The Angel of the North, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Barbara Hepworth’s home

This is a transcript of episode 33 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Will Gompertz, Duncan Wilson, Deyan Sudjic, Angela Douglas and Carolyn Hart as we begin our journey through the history of art, architecture & sculpture in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I am your host Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a Historian based at the University of Roehampton. In these programmes we're exploring 100 locations selected by ten different judges from thousands of nominations sent in by you. Each of these remarkable sites represents a pivotal or pioneering development in the history England, or has a special story to tell about our country.

In this episode we begin the Art, Architecture & Sculpture category, which has been judged by BBC Arts Editor, Will Gompertz. To take a journey through these locations I am joined by Deyan Sudjic, the Director of the Design Museum (recently named as European museum of the year 2018) and Duncan Wilson the Chief Executive of Historic England. Welcome to you both. In the next few podcast episodes we'll be tackling the vast subject area of Art, Architecture & Sculpture. Our judge for this category, Will Gompertz, has chosen some wonderful places from public nominations, but it must have been a challenging category to whittle down to just ten.

So here's an equally challenging question for you- can you tell us, Deyan and Duncan, how rich you think this country is in terms of art, architecture and sculpture and how it has helped shape our nation?

Duncan Wilson:
Well, I suppose you'd expect me to say incredibly rich, but it is! And I think this group of ten indicates the sheer variety of high status and less high status, ordinary places that have been transformed by how they've been used and their associations with historical figures. I mean, it's just such a rich range of places.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There's real texture isn't there?

Duncan Wilson:
Yes!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
How about you Deyan what do you think?

Deyan Sudjic:
I think that Britain has made itself one of the leading places in the world for contemporary architecture, design, art over the last decades. But there were times when Britain was definitely rather suspicious about the contemporary world- there was a notorious director of the Tate back in the 1930s who refused an import licence for a Picasso on the grounds it wasn't actually art.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well thankfully we're a little more accepting and we can recognise masterpieces perhaps a bit better these days! In this episode we'll be focusing on sculpture and so we begin with perhaps England's most astounding sculpture, in the North of England. There are few sites as recognisable, or un-missable, as our first chosen place- the Angel of the North. The Angel, of course, stands proudly besides the A1 just outside of Gateshead. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a monumental, russet red figure standing majestically at 20 metres tall- that's about four double decker buses high. Its arms, like aeroplane wings, are outstretched and its wingspan measures 54 metres, not far off that of a jumbo jet. So Will Gompertz has told us why he's chosen the Angel of the North in this category.

Will Gompertz:
There's a thing about public sculptures, and particularly public sculptures in Britain, which is that on the whole we completely ignore them because they mean nothing to us. There's so, so many heroes on horses- people we don't know about and frankly don't care about. So to make a commission where you are creating a new piece of public sculpture there has an impact on people is a difficult thing to do. To do it in the way that has been done with the Angel of the North, Antony Gormley's massive sculpture as you drive along the road there as you see driving past Newcastle and Gateshead, is extraordinary. It's a real achievement. It's not just about scale, I mean obviously scale is really important it's important in sculpture, it's important in this work because it's massive, but it's just about confidence and welcome and the way that it adds to the geography of the landscape that makes the Angel of the North one of the greatest pieces of public sculpture commissioned in the last 50 years, I think. It's very important to the local community- it gives a sense of confidence and purpose. It's an announcement, it's a welcome, it's a fantastic landmark!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So let's talk about how the Angel came to be here.

Duncan Wilson:
Well, the story of its conception is a really important part of appreciating it actually, because it wasn't something that everybody agreed with at the time. The sculptor, Gormley himself- his first reaction was "I don't make art for motorways", although actually I think as we appreciate it now, the view from the A1 of the Angel is incredibly important. This is a monumental piece of sculpture set on a hill. It also draws on the history of the place, it's on the site of the former colliery. It is part of its landscape as well as being of itself a really major statement.

Deyan Sudjic:
It is bittersweet though because it does lament the loss of English manufacturing, the sense that once this was a place which made the world's ships, which made steel that was exported around the world and there's a sense that's now gone. This is actually a tribute to that and I think it's also a landmark in the sense of looking forward as well. It was one of those pieces which marked the turn of the millennium and a sense that there was now a new energy in parts of England where there hadn't been previously. It was a landmark and it's saying "here we are" and it was of course embraced by popular culture really quickly.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
But at first what was the reaction, it was quite controversial wasn't it?

Duncan Wilson:
Yes it was. It had its local champion but it had its local opponents and I think because it was a major intervention. I mean for me, as Deyan has said, its significance lies in the fact that it's forward looking as well as, I mean there are monuments to our industrial history- there's pithead gear and there's mills- but this is about a forward vision as well as being rooted in the past and I think that's why people have warmed to it so much. But it also was the beginning of a process which involved some great pieces of transformation in Gateshead and Newcastle- the Baltic and the Sage for example, and I think it was part of that new appreciation of the past and the future.

Deyan Sudjic:

There was a slightly uncomfortable epidemic of icon making about that time as well with a sense that all you need to turn a rust belt city into a popular success like Bilbao in Barcelona is one wacky building. I don't think that Gormley's piece is wacky in any way- it's a serious work of art, and it was one of the more successful placemaking works.

Duncan Wilson:
It is of course, as you say, a major piece of civil engineering and part of its appeal, I think, is people feeling slightly unnerved by the fact of "what will that do in 100mph wind"? Well it's engineered against that but it is actually nearly the same height as a jumbo jet. And that is often the case with great pieces of sculpture and architecture that, you know, your first reaction is one of amazement about how was it built, how does it stand up, how does it resist the forces of nature, and that's a very obvious reaction to the Angel of the North.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes it makes you think about nature and art at the same time.

Duncan Wilson:
Yes.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well we went to Gateshead to find out more about this iconic Angel.

Angela Douglas:
My name is Councillor Angela Douglas and I am the cabinet member for culture at Gateshead Council.

Carolyn Hart:
I'm Carolyn Hart and I'm based in the culture team at Gateshead Council and I lead on the arts programme.

Angela Douglas:
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I see the Angel- it does that to me, it's so emotional.

Carolyn Hart:
It's beautiful, it's a figurative piece, its arms outstretched welcoming people to the North. That's what I really like about it the fact that it's got its wings slightly tilted in a welcoming embrace for people coming to the North East of the region.

Angela Douglas:
When it was brought in on the low loaders people were told to keep away- they didn't, they came out! The main body of the Angel was here and then that was erected and then when they came to put the wings on I thought oh am I gonna like this? And they put the wings on and I just started to cry, it was so emotional and I've been in love with ever since.

Carolyn Hart:
It's an amazing feat of engineering to get something of that size to stand up. There's as much underneath the ground as there is above the ground- it's got really strong foundations.

Angela Douglas:
So it's on like a hillock, a mound and this is where there was a colliery which is very, very poigiant to have this here because it's symbolising what our past was and looking to the future.

Carolyn Hart:
There'd been a public art programme that started in the mid 80s which is very much about putting sculpture and public art around Gateshead in the public realm and so this site was selected as a place for a landmark sculpture. There was a shortlist run up and Antony Gormley was selected and I think one of the comments from a councillor at the time was "Gateshead needs an Angel". Antony worked with the council for a long time in making this happen, you know raising the funds, convincing people that it was the right piece for the location, and in 1998 it was installed.

Angela Douglas:
But I have heard stories that Antony Gormley had said "I don't do motorway art", or something like that! I think it was the sheer tenacity of the leader of the time at Gateshead Council, who just kept talking to him and saying we need this Angel, and I think he then saw that it wasn't just something to just stick up, but it was a symbol of Gateshead and what Gateshead can represent.

Carolyn Hart:
I think what's really nice is that it doesn't matter what time of year it is, what day it is- morning, noon and night there are always people here. I often run and walk past the Angel and what I love about it is seeing it through the seasons and seeing that changing sky. We've got a beautiful blue sky here today and there's something about the orange Corten steel of the Angel with that blue zingy sky behind it which is quite breathtaking. But it also looks amazing with the sunset behind it, in the snow when you've got children sledging down the hill- all sorts of weather, it always looks beautiful!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Clearly the artist Antony Gormley created something that shocked and horrified some but has really stood the test of time. So what else do we know about Gormley?

Deyan Sudjic:
Gormley is an interesting figure in that he didn't go into the art world through the conventional route. He actually studied at Cambridge- academic subjects. He went to India which was a really transformative experience for him and then he became part of that generation of artists which have actually reshaped Britain's reputation as a centre for contemporary art over the last three or four decades. His work uses the human figure repeatedly. There's a wonderful piece in the Irish sea on the beaches- he's always been very interested in that public world, in that connection between architecture and sculpture. I think that relationship is a fascinating one.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well the Angel of the North is viewed by, well, hundreds of thousands of people very week and for many it's one of the markers that lead the way home. But if you go 100 miles south of the Angel you'll find our next chosen place where there isn't just one sculpture on show. Will explains his next choice for us.

Will Gompertz:
I love the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It's just one of those places which is kind of magical. It's an oasis off the M1 you're just driving along from north to south, to south to north, and you can just turn off, and it's not very far off the motorway, and suddenly you're in this amazing landscape, this wonderful English countryside landscape, which has been transformed into a sculpture park. There's Barbara Hepworths and there's Henry Moores you can see as you walk along and through these fields dodging the sheep and everything they leave behind. But my favourite work in the sculpture park is by the American artist James Turrell and he has repurposed an old barn which was used for cattle or sheep when the weather was very bad for them to shelter in. He's taken the roof off it and you sit inside this barn and you look up at the sky and the way he's cut the roof out it frames the sky almost like a painting, and it's absolutely beautiful. You look up and you see light like you don't normally see light and you see this blueness or this greyness, depending on the weather, and then the clouds whisper by and maybe occasionally a plane goes by, and it's all of life captured through this wonderful frame that James has created, and frankly I could sit there for hours and hours and hours- it's one of the great outdoor artworks in this country.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
The park spreads over 500 acres of fields, hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens and reads as a who's who of renowned contemporary sculpture, from Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth to Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor. It's known as a gallery without walls and you don't need to be an art lover to enjoy ambling around these beautiful grounds. So tell me about how this gallery without walls began.

Duncan Wilson:
The man behind it, and the founder, was Peter Murray- a lecturer in art education who installed a small sculpture park in the college grounds of Bretton Hall in 1977. He wanted to open the landscape up to the public for the first time and provide artists with the opportunity to explore sculpture in the open air, but Yorkshire Sculpture Park as we know it today opened in 1998. It was the UK's first sculpture park, based on temporary open air exhibitions organised in London parks from the 1940s to the 1970s, and it was quite an innovative thing to do at the time, but I think we can see the results are truly outstanding.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Deyan could you give me a sort of flavour of what it's like?

Deyan Sudjic:
It's a landscape which has its own qualities built in the grounds of an 18th century estate which in the 1940s was turned into, I guess, quite a glum college building (it's now got a new life). Then you find in this an extremely sophisticated collection of serious pieces of sculpture. There was initially a focus on some of the great British sculptors, Lynn Chadwick for example, but now as we were saying it's that international flying circus of sculptors from Ai Weiwei to James Turrell- his work is always remarkable in the way it plays with light in the natural context.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So it's a seriously curated, wonderful collection of pieces and it's become quite an important part of our artistic landscape hasn't it?

Duncan Wilson:
Yes I think landscape is the key. I mean for me the really interesting thing about sculpture in the open air is partly its relationship to the living landscape around it, but also the way light changes and the seasons change. If you put a piece of sculpture in a museum you are seeing it in pretty much curated conditions but you can't curate the conditions outside and so these great pieces, you could visit a hundred times and see them a hundred different ways.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I love that idea because I love the fact that it's constantly changing- that constant variety, the play of light, it sounds immensely intriguing. And I have to confess I have never been there so this is a place I really want to go and see.

Do you think it was quite daring to put a sculpture park in the grounds of a college in Yorkshire? Would it be where you'd put it?

Deyan Sudjic: I think there was a tradition of sculpture in public places that emerged around the time of the Festival of Britain when there were a series of installations. There are still parts of London's East End where there are some amazing pieces left over. It was a reflection, I think, of public values in the Britain of that time, of that post-war period, when public art was seen as an investment in public culture. It was seen that these things should not just be hidden away in interiors but they were part of the natural landscape. I think we lost that and one could see that Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a reinjection of that kind of tradition into British cultural life.

Duncan Wilson: Yes, I agree. I think great public art has a really improtant role in helping to create great public spaces. At Historic England we did celebrate that with our first ever exhibition on post-war public art. So I don't hink it's all about putting it all in a special place to show it off as an exhibition but this is a really important part of the whole range of ways you can see public art and public sculpture.

Suzannah Lipscomb: For our next chosen place in the top ten Art, Architecture & Sculpture category we move from Yorkshire down to Cornwall to the home of a sculptor whose name we've already heard. Barbara Hepworth was actually born in Wakefield, Yorkshire and some of her work stands proudly in the sculpture park, but she moved to St Ives in Cornwall and her home there is now an art and sculpture gallery. So why did Will chose Barbara Hepworth's art and sculpture garden?

Will Gompertz:
It's a wonderful place to visit because it is actually where the great 20th century British sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth lived and it's just her home. So you're wandering around this small building and you just see within her home the sculptures she made and I love her abstract sculptures- you know her heads, her torsos her sails. And then you think that's just wonderful and beautiful and the stories of her life and her children, and how she developed the artistic community in St Ives emerges. And then you go outside and it's just this fantastic garden where she has many of her sculptures placed. And then you go round the corner from her garden and there's her old studios! It's kind of set in aspic- and you can see, still see the tools on the tables where she used to carve, you can still see the stone dust where she used to carve and there's this picture of her. She's got these fantastic, narley, powerful hands, and here's a woman who wasn't a huge woman at all, very, very intelligent and you can just imagine her. Her physical body committing everything to carving these great big lumps of stone into shapes and forms that she would find beautiful. And they are amazing, all set within this domestic environment which in fact I feel heightens the experience of seeing art, particularly art in the home of the artist who made the stuff.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I love the idea of it feeling so personal that Hepworth herself might come round the corner at any moment with biscuits. Let's talk a little bit about the life and work of Barbara Hepworth.

Deyan Sudjic:
I think that the intimacy of this particular studio complex in this particular part of Cornwall is very special. And I think also what's fascinating is how Hepworth's reputation has grown and grown and grown. In her lifetime she suffered the fate of many women artists that she was eclipsed by the men around her, and as time has gone by that relationship has changed so much, and I think one of the special things about that is the way that this studio shows how she worked and who she was. How it's maintained is so difficult- we kill the things that we love so if we overwhelm such a delicate place with visitors we destroy the thing that we've gone to look for, and I think the way that the Tate looks after the museum there is a special achievement because it does maintain that quality.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And tell me a bit about Hepworth's life.

Duncan Wilson:
Well she bought the studio in 1949- her second marriage was to Ben Nicholson and they moved to St Ives together, and a bit later on then she bought the studio. Of course Nicholson was an important artist in his own right. She could work on bigger pieces when she had the studio because she could work outside and I think it's that insight into the whole process of creation that the studio gives us, that is so important. She worked with her hands all the time and I think you can see that from the tools and the raw materials she was working with, and you really get a feeling of that from the place.

Deyan Sudjic:
I think it's also a reminder of a time when London was not the only place in Britain where art of extraordinary quality could take place, that sense with that group of artists who knew each other who worked together in what was then quite a remote part of England is remarkable. And you know I think we've lost that sense that art can take place almost anywhere.

Duncan Wilson:
Well I think they felt undisturbed there- they could work together without the distraction of the major metropolis. And I mean I come back to the light- I think the light was a very important part of it, it's a maritime environment and the light is clear and precise.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Just in case anybody is listening and doesn't have immediately in their mind a sense of what Hepworth's pieces look like, could we perhaps describe one or two of them?

Deyan Sudjic:
One of the most public and well known is a piece attached to the outside of John Lewis's department store on Oxford Street. It's abstraction of course, but it plays around the tensions between strong moulded forms and wires, which give it that sense of, well, the relationship perhaps between a bicycle wheel and the spokes which hold it in place.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And tell me how much you think it's a monument to her work, to her achievements.

Duncan Wilson:
It's representative of her life and her way of working.

Deyan Sudjic:
And she made a huge contribution as an artist but also that studio is probably what persuaded the Tate to set up an outpost in St Ives, which again has changed the way that Cornwall feels.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So as a place it's important; as a woman she was important; but it's also in the context of the place and the impact and influence that she's had. So there we have it, the first of our podcasts looking at the category Art, Architecture and, today in particular, Sculpture. That's all we've got time for in this episode. Thank you to my guests Deyan and Duncan Wilson and of course our judge Will Gompertz. Next time we'll reveal two more locations in England's story of Art, Architecture & Sculpture. In the next episode we'll be looking at architecture for all. So, stay tuned and if you want to tell us about an important place on your doorstep you can always get in touch using the #100Places- that's the number 100. Don't forget to hit subscribe so that you get every episode and follow the story as it unfolds. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb, thank you for listening and I hope you'll join me next time.

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