An insider's guide to Leeds

A wall painting by Lothar Götz at Leeds Art Gallery.
A wall painting by Lothar Götz at Leeds Art Gallery.

George Storm Fletcher plans a long weekend in Leeds, taking in sculpture, contemporary art and rolling landscapes – and great benefits with a National Art Pass.

Day one: A quick hop on the train...

It takes 20 minutes by train to get from Leeds to Wakefield, home of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017, The Hepworth Wakefield.

The Hepworth was designed by David Chipperfield so that it appears to float above the weir. The noise of the water, powerful and fast, drowns out the busy city roads. The concrete that coats the building is the perfect tone to brighten the grey Yorkshire sky.

Glimpses of the internal exhibitions are visible from the outside of the building; its pathways ergonomically beckon you inside. Large windows echo the shape of the exterior walls, and when inside the space, the industrial surrounds of the gallery remind us of the physical work required to create sculpture.

George outside the Hepworth Wakefield.
George outside the Hepworth Wakefield.

Exploring the Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth paved the way for women in the male-dominated field of sculpture, and the gallery continues her legacy. The material perfection of her work is complimented and contrasted with works from their collection.

Towering over the first room is Wandering Palm by Eva Rothschild. Matte black duct tape and tyres from tiny vehicles form the stem to an otherworldly plant. It’s a fun sculpture; the shining fetishist black of Rothschild’s work is playful as opposed to intimidating.

When I visit, the temporary exhibition is Magdalene Odundo’s The Journey of Things. The interconnected rooms of the Hepworth tesselate around me and I am greeted by Bird Swallowing a Fish, a Gaudier-Brzeska bronze, an old friend from Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.

By combining faux concrete plinths, visual and cultural contexts, and Odundo’s ceramics, the rooms have become installations. This helps us to see the ceramic vessels as ‘carriers for life’. By the third room I see three female figures, strident and triumphant and not three pots.

The rectangle of light is a constant in this room; I’m reminded of a previous visit to the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture exhibition in 2018. Cerith Wyn Evans, the winner, filled the space with Composition for 37 flutes, an audio sculpture that was powered by the ventilation of the building itself. I can hear the breath of those flutes in the room still now, like the pots are singing.

The Hepworth Family Gift, including works in plaster, at the Hepworth Wakefield.
The Hepworth Family Gift, including works in plaster, at the Hepworth Wakefield.

There is a room in the Hepworth that thankfully never changes. It is silent inside the room with Hepworth’s meditative plaster works; a moment of calm is enhanced by the view of moving water outside. In this room you begin to empathise with Hepworth’s spiritual beliefs; people spend a long time in this room. It’s a perfect memorial to Hepworth’s work and attitude of ‘truth to materials’.

The Hepworth is a comfortable place and you could easily spend a day here. The café overflows with greenery and we enjoy leisurely conversations over generous portions of vegan cake. I look forward to visiting next time when the garden will be nearing completion.

Day two: Sculpture in Leeds

The next day I hop off the bus in front of the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Art Gallery.

Like Hepworth, Henry Moore has left a legacy to Yorkshire with his archetypal sculptures, and his educational foundation. When I visit the Henry Moore Institute, Renee So’s Bellarmines and Bootlegs exhibition is showing for free.

The institute’s grand exterior conceals a surprisingly inviting small gallery. The brightly lit central atrium has a high ceiling, and So has created a horseshoe shape in the space with eight of her pots on weighty wooden plinths. As a group they are a cross between intimidating and friendly characters. Though the space is small it is versatile; be sure not to miss the room in front of the welcome desk – which often has installation art tucked away inside!

The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds,
The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds,
Photo: George Storm Fletcher

More ceramics are to be found in the Tiled Hall Café next door in Leeds Art Gallery. My table wobbles but I don’t mind because I am warmed by the slight spice of the tomato sauce in my sandwich; vegetarians aren’t to be fobbed off with cheese and pickle in this establishment. Two men clink glasses nearby, “cheers”, I think they might be on a date.

At the time of my visit, the gallery is preparing for the Yorkshire Sculpture International festival. The permanent elegance of the Alexander Calder mobile and works by Antony Gormley hold the fort while new shows are installed. I try to imagine Gormley’s Brick Man, high over the building site that is Leeds train station at the moment. Gormley intended it to be a viewing platform over the city, but sadly it was never realised.

A day trip to Harewood House

It’s Monday; a couple of bus journeys and I am at the entrance to Harewood House. Like something out of Alice in Wonderland, pedestrians are invited to phone for a shuttle bus. An entirely see-through vehicle appears; there are a lot of choices of seats for just one person.

The estate offers long scenic walks through a Himalayan garden and over stepping stones, a second-hand bookshop, cafés, parks and an aviary (complete with flamingos) as well as the house.

Harewood House from the south,
Harewood House from the south,
Image: Harewood House Trust

Like the other venues mentioned in this piece, Harewood House has a fantastic historical art collection and hosts temporary exhibitions. On this occasion, the exhibition Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters juxtaposes contemporary makers with the master craftsmanship of Harewood’s interiors.

A dimly lit ornate bedroom seats three glowing glass vases by Jahday Ford; they are a touching self-portrait, moulded from his breath. In the library, two Chinese vases ominously glint in the sunshine. Brought back from trading in the East, they are so large and humanlike I thought they may have contained ashes or a dead body, but they in fact would have been filled with sand and potpourri. There are what look like relief sculptures over the doors, but I have been fooled again. They are 'grisaille'; painted to look 3D, the cherub mocks me.

Walking through the servant’s quarters, I end my visit with tea and a scone on the terrace, overlooking the Capability Brown gardens and what I pretend is my family seat, before heading back home to Leeds, having only spent £30 over the whole bank holiday weekend.

George Storm Fletcher, from Ely in East Anglia, was a winner of our 2019 student writing competition.

About the author
George Storm Fletcher

George Storm Fletcher, from Ely in East Anglia, is currently studying Fine Art at the University of Leeds. George is a winner of our 2019 student writing competition.

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