Sculptors arise! With the opening of The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire now has three important centres devoted to the display and study of contemporary sculpture. All are within easy reach of each other: the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at West Bretton and now a new museum in Wakefield, conceived by David Chipperfield on a site that gingerly pokes its toe into the River Calder.
Central to the appeal of the museum is a large collection of Barbara Hepworth's sculptural prototypes, in plaster and aluminium, that has been donated by the Hepworth family. These are hugely significant. They show us how she worked; they reveal her thought processes; they enable us to follow her emotional and intellectual trajectory as a sculptor. Of the 10 gallery spaces on the first floor, six are either dominated by Hepworth or feature her to a significant degree. This is exactly as it should be. Hepworth lived too long in the shadow of Moore – who also came from these parts – and it is right, and long overdue, that a museum should be devoted to her achievements.
And what a museum it is. All the galleries, each distinctively shapely in a quirky way, are on the first floor of the building, and the fact that they follow the curvature of the river means that the museum is able to profit – and be symbolically enhanced – by the presence of rushing, raging water just beneath its windows.
The museum tells its story fully and intelligently. We begin with a display of major works. We then pass through a gallery which dissolves Hepworth in the two- and three-dimensional works of some her British contemporaries. She then plays a significant role in a gallery devoted to the European influence upon British sculptural practice, with significant loans from Tate and other institutions so we can compare British modes of abstraction, painted and sculpted, with works by Mondrian and others.
Then we pause for a gallery of pure didacticism. We examine objects from Hepworth's studio – her badly punished work bench, her bradawl, adze and gimlet. Silent films – the screens are embedded (with great sensitivity) into the wall – show her at work, and the fact that the films are silent means that there is no irritating noise seepage from room to room.
Next up is Gallery 5, the pièce de résistance of the enterprise, in which the largest and most significant plasters are on display and the window space expands in size, as if to mirror the enormity of the three-dimensional works. We feel that she is just about to walk in, hair in headscarf, axe in hand.