Forty years ago an idealistic young art lecturer named Peter Murray set out to establish a sculpture park in the grounds of Bretton Art College near Wakefield, Yorkshire, where he worked. Sculpture parks weren’t an entirely new concept — the 30-acre Middelheim Sculpture Park in Antwerp was established in 1951, and a sculpture garden created in the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, a decade later. These European venues came about with the help of state funding and endowments as part of the postwar mood to build a better society, with accessibility to art and culture as cornerstones of a bright new future.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Ralph E Ogden was using the fortune made from his family business, Star Expansion Company, to develop his “Storm King” estate in Mountainville, New York, as a sculpture park. Storm King evolved throughout the 1960s until, by the early 1970s it emerged as a significant art venue.
There was no state funding or private finance accessible to Peter Murray when the idea of creating what would become Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) was first aired. “We had no money, no rich backers or state funding, no staff, no audience or public support — there were not many things in our favour.” What Murray did have was the backing of his college principal, Alyn Davies, a one-off grant from Yorkshire Arts and the practical help of a small number of artists who contributed to the first exhibition in September 1977.
The 31 pieces that comprised the material for that first show were largely installed without suitable equipment, with Murray enlisting the help of artists, including Michael Lyons, students and colleagues — “anyone who could lift a sculpture”. Despite the limited resources and low-tech approach to installation, YSP was an immediate hit with the art world, receiving “terrific enthusiasm”.
The landscape into which those first pieces were installed at Bretton Hall was a shadow of what it had once been. The history of the estate stretches back to the 13th century, with ownership passing through the hands of just three families, the Dronsfields, the Wentworth family and finally the Beaumonts, until the estate was broken up in the late 1940s. The handsome Palladian mansion was built in 1720 and substantially added to over the following 100 years.
Bretton College was established in the mansion and adjoining grounds by Sir Alec Clegg in 1949, as a progressive institute with the primary remit of training art teachers. When Murray was appointed to direct a postgraduate course in art education, the grounds were littered with uninspiring brick-built accommodation blocks, “like an American college campus”. But he could see the potential of the landscape as an art venue. That potential was reinforced in 1976 when the college organised an exhibition of Andrew Darke’s sculpture, resulting in interest from the public and also from within the college staff and student roster.
“In the early days we would find a spot where we could place a sculpture, and that’s where it would go,” says Murray “it seems obvious, but we had to learn that you can’t approach the organisation of sculpture outdoors in that way. A gallery has artificial lighting that is unchanging, outdoors the seasons change; trees come into leaf and then out again”.
Since the turn of the decade Murray and his team, working with York-based landscape architects The Landscape Agency, have restored and reinterpreted the landscape at Bretton. The work has had a profound effect on the way the staff and artists working at YSP relate to the site.
With support from Natural England, who provided a £500,000 Historic Environment Special Project grant, YSP have opened up long lost vistas and re-established key views. Woodland and nature reserves comprising 85 acres have been improved and enhanced, and two 65-acre lakes dredged and the banks cleared of unwanted vegetation. At the same time, historic features including a classical Greek summerhouse and shell grotto have been restored and footpaths lost for decades have been re-established.
The result is that much loved- and long-exhibited works such as Moore’s “Large Two Forms” are reinvigorated. Previously viewed against a heavy backdrop of trees, the watery background is now either sparkling or grey, depending on the weather and season, creating, as Murray puts it, “a lighter mood”.
New works are now sited with a three dimensional experience in mind, so a piece can be viewed from multiple locations via the newly reopened vistas. The curatorial team have, says Murray, “begun to understand the shape and mood of the landscape, and as the landscape has changed so has the perception of the work. It’s a two-way process.”
In addition to the aesthetic enhancement and artistic opportunity provided by the enhancements to the 500-acre park, the ecology of the landscape now plays a central role in the visitor experience. Land art works such as “Red Slate Line” by Richard Long are now included in self-guided trails that also highlight the park’s heron colony, and Henry Moore’s fascination with drawing sheep.
For returning artists, the changes to the park have allowed them to “see the landscape as a whole, which in turn has an influence on where work is sited, and how,” Murray says. David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy are two of the more prominent names from a substantial roster of artists with a long association with YSP. “They have grown up with the park, and we have grown with them.”
While he is no longer offloading sculpture from the back of a truck, Murray retains a youthful exuberance for the park and the challenges thrown up by an outdoor art space. “It’s totally uncontrolled, which makes it exciting — but it can also be a nightmare! Losing a tree is like losing a wall in a gallery. The result can mean that a sculpture needs to be moved, or, if not, the work may have to find a new life in that space. Sculpture is all about space”.
Forty years on from those small beginnings, YSP has become the permanent home for celebrated works such as James Turrell’s “Deer Shelter Sky Space” and Andy Goldsworthy’s “Hanging Trees”, and has played host to countless exhibitions by artists including Elizabeth Frink, William Turnbull and Ai Weiwei, with a major exhibition by British artist Tony Cragg currently under way as part of the birthday celebrations. Visitor numbers have grown to more than half a million a year, and YSP staff have helped to provide support and advice on the creation of new sculpture parks around the world.
The sensitive restoration means the landscape of Bretton Park is now able to reveal its true potential, as country estate and as the UK’s finest outdoor art venue. Murray and YSP have always carved their own path, and in the current political climate, where a demonstrable indifference to the arts prevails, they will have to continue to do so. But at 40 years young, there is no sign of anything other than progression in the UK’s most inspiring “gallery without walls”.
Matthew Wilson is a garden and landscape designer and horticultural consultant
Photographs: Courtesy the artists; Bowness, Hepworth Estate; Permission of The Henry Moore Foundation; Jonty Wilde; Johannes Stoll; Michael Richter; Yorkshire Sculpture Park
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