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Can Wakefield become a world-class destination for modern sculpture?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 September 2017

Wakefield's Bull Ring and fountain

Wakefield's Bull Ring and fountain


Richard Darn reports on how the West Yorkshire city is aiming to become a centre for arts.

Kirkgate in WakefieldKirkgate in Wakefield

I’ve always found Wakefield to be an intriguing place and one that’s not easily pigeonholed. It oozes more history than some of its neighbouring towns, but the industrial revolution scotched any chance that it might have evolved into another Beverley or Ripon. I’ll give you an example. En route to Leeds my train would call at Kirkgate Station, built in 1854, and a more forlorn and neglected ‘transport hub’ you could hardly imagine. Dark, crumbling and deserted, it was not the best way to say welcome to Wakefield.

But wander around elegant areas near the cathedral and Queen Elizabeth Grammar School (founded in 1591) and it’s like being transported to another world. Similarly, Wakefield Bridge, completed in the 1350s, is one of just three in the UK to have a surviving chantry chapel, St Mary the Virgin (Rotherham also has one). Here travellers on the London road stopped to pray for a safe journey, perhaps heading on pilgrimage to Canterbury years before Chaucer penned his famous tales. World class monuments by any standards, given Grade I listed status by Historic England.

There are more hidden gems too. Going to the theatre in London means heading for Drury Lane and you do likewise in Wakefield, where on a street with the same name you will find the exquisite Theatre Royal, built in 1896 and the smallest playhouse designed by Frank Matcham, creator of the London Palladium and Buxton Opera House.

No doubt Wakefield needs regenerating, but what’s so exciting is there is a lot to work with. For example the aforementioned Kirkgate railway station has been spruced up as part of a multi-million pound investment and now looks smart and confident. And the waterfront area (Wakefield was a major inland port) is being given a facelift and is home to the current UK museum of the year; more on that in moment.

The exquisite Theatre Royal, built in 1896 and the smallest playhouse designed by Frank Matcham, creator of the London Palladium and Buxton Opera HouseThe exquisite Theatre Royal, built in 1896 and the smallest playhouse designed by Frank Matcham, creator of the London Palladium and Buxton Opera House

But let’s wind the clock back. The city is mentioned in the Domesday Book and was the scene of a major battle in the Wars of the Roses (Battle of Wakefield, 1460) when Richard, Duke of York, was killed. However, for the most part it was left to develop into a dynamic market town, trading in woollens, and as long ago as the 16th century it was called the ‘Merrie City’ by antiquary John Leland, who noted the abundance of food.

When it was linked to the North Sea via the Aire and Calder Navigation, trade took off, especially grain imports, and its growing economic muscle was matched by spiritual promotion when the parish church was elevated to cathedral status in 1888 (as befits a building with the tallest spire in Yorkshire).

Over more recent decades Wakefield’s fortunes have waned, not least because of the collapse of coal mining, once by far the city’s main employer. It has been left with the job of reinventing itself and that’s where its historic and cultural assets come into play.

On the waterfront now sits the distinctive grey presence of the £35million gallery The Hepworth Wakefield, opened in 2011 and named after artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who was born and educated in the city. In its first year it attracted 500,000 visitors and the subsequent hard work establishing itself has paid off with the Art Fund declaring it UK Museum of the Year for 2017. With temporary exhibitions, a modern rather than stuffy attitude to showing and sharing art, and with many of Hepworth’s own works on show, it has lured people from across the globe, many of whom had never previously heard of Wakefield, and visitor figures continue to soar.

The distinctive grey presence of the £35million Hepworth Gallery, opened in 2011The distinctive grey presence of the £35million Hepworth Gallery, opened in 2011

But of course it’s not the only world class arts venue within the city’s bounds. The 500-acre Yorkshire Sculpture Park is five miles away, a pioneering open air gallery featuring Henry Moore bronzes, plus works by Hepworth and other leading artists. At its inception four decades ago it had just £1,000 in the kitty to mount exhibitions, but today it contributes an estimated £5million to the local economy. It too won the Art Fund accolade in 2014, making the city the only one outside London to have had multiple winners. Together with the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, it’s been said that Yorkshire can claim to be the European capital of modern sculpture.

Wakefield has clearly found a bit of winner here and I’ve not even mentioned the place’s other charms such as Nostell Priory, the National Mining Museum, Heath Common (unspoilt grazing land with lovely old world buildings) and Walton Hall (grand house built on its own island, once home to 19th century naturalist Charles Waterton, a passionate environmentalist who created the world’s first nature reserve in the grounds).

And people are taking notice. The Arts Council has given Wakefield’s Cultural Consortium £223,000 to promote the location as a national and international destination. The Yorkshire Sculpture International will take place every three years starting in 2019. Organisers say it will help make Yorkshire ‘a world-class centre for contemporary and modern sculpture’.

The exhibition aims to celebrate the region’s history - as the birthplace of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore (born in Castleford in 1898) - and ‘its commitment to collecting, commissioning, exhibiting, studying and promoting sculpture’. Yorkshire Sculpture International takes place from July to September 2019 across Leeds and Wakefield.

Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness by sculptor Zak Ove, one of the leading exhibitions at Yorkshire Sculpture Park Photo: Jonty WildeBlack and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness by sculptor Zak Ove, one of the leading exhibitions at Yorkshire Sculpture Park Photo: Jonty Wilde

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by all this. For this has been a prosperous place for much if its history, more than capable of turning its vitality and creativity into profitable commodities.

Visitor champion

Jenny Layfield, the new Visitor Champion for Wakefield Photo Paul DunnJenny Layfield, the new Visitor Champion for Wakefield Photo Paul Dunn

Jenny Layfield, general manager of National Trust property Nostell, has been chosen as the Visitor Champion for Wakefield. This new role has been created following Arts Council England awarding Wakefield a ‘Cultural Destinations’ grant, to celebrate and promote the city as an important national and international cultural destination.

The Visitor Champion will play a key role promoting the value and importance of Wakefield’s culture and visitor economy directly with people in the district, as well as advocating for Wakefield as a cultural destination regionally and nationally. She will chair Wakefield’s Cultural Consortium, made up of 14 representatives of local cultural organisations, visitor attractions and businesses who are committed to working together to deliver the vision of developing Wakefield as a leading cultural and visitor destination.

Jenny Layfield said Wakefield had much to offer. ‘As a cultural destination, it rivals any city in the country outside the capital drawing in significant numbers of people to visit amazing places such as The Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Nostell. I am really looking forward to working in partnership with other organisations such as the Wakefield Bondholders and the BID plus representatives from the five towns to make the Wakefield District visitor economy thrive. I believe together we can really project what is great about Wakefield on a national and international stage, attracting further investment, creating new jobs and skills and long term sustainability.’

Belinda Eldridge, director of development and commerce, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (a founding member of the consortium), said: ‘Jenny is the ideal candidate for this role, living and working locally for a number of years.

Her background working in the tourism industry in one of the UK’s most recognised organisations, The National Trust, together with her passion for Wakefield means that she has all the necessary skills and drive to achieve great things in the role. I am very much looking forward to working with her and seeing what we can deliver for Wakefield.’

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