Spring is arriving in Yorkshire and I love the breezy sunshine. A trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was an obvious choice last weekend, and one I had been looking forward to for a while. Apparently, half of Britain agreed with me, as the place was heaving. The restaurant was a single mum’s nightmare – hours of queuing and crowds and waiting for food. Although on a quieter day, the view from the glass-fronted building would have been lovely.
The park is set in the grounds of a stately home and covers 500 acres. We covered a predictably frustratingly small fraction (with a pushchair) but what we did manage was memorable and worthwhile. The park was hosting a new Miro exhibition, although none of us were particularly taken. The children failed to sense the whimsy of the “Personnages” and I was more intrigued by an apparent reference to Brimham Rocks in a sculpture which strongly resembled the rock called The Idol…!
However, a much more natural and emotional response followed naturally, when we left the confines of the visitor centre area and started running down the sunny hill, where Barbara Hepworth’s 1970 group “The Family of Man” strides down the slope.
Perhaps it is a general feeling, or perhaps something personal to me, but the sense of serenity about this group really filled me with a sense of deep happiness, and I was very grateful that it was there, and that it had the power to evoke such positive emotions. Everything about the group, whether it was the spacing of the figures or the sense of free motion downhill through the trees, or the solid and confident weight of the bronzes whose abstract shapes were both angular and fluid, pliable and strong, suggested unity and family.
The sunshine certainly helped, but the children shared my sense of satisfaction and peaceful enjoyment, running inbetween the figures; which do have a strong sense of personhood about them, even though they are more abstract than the Miro “Personnages”. My son, in particular, had a warm and visceral response to the Hepworth figures, which expressed itself in a very tactile way. He seemed to respond not only to the texture, but also to the shape, scale, and sun-warmed surfaces of the sculptures. The liberation proposed by the Sculpture Park setting, which allows both children and adults such rare close physical interaction with art, seemed rather joyful in this context.
Other works set throughout the grounds also encourage tactile interaction, but after this first moving experience, none of the other artworks quite inspired the same feelings. However, my daughter had a sweet and personal reaction to Elisabeth Frink’s “Sitting Man” – she took hold of its hand and started singing nursery rhymes: “Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear…” Possibly, she was struck by the lifelike pose and scale, but certainly a sense of trust had been instinctively engendered. I found it fascinating to observe the children’s uninhibited responses to each work.
The monumental scale of Anthony Caro’s “Promenade” was certainly one of the most visually arresting sights in the Park, and the children enjoyed making it their playground, finding secret passages, rooms and houses in exactly the same way as all the other young visitors. I think they felt this was the sole purpose of the installation – not really ‘art’ at all – whereas I feel the Hepworth group did retain its purpose as a visual and physical object to experience.
I had been looking forward to seeing Anthony Gormley’s sculpture, “One and Other”, positioned high up on a tree in a hidden, forested corner of the Park. It was oddly small, but as with all Gormley’s human figures, imbued with plenty of intensity: and the pose indicated a resiliant human defiance, a combination of vulnerability and strength.
A definite favourite, though, with the children was Henry Moore’s “Large Two Forms”. Every child visitor to the Park seemed drawn to it, and it was immensely satisfying to be able to walk in and around it and through the middle, touch the worn and smoothed surfaces, and observe and experience the shapes from all angles. What the children loved most, though, was the sonorous materiality of the bronze, and every child put their ears to the sculpture to hear the strange bell-like echoing within the shape.
I think what is particularly lovely about the Sculpture Park is the variety of sculptures and the informality which is encouraged. Nothing staid or restrained about this ‘gallery’ – it is all touch and running and sunshine – and really a unique and quite special experience.