The Hepworth Wakefield: A bold history of collecting

Published 13 September 2018

The Yorkshire gallery's team introduce us to the extraordinary legacy of its permanent collection, exciting exhibition programme and plans for future collecting.

It’s tempting to believe that the Hepworth Wakefield landed fully formed in the Yorkshire landscape in 2011 – an immovable behemoth of modern and contemporary British art.

It’s even easier to forget that the world-famous works at its centre, now worth tens of millions of pounds and seen by over 250,000 visitors each year, were first acquired in the first half of the 20th century by a young gallery taking the risk of patronising radical local artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

‘Thank heavens they had that brave, bold vision,’ says Hepworth Wakefield director Simon Wallis of the original Wakefield Art Gallery, reflecting that it would take a lifetime of fundraising to acquire one of the pieces now.

He goes on to stress the ‘moral imperative’ of keeping alive the keen collecting spirit of the earlier Wakefield Art Gallery. ‘We’ve got to make sure we don’t miss the trick of collecting the Barbara Hepworths and Henry Moores of our own time. That’s where Art Fund’s work is so vital, in making sure we don’t forget collections are there to be enjoyed now but also for future generations.’

Here we take a closer look at several works which illustrate the gallery’s ongoing commitment to interrogating the art of the last century, and bringing that legacy into play alongside contemporary works of today.

Exploring the Hepworth's permanent collection

At the heart of the gallery is the work of Barbara Hepworth, with pieces spanning her entire career – and the galleries themselves, designed by the architect David Chipperfield, are inspired by her sculpture.

As Nicola Freeman, the Hepworth’s director of engagement and learning, points out, ‘The building is actually made up of ten trapezoidal blocks in the clarity of form of Hepworth’s sculptures.’

The enormous windows, which look out onto sights Hepworth knew, both honour her interest in landscape and the city, and let natural light flood in to illuminate her work. It's a beautiful way to see her remarkable large-scale sculptures.

Central to the collection is the Hepworth Family Gift, donated by Hepworth’s family through Art Fund in 1997. This includes many of Hepworth's tools, and the huge casts she made for her bronze sculpture commissions.

‘What’s nice about this gift,’ says Freeman, ‘is that you get very close to the artist herself… The plaster sculptures were worked with her own hand. She wanted to tell the foundry exactly what textures she wanted, exactly what colour, and she was very precise.’

Freeman also explains how Hepworth’s extraordinary range of influences, from motherhood to the moon landings, galvanises the gallery’s engagement with the public. ‘It makes it so exciting for us; there are so many different ways to bring different audiences to an understanding of her work.’

From artist-led workshops to dance performances, the Hepworth’s innovation and dedication in serving the local community was particularly noted by judges of Art Fund Museum of the Year, which the gallery won in 2017.

Recent additions to the collection

Among the exciting recent additions to the permanent collection is Wandering Palm (2011) by Eva Rothschild, one of the UK’s foremost contemporary sculptors.

The sculpture was acquired with Art Fund support in 2011 and complements Hepworth’s own fascination with the contrast between the industrial and the natural.

Freeman notes how the sculpture is made of ‘1960s industrial materials and very clear geometric forms’ and yet evokes a sense of mystery through what Rothschild calls ‘magic Minimalism’.

‘It’s also a very tactile object,’ Freeman says, ‘and Hepworth was very interested in the tactility of her sculptures.’

Other contemporary artists whose work the gallery has acquired include Clare Woods and Anthea Hamilton.

A sculpture by Helen Marten, winner of both the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture and the Turner Prize in 2016, will be purchased using some of the £100,000 Art Fund Museum of the Year prize money.

A five-star exhibition programme

Through examining the work of Lee Miller and her connections to other artists including Man Ray, Roland Penrose, Henry Moore and Paul Nash, the Hepworth's current five-star exhibition shines a fresh light on the Surrealist movement in Britain and Miller’s role in its development.

By any standards, Miller (1907-1977) lived an extraordinary life. Famous as a fashion photographer, photojournalist, model and muse, she lived and worked in both the US and Europe. Her influence on the development of Surrealism in Britain, however, is critically underrepresented.

‘There’s a whole other side,’ explains the exhibition's curator Lauren Barnes. ‘Miller was a surrealist photographer in her own right and also someone deeply engaged with surrealist networks.’

Lee Miller: documenting Surrealism

After a successful career as a model in the US, Miller decided she preferred working behind the camera and moved to Paris in 1929 to work with the photographer and artist Man Ray. From the very beginning, Miller’s images had something to say about Surrealism, particularly in painting.

‘She is from the earliest stage very critical of the way the female body is represented in surrealist paintings, the way bodies became fragmented and turned into passive objects,’ says Barnes.

Miller’s most challenging piece from this time is a diptych of a severed breast from a mastectomy, displayed on a dinner plate.

She also photographed nudes, using techniques she developed collaboratively with Man Ray (such as solarisation, involving exposing a negative to light) to make images of ‘these incredible abstracted female torsos that are connecting with the surrealist tropes in painting’.

The second room in the exhibition pays homage to the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London – a landmark moment which brought together British and European artists, establishing the movement as a way of life rather than a single artistic approach.

Barnes says, ‘Surrealism in Britain was not just about artists translating the surrealist work they encountered abroad. It was equally about their own scientific, psychological and mythological interests.’ They explored these within distinctly British traditions, ‘whether that be the English landscape tradition of Paul Nash or Eileen Agar’s thinking around mythology’.

Miller was in Paris when British artists were first engaging with European Surrealism, and her ‘lateral presence’ is included here too: Man Ray’s A l’Heure de l’Observatoire – Les Amoureux (1932-34/1970), which depicts Lee Miller’s lips hovering over the landscape, was hung above the door of the 1936 exhibition.

‘Miller’s photographs are important historical documents,’ says Barnes. This is true not only of her extensive photojournalism during the Second World War, for which she is well known – think of the image of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub, for example – but also her record of key figures in the Surrealist movement.

When the artist Richard Penrose, whom Miller later married, brought together leading artists and thinkers for a weekend in Cornwall (in a ‘sudden surrealist invasion’, as he termed it), it was Miller’s photographs that captured this pivotal moment, the group dynamics and artists at work.

After the war, she and Penrose made Farley Farm House in East Sussex a surrealist hub, and again her images give us a unique insight into this time. It’s possible that the photo of Moore hugging his statue has merely caught him in the act of twisting its orientation, but Barnes calls this an ‘ungenerous interpretation.’ She adds, ‘Really, there’s something much warmer and tender about it, giving a real sense of its life as part of Miller and Penrose’s world.’

Supporting the future of sculpture

When Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain closes on 7 October, it makes way for the gallery’s second Hepworth Prize for Sculpture exhibition, which opens on 26 October.

When the £30,000 biennial prize was established in 2016, it instantly became the most significant of its kind in the UK and, alongside the Hepworth’s stunning exhibition and community engagement programmes, was an important factor in the gallery being named Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017.

Recognising a British or UK-based artist of any age, at any stage in their career who has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary sculpture, the prize's shortlist for 2018 comprises Michael Dean, Mona Hatoum, Phillip Lai, Magali Reus and Cerith Wyn Evans. The winner will be announced in November 2019.

Art Partners visited the Hepworth Wakefield to view its remarkable permanent collection, and to see the exhibition Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, in September 2018.

A group of Art Fund patrons who join us for unique opportunities to get closer to art, Art Partners provide vital support for our work with museums and galleries across the UK.

If you'd like to find out about joining us for opportunities such as this, learn more about Art Partners here.

With the help of our donors and members, Art Fund has supported several venues in West Yorkshire including Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Leeds Art Gallery and Nostell Priory. We've put together a handy highlights guide to the area.

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