anyone with an interest in the work of Hepworth and the St Ives Group of artists, of which she was part. In the height of the English holiday season tourists and art lovers squeeze into the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Trewyn Studio, to which visitors now throng, was her home and place of work from 1949 until her death in 1975. Even on the busiest of days, the garden’s verdant spaces are dominated not by its visitors, but by the presence of Hepworth’s sculptures standing strong amongst the foliage. The studio itself is set against one wall of the garden and still filled with tools and remnants of materials, and a strong sense of the artist herself remains in this space.
Almost 400 miles north of St Ives, the Hepworth Wakefield is a new and very different space in which to engage with Hepworth’s work and legacy. Home to a remarkable collection of Hepworth’s plasters, the purpose-built gallery was designed by architect David Chipperfield (who also designed the Turner Contemporary at Margate) and is a striking presence on the south side of the River Calder. Hepworth was born in Wakefield so in a sense this collection brings her home.
The gallery’s light and airy spaces are very much outward facing as windows stretch from floor to ceiling and invite the outside in. At every turn, Wakefield is framed and reframed in panorama and the world outside seems to enter the gallery spaces and claim Hepworth’s sculptures for its own. The powerful river beneath the gallery and the equally powerful sculptural objects are brought together in ways that sometimes catch us unawares and we experience the works in ways we cannot quite explain.
This is particularly striking in Gallery 5, where the painted aluminium structure of Hepworth’s Construction (Crucifixion) of 1966–7 cuts across the view from the huge triple-paned window. And while this vast expanse of glass invites Wakefield in, the cruciform of Hepworth’s construction somehow seems to reach out, enfolding Wakefield and its peoples. This perhaps makes more sense if we consider Hepworth’s own words as they are written on one of the gallery walls: ‘I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour’. In her hometown of Wakefield, then, this sentiment seems to be embodied in this new gallery and its relationship with its surroundings.
Chipperfield’s building invokes a prescient and a visceral response in us. Firmly rooted in the cityscape, it is surrounded by busy roads, a rushing river, a working boatyard, old warehouse buildings and nearby churches. The newly built bridge that joins the Hepworth to the opposite bank of the river provides a necessary and visible connection to the rest of the city. If Wakefield has reclaimed Hepworth with this gallery and the collection it houses, then Hepworth has also reclaimed Wakefield. The bridge shakes a little as visitors walk to and fro across it – a gentle reminder that we are, perhaps, never on solid ground when it comes to engaging with artworks as powerful as Hepworth’s.
Barbara Hepworth: The Plasterersis not only a wonderful guide to the collection but also provides the fascinating back story to the gallery. It has been beautifully produced with a collection of scholarly yet accessible essays and a host of high quality illustrations. We learn about the origins of the collection, the beginnings of the new gallery development and the Hepworth Estate’s gift of surviving plasters and other prototype works, as well as the international Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) competition to appoint an architect. David Chipperfield, the winner of that competition, gives his account of the design, planning and building of this iconic gallery. Hepworth’s studio practice and the subsequent conservation of the work presented to the gallery are discussed. There is a helpful glossary and chronology, and a useful bibliography too.
You could visit the Hepworth Wakefield without reading Barbara Hepworth: The Plasterers. Equally you could read the book without every visiting the gallery. Either way, I think you would be missing a great deal. The gallery and the book together provide an opportunity to learn much about Hepworth’s working methods and gain a privileged insight into her working processes.
Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters. The Gift to Wakefield, edited by Sophie Bowness is published by Lund Humphries in association with the Hepworth Wakefield, 2011. 200 pp. 85 colour, 155 mono illus. ISBN-978-1-84822-066-9
Media credit: From Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters. The Gift to Wakefield