£35 million Hepworth Wakefield ready for opening

By Ben Miller | 19 May 2011
A photo of the outside of a gallery designed in cubist style with a still lake in front of it
© Iwan Baan
Opening: Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield, May 21 2011

From the windows of David Chipperfield's Hepworth, a stream from the Calder River cascades down concrete juts in a rippling, frothing current separating us from motorway arteries and Yorkshire hills steeped in picture postcard industrial history. At first the view is vertiginous, then mesmerising.

“This is the business,” declares Cluny MacPherson, the head of the county’s branch of the Arts Council, which invested £5 million in the creation of the largest British art venue since Tate St Ives in 1993.

“I knew it was when I saw the brown AA signs being set up on the road before the gallery opened. Wakefield is completely on the case.”

If you’re not after Doncaster or Barnsley, those signs point to the Hepworth in one direction, Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the other. Planners from Wakefield Council are already working with the Park and the city’s Coal Mining Museum in a bid to lure in 150,000 visitors a year.

The total package surrounding the £35 million gallery, according to the accompanying glossy magazine, includes the new Trinity Walk shopping centre, Merchant Gate business quarter and a £100 million waterfront project. The local Ossett Brewery and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds are also in on the act.

So it helps that the ten rigid shells the Hepworth consists of contain a joyous and gripping journey. There are liquid curves crafted by the Wakefield-born sculptor it takes its name from, a painting of Wakefield Bridge by JMW Turner (loaned from the British Museum) and star turns from Wakefield Art Gallery, which has always punched impressively above its weight in a collection first established in the 1920s.

A photo of a woman walking around giant stone sculptures inside a gallery with white walls
Barbara Hepworth's imperious sculptures loom large alongside a gallery devoted to her process
© Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Among a throng of Hepworth numbers, there’s a room bringing her working methods to life on a grand scale by drafting in part of her studio, wisely stipulated as a precursor to the main room when her family gifted her works to the gallery.

“It gives us a wonderful opportunity to talk about process and what it is to be an artist,” explains Frances Guy, the Head of Exhibitions.

“Barbara always wanted to work on the same scale as the finished works. The models almost literally bear her handprint – more than the finished ones, which are a step removed. They set things in context and allow people to understand what they’re seeing.

“It’s been a really interesting process to look at all this material and see how we can bring it through so it’s actually integral to the narrative. It’s a fantastic resource to have this as a permanent display in the heart of the gallery.”

A photo of contemporary artworks inside a gallery of white walls
Irish artist Eva Rothschild's Hot Touch provides a colourful opening exhibition
Elsewhere, in the first temporary display, Eva Rothschild hangs Sunrise, a circle of red and black aluminium which somehow levitates in the air (curators won’t give the game away when pressed).

Wandering Palm, a loop of leather and thick black jesmonite, adds to the sense of magic and mystery, part of a playground of shiny spheres, columns of jagged black and white meteorites and spidery wire frames devised by the Irish artist.

The space itself is stark and white, lit by huge windows and skylights. It feels a bit like the Towner in Eastbourne, and lets the exhibits it houses do the talking.

“We were designing from outside within severe limits,” Chipperfield says, his measured, sage-like tones echoing the pragmatic precision of his vision.

“We obviously have to be careful how we bring daylight into art spaces. We worked out where we could put windows throughout the building so that they wouldn’t cause too many issues, and realised that when we bring light in through the roof we have more chance of it spreading.

A photo of a large spiky black sculpture on a grass lawn
Heather and Ivan Morison, The Black Cloud (2009)
“A lot of museums are driven by trying to spread the light evenly and get it onto paintings. I think what we’ve produced is a more humane, domestic feel.”

Chipperfield’s building should be celebrated for dodging the indulgences of dramatic design. Glancing back out of those windows to see Heather and Ivan Morison’s spiky, animalistic Black Cloud poised on a lawn, you sense this is a place where great art will take centre stage.

  • Open 11am-8pm May 21, 11am-5pm May 22, then 10am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday. Admission free. Eva Rothschild: Hot Touch runs until October 9 2011
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