Visit to the Hepworth Wakefield, 23 January

Posted on Wednesday 30th January 2013

Hepworth's 'Oval Sculpture' 1943, under discussion (courtesy Hepworth Estate).

Following several days of snow, and doubts about the possibility of even reaching the rendezvous points, our group of fourteen intrepid travellers assembled for the short journey to this latest addition to the ‘Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle.’

Our adventuring spirits were well rewarded by an enlightening and most enjoyable visit to the Hepworth not in the least due to an excellently organised, relaxed but purposeful schedule. The day proved all the more satisfying for being a shared experience, discussed with other members over a delicious lunch. The café serves superb coffee, tempting cakes and pickled onions of such gargantuan proportions that they almost rival some of the Gallery exhibits!

The Hepworth sits dramatically adjacent to the River Calder, austere in its multi-angular shell of ‘Hepworth brown.’ This shade, we were reliably informed by our very knowledgeable guide, curator Gemma Yates, can take on hues of grey and purple depending on exterior light conditions. Inside, the Gallery spaces were inspiring in themselves. From immense windows, the architect, David Chipperfield has created vistas, old and new, drawing the town and Gallery together. The interior lighting is sensitively managed according to exterior conditions, and relative to the various exhibitions.

Ten galleries comprise both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The breadth of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, in their wide variety of materials, and her creativity, energy and skill in producing these is overwhelming. The Hepworth Plasters Gallery is a scaled replica of her Palais de Dance Studio in St Ives, where she worked on large scale pieces such as Winged Figure for the Oxford Street store of John Lewis. In its plaster form it is displayed here, together with other large pieces, a testament to the dedication to Hepworth’s craft. As her physical ability with heavier mediums lessened, Hepworth turned to this substance to produce such prototypes.

Gemma emphasised the vital influence of both landscape and the human form in Hepworth’s work. Evoking the surroundings of the sculptor’s home for many years, on display in the Hepworth and St Ives collection are two memorable pieces. Victor Passmore’s Snowstorm and Peter Lanyon’s Moor Cliff, Kynance. Lanyon was a glider pilot, and his interpretation, from this unusual viewpoint of the Cornish landscape is fascinating. The swirling monochrome forms of Passmore’s painting echo many of Hepworth’s three dimensional creations.

Also display is the largest collection ever assembled of Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings. They result from her experience of witnessing surgery at Exeter hospital where her daughter was treated by the surgeon, Norman Capaner who invited Hepworth to draw in the operating theatres. In fact, the sculptor’s hand was to some extent, at work again, as her final images were actually produced by etching, with a razor blade, in to a mixture of commercial white enamel, lead and chalk. This collection evokes both an appreciation of Hepworth’s skill as an artist, and an intensely emotive response to her almost spiritual representation of the subject matter. Her touch is reverential. One can only imagine the very personal respect and gratitude Hepworth must have felt for these life transforming surgeons, who in Skiagram themselves stand together awaiting the patient, their hands in a gesture which is almost one of prayer.

In the David Robert’s Collection, Tony Cragg's Wild Relations proved mesmerizing – as did its title! On circling this beautiful bronze piece, and with careful study, the observer is presented to a many, and varied number of human profiles. Could the sculptor have survived the whirlwind of a particularly stressful weekend with his ‘wild relatives’? Or is the piece, seen as a whole, and as suggested by one member of the group, reminiscent of the Easter Island heads, and thus referring to a more primitive past, still redolent in us all?

Just time to be tempted by the lovely books, gifts and cards in the Gallery shop, and the jolly band were once again settled for the journey home, enlivened by earnest chatter regarding the wonders we had seen, and much appreciation of the lovely day we had all shared.