The Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Profile
By Barney Bardsley
“I want a simple approach to living and doing. I want a life and work that reflects the balance and continuity of nature” David Nash
Autumn is such a beautiful and bewildering time of year, sometimes bright and clear – sometimes rain and wind-lashed, even cruel. The trees are in a state of dramatic change and the melancholy of the fading light is always lurking. But take yourself to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – in its one hundred acres of rolling majestic parkland, just half an hour from Leeds down the M1 – and any gloom is bound be transformed. Whatever the weather, this is an uplifting place.
The Sculpture Park is one of Yorkshire’s shining artistic jewels, established in 1977 in the grounds of the Bretton Park estate, as the site of both permanent and temporary exhibitions of indoor and outdoor sculpture. It is a family venue – where children and dogs can romp happily on the rolling hillside and in the big open spaces, among the Henry Moores and the Barbara Hepworths. It is, too, a place of contemplation: somewhere to lose (or find) yourself in reverie, as you gaze at some quite monumental works of art.
Landscaped in the eighteenth century by Capability Brown, the grounds are graced with the classical hallmarks of calm green space, water and forestry. And right now is the time to visit if you care about trees. The park and all its galleries are given over to the work of David Nash, a singular sculptor and artist whose forty year career has been dedicated to the sweet, strong, stable qualities of wood.
“Walk among the sculptures, wander through the living trees”
Whether it’s great slabs of Californian Redwood, rising to the ceiling like a solid wall of flame, or charred balls of oak, sitting squat, massive and unmoving in the upper garden – or joyful pieces of beech and birch, fashioned into tiny ladders and giant spoons, headless humans and lumbering creatures, tables and chairs, triangles and cubes, it’s all here. Nash is an alchemist. His laboratory is down in the woods. Walk among his sculptures then go out into the park and wander through the living trees. You will feel differently about them, believe me.
The YSP – luckily – is a place for all seasons. I have been in brilliant sunshine, with light glowing through the floor-to-ceiling windows of its tall and welcoming Visitors’ Centre, and I have trudged through an appalling storm to view the outside exhibits at the far end of the estate: the appropriately named Longside. In this huge retrospective, Nash is everywhere, outside and in.
He is found from one end of the estate to the other. So if it rains, just stay in the main building. Here you will find a lovely film of the man talking about his artistic process. (The YSP is particularly good at these sorts of explanatory films, adding a huge amount to an understanding of the art around you.) Forty years on from the beginning of his career, Nash, like his beloved trees, has aged and weathered: the contours of his keen intelligent face etched with lines, like the grain of well-worked wood. His humanity and the passion for what he does are self-evident and he explains himself well. Like his work he is down to earth, humorous, deep.
“Something is watching you alright”
The wood Nash uses for his – often gigantic – sculptures is always taken from sustainable sources, or has come to the end of its growing life. One film sequence shows him and his team chain-sawing and parcelling up an old dead tree with the skill of master butchers, determined to use every inch and sinew of the precious carcass to good, productive effect.
From the Visitors’ Centre it is only a matter of a few steps down to the Underground Gallery, where you can see some of the objects described in the introductory film – and understand better the daunting mechanical problems of simply moving the stuff into place. Here the most startling exhibit is in Room One. It is a massive, squat block of eucalyptus, standing unadorned in the centre of the room. Pale and all seeing, it just stops you in your tracks. The stillness is almost overwhelming. The name, ‘Oculus Block’ means ‘eye’ in Latin. Something is watching you alright… But the gaze feels benign, the power immense.
One of the joys of the YSP is in its many different moods and spaces – from the high and lofty Visitors’ Centre to the rather intense underground gallery, and then up and out to the formal terraces, flanked by the thin curves of the Bothy Gallery. Nash can be found in here too.
“A sense of stability and peace”
Take time to watch his wonderfully eccentric film, called Wooden Boulder, which tracks the twenty five year journey of a roughly-hewn boulder of oak, two hundred years old, which Nash launched into the River Dwyryd in Wales in 1978 and then patiently filmed as it meandered down the years through creeks, salt marshes and the estuary – until it finally bobbed out to sea. Last seen – 2003. Witty? Certainly. Poignant too. “It is not lost,” reckons Nash, “It is wherever it is.” Is he just talking about a piece of wood? Not judging from the rapt and emotional attention on the faces of the people watching the film beside me. How often can a piece of wood make someone cry?
Everything in contemporary city life is about speed. The Sculpture Park, with its wide green spaces, and light-filled buildings, is a deeply refreshing antidote to that acceleration. And Nash, its current exhibitor, is a master of the art of patience – of making us look and feel differently about a substance most of us take for granted. Wood. Trees. The slow process of real growth. Looking at shapes carved in wood – and on the outer reaches of the estate, in the Longside Gallery alone, there are over one hundred pieces in situ – brings a real sense of stability and peace. As one of the gallery assistants said, when I wandered back to the Underground Gallery and stood stroking a slab of redwood over a thousand years old: “When you look at that first growth ring, you think, ‘That was the Battle of Hastings'”. Different world. Same tree.