If there is one thing that is truly tragic about Barbara Hepworth’s death in a house fire in 1975 it’s that she didn’t live to see this gallery. I jumped at the chance to visit the relatively new Hepworth Wakefield gallery given the opportunity at the weekend and was not disappointed by the site which has already garnered more than 100,000 visitors since opening in May. A better conceived, designed and constructed gallery does not exist in England (even including my favourite, The Hayward). Full of the perfect light, the right stone and generous space, there’s little doubt that the attraction’s namesake would’ve given it an approving nod.
Hepworth (below, right), who was a DBE and mother to triplets, stands alongside Henry Moore at the very forefront of British sculpture and is more than worthy of such a grandiose space. Her works – many on loan from the Tate, others donated by her daughters – dominate much of the 11 rooms. Her smooth, unpretentious sculptures remind you how easy it is to engage with a simple object and admire good craftsmanship as well as shape.
What elevates this site perhaps even above the idyllic Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden at her house – in which she died – in St Ives, Cornwall, is the level of practical detail and explanation about her working methods. Enough to satisfy curiosity, not too much as to cloud the facts and kill the interest. Elsewhere, Hepworth’s work is put into context with pieces from Moore himself, fellow St Ives artist Peter Lanyon who also died tragically – in a hang glider accident getting inspiration above the southern town – and even David Hockney. The other major exhibition is from Clare Woods whose giant aluminium paintings (below, left) of rocks and landscapes in acrylic are astonishing. Their size is complemented by the curious shape of the concrete gallery and good lighting to enjoy the detail.
The one downside, and there has to be one, is that the gallery’s location, in Hepworth’s hometown of Wakefield in which she lived until moving to Hampstead, London with her first husband in the late 1920s is it’s, well in Wakefield. On a noisy roundabout opposite a tiling centre and near a Chunky Diner, the town offers little in the way of a day out but this still remains a must-see destination. The gallery’s foundations lie in a weir by a boatyard so the space has an excellent floating feel, far from the only strangely pleasant sensation a visit should evoke.