Public sculpture (including plinth) entitled ‘Dryad’, 1983-1984 by Austin Wright.
Reasons for Designation
The sculpture ‘Dryad’ of 1984, designed by the artist Austin Wright for the University of York, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as a sculpture by Austin Wright who was among the most talented later C20 sculptors, exerting a considerable influence on modern art in the North of England;
* as a relatively rare surviving large-scale outdoor commission by Wright, many of whose works have been stolen or destroyed;
* as a dynamic sculpture of high aesthetic quality and workmanship;
* for its place within Wright’s oeuvre, representing an eloquent climax and a summation of his career;
* for its elegant setting next to the pool and topiary garden of Heslington Hall, which enhances the presence of the sculpture as tree nymph or spirit;
* as a piece commissioned for the University of York, one of a wave of new universities that improved access to higher education and marked the highpoint of publicly-funded architecture in post-war Britain;
* as a tangible reminder of Wright’s close association with the university, whose work inspired the Professor of Music, John Paynter, to produce a piece for chamber orchestra and viola; ‘Three Sculptures of Austin Wright’;
* with the Grade II*-listed Heslington Hall, the ‘Untitled’ sculpture by the same artist, and the university buildings including the Central Hall, Derwent College and former Langwith College, covered walkways, as well as the designed landscape, all of which are separately listed at Grade II.
The period after 1945 saw a shift from commemorative sculpture and architectural enrichment to the idea of public sculpture as a primarily aesthetic contribution to the public realm. Sculpture was commissioned for new housing, schools, universities and civic set pieces. It could be an emblem of civic renewal and social progress. Visual language ranged from the abstraction of Victor Pasmore and Philip King to the figurative approach of Elisabeth Frink and Peter Laszlo Peri, via those such as Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth who bridged the abstract/representational divide. The sculpture ‘Dryad’ by Austin Wright was commissioned for the University of York in 1983 and sited on a raised plinth vacated by the recalled loan of a sculpture by Henry Moore.
Austin Wright (1911-1997) was born in Chester and brought up in Cardiff where he attended evening classes at Cardiff Art School before studying modern languages at New College, Oxford. From 1934, he taught languages, painting and sculpture at Downs School, Colwall, Worcestershire, where he lodged with fellow teacher, later poet, W H Auden. In 1937 Wright moved to York and subsequently bought a smallholding on the edge of the Green at Upper Poppleton. He worked in an old barn throughout the rest of his life and, with his wife Susan, created an extensive sculpture garden. Largely self-taught (Henry Moore told him to ‘just get on with it’), his earliest surviving sculptures date from around 1940. Echoes of Moore and Barbara Hepworth could be seen in Wright’s early figure sculpture, but gradually tall, attenuated, skeletal forms became characteristic of his work and began to set him apart from his contemporaries. He exhibited widely across the North of England, including the show Modern Art in Yorkshire at Wakefield, where in 1953 his work first appeared alongside Eduardo Paolozzi, Kenneth Armitage and Elisabeth Frink. From the 1950s Wright’s work appeared in exhibitions in London and then touring exhibitions to Scandinavia and South America, where he won the Acquisition Prize at the Sao Paulo Biennale. In 1955, the art critic Charles Sewter pronounced Wright as ‘the most gifted sculptor working in Britain today’. His work advanced from wood and stone to lead and thence to concrete as his pieces grew larger and he began to be given outdoor commissions. It also moved from being semi-figurative to semi-abstract. In 1961-1964, Wright was Gregory Fellow in Sculpture at Leeds University. He began to work predominantly in aluminium and took a renewed interest in plant forms. The late 1960s saw his work reach its maturity. Wright produced pieces for moorland sites in Yorkshire, for schools and offices, for Leeds, Northumbria and York universities and Bretton Hall in Yorkshire, though many were stolen for scrap metal. He exhibited at the Tate Gallery, and, from the 1980s, at the Royal Academy, London. An obituary described his work as ‘a whole new school of art developing in parallel with the known world, a new country on a new morning’ (Hamilton 1997).
Dryad was installed in 1984 beside a rectangular pool and against the tall clipped yews of the topiary garden adjacent to Heslington Hall (Grade II*-listed). The manor house was erected in red-brick in 1565-1568 (remodelled 1854), whilst the pool was created in the mid-1960s. A dryad is a tree nymph or tree spirit in Greek mythology. The sculpture comprises a ring-like head and flowing body, a culmination of forms developed by Wright throughout his career. It perhaps displays something of the artists’ ideas regarding the open and disguised, the possibilities of stasis and the balance of the natural world (Warmbrunn et al, 2017). James Hamilton considered it ‘an alert leaf form, a shining, featherlight, magical presence whose double ring head rises proudly above an arching horizontal form…both plant and person, seed pod and spirit, [Dryad] is an eloquent climax to the artist’s production of public sculpture, a series of important works’ (1994, 70). Wright was awarded an Honorary Degree by the university in 1977. His sculptures, including Untitled and Dryad, inspired John Paynter, Professor of Music at York, to produce a piece for chamber orchestra and viola; ‘Three Sculptures of Austin Wright’. Dryad is situated within the Heslington Conservation Area.
Public sculpture (including plinth) entitled ‘Dryad’, 1983-1984 by Austin Wright, in cast and welded aluminium.
DESCRIPTION: the sculpture is 2.4m long, 1.4m wide and 1.5m high. It comprises a double ring attached to an arching, flowing horizontal form. The sculpture has something of the appearance of a reclining figure; a ring-like head attached to a body with extended wings. The surface of the aluminium is smooth at the head but has a variety of textures for the body. It is set on a rendered rectangular plinth with a stainless steel top and concrete base, and positioned beside a rectangular pool and against the yews of the topiary garden next to Heslington Hall.