Blue-sky thinking: How Yorkshire Sculpture Park broke the mould
11 July 2017
40 years ago a breezy hillside in West Yorkshire became Britain’s first dedicated sculpture park. The labour of love of one art school teacher, the park is now home to works by talents such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. WILLIAM COOK pays visit to the nation’s open-air gallery.
On a windswept hillside midway between Wakefield, Huddersfield and Barnsley, Britain’s first and finest sculpture park is staging a spectacular birthday party. It’s forty years since Yorkshire Sculpture Park was founded, by a pioneering art teacher called Peter Murray. It’s since become one of the most influential artistic ventures in the country.
YSP’s 40th birthday bash is called A Weekend of Wonderful Things, and it’s a great way to discover the artworks in this immense outdoor arena. You can watch the sunrise in James Turrell’s Skyspace, go on a barefoot tour around the grounds, or enjoy a Caribbean Carnival amid Zak Ové’s arresting Anglo-Trinidadian statues. It’s a fitting anniversary for this innovative venue, which has transformed British attitudes to sculpture.
Ever since I was a student, I was very interested in the idea of making art accessiblePeter Murray
Back in 1977 Murray was a lecturer here at Bretton Hall, a further education college with a strong emphasis on fine art. Before it became a college, in 1949, Bretton Hall was a stately home, and as well as the Georgian mansion at the centre of the estate, the college inherited its magnificent landscaped gardens.
“Ever since I was a student, I was very interested in the idea of making art accessible,” says Murray, over coffee in YSP’s sleek café. “I liked the idea of putting the arts in alternative spaces and places.”
In 1977 Murray had the bright idea of mounting a sculptural exhibition in these gardens. There were only a dozen exhibits, none of them by household names, but this modest show attracted huge interest.
Not everyone was keen. “There was a lot of public opposition,” recalls Peter. The local papers published angry letters from indignant members of the public, decrying these “metal girders and scrap iron” as “an insult to the intelligence of the taxpaying public.” However the vast majority of visitors were enthusiastic. They wanted to see more, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park was born.
Sculpture parks were already popular on the Continent (the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark; the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands) but this had never been done before in Britain. For the UK, this was something new.
“There was no curatorial tradition of siting sculpture in the open air in this country,” says Peter. “We had nothing. We had no staff, we had no money. I had to persuade people to help me, because I had a full time job.” From those humble beginnings, YSP has grown and grown.
Seeing sculpture in the open air is more intimate than seeing it in a gallery
It felt particularly fitting to establish Britain’s first sculpture park here in Yorkshire, just a few miles away from where Britain’s greatest sculptors, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, were both born. Moore and Hepworth both advocated bringing sculpture out of the gallery. “Sculpture is an art of the open air,” argued Moore, “Daylight, sunlight is necessary.”
The Yorkshire landscape is uniquely sculptural – the dramatic contrast between rural and industrial scenery, the rugged contours of the dales and moors. “The landscape here is very special,” says Peter. “It’s perfect for sculpture.”
YSP has staged big shows by Moore and Hepworth, but its focus has always been on the present, not the past. Newer names like Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy have exhibited alongside historic figures like Joan Miro and Max Ernst. YSP has never had the money to buy artworks, but a lot of artists have given sculptures, or left them here as long term loans.
The list of artists who’ve shown here reads like a Who’s Who of modern sculpture – not just British greats like Anthony Caro, Elisabeth Frink and Eduardo Paolozzi, but international stars as well, from Eduardo Chillida to Ai Weiwei.
For sculpture aficionados YSP is a must-see, but Murray’s great achievement has been to introduce sculpture to a wider audience. Some people come here to see the sculptures. Others simply come to walk the dog, or give the kids a run around. Admission is free. You only pay to park your car.
Seeing sculpture in the open air is more intimate than seeing it in a gallery. It’s also more laid back. You needn’t worry about what it means, or whether you understand it.
“It takes on a different character,” says Peter. “If you have an opportunity to walk around a sculpture, it’s a very different experience to walking past a piece of sculpture in a gallery.”
It’s a very different experience to walking past a piece of sculpture in a galleryPeter Murray
YSP has grown since the 1970s, from 200 acres to over 500 acres. Today it employs 170 staff and brings in 400,000 visitors a year. The college has closed, which is a shame (it’s now being redeveloped as a posh hotel) but YSP hosts loads of educational projects, for students of all ages.
There are several indoor galleries and a plush visitor centre, but the USP is still seeing sculpture in the open air, in stunning parkland, where the changing seasons and the changing weather mean you see a different show each time you come.
Before I go, I take a wander round the grounds, to see what’s changed since my last visit. The first time I came here was with my mum, back in 1978, for Murray’s second show. I’ve been back many times since then, and each time I see something new.
There are some old favourites I love to revisit, but every time I come here I make a few fresh discoveries: that Antony Gormley statue has moved; those Phyllida Barlow pieces weren’t here before…
I end up at Hepworth’s Family of Man, newly restored to its original glory. “It would be very nice just to put sculptures on hillsides or in small valleys – for everyone to enjoy,” reflected Hepworth. That’s exactly what Peter Murray has been doing here for half a lifetime – curating sculpture in the open air where everyone can enjoy it.
As he says, “Sculpture has the power to enhance the landscape.” And vice versa. Happy Birthday, YSP – here’s to the next forty years.
A Weekend of Wonderful Things is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield from 14 to 16 July 2017.