In the 19th century galleries named themselves after their main benefactor – think Henry Tate or Andrew Barclay Walker or Alexander Laing. Nowadays, it seems, they are more likely to capitalise on their association with a famous artist such as Turner, Lowry or Hepworth.
And who can blame them? It makes good marketing sense, especially in the context of regional towns and cities determined to re-invent themselves as a destination for cultural tourism.
But behind the promotional rhetoric there often lies a complicated story. For the relationship that artists have with the places which form them is rarely straightforward. And the use to which the place itself subsequently puts the artist (or artists) may not always accord with their aesthetic goals.
As a teenager I regularly walked past Glasgow School of Art, aware that its architect was admired by those in the know, but little suspecting that his work would soon launch a whole new civic identity and gift industry.
Glasgow largely ignored Charles Rennie Macintosh for 50 years, had a change of heart in the 1980s and has relentlessly promoted him ever since. Confronted with all manner of Mackintosh-abilia, it would be easy to forget that the architect left Glasgow in later life, disillusioned and (as he saw it) rejected by his native city.
Then there are artists whose uncompromising vision sits uneasily with the purpose for which their work has been co-opted. The painter L.S. Lowry gave his name to the spectacular gallery and arts centre that now stands on Salford Quays.
Yet Lowry’s unsparing depiction of Salford’s industrial landscape is not a vision that plays well in the context of upbeat urban regeneration, and his outsider status in the censorious world of the British art historical establishment undoubtedly complicates the marketing message.
"...there are artists whose uncompromising vision sits uneasily with the purpose for which their work has been co-opted...Lowry’s unsparing depiction of Salford’s industrial landscape is not a vision that plays well in the context of upbeat urban regeneration..."
St Ives in Cornwall is another interesting case. Nicholson, Hepworth, Lanyon, Leach and others made art that was intimately connected with the place itself. Their legacy survives in the many painters and ceramicists who continue to ply their trade there and in the countless small commercial galleries that now populate the town.
This much diluted version of the art that made St Ives famous is now an important aspect of the area’s tourist offer. But it does little to whet the audience’s appetite for innovation and internationalism, which is, after all, what the original St Ives artists stood for.
This brings me to the new Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, whose recent opening provokes questions about West Yorkshire’s proud marketing claim to be the birthplace of modern British sculpture and the place that fundamentally defined the art of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
In a certain sense it’s true. Moore and Hepworth were born within a few miles of each other in Castleford and Wakefield respectively. Their powerful example gave a new status to the practice of sculpture, even if the generation of British sculptors who immediately followed them took a different aesthetic path.
It’s also true that both sculptors spoke in later life about the influence of the Yorkshire landscape on their sculptural sensibility, describing how its contours, hollows and markings had determined their approach to making three-dimensional form.
Yorkshire in turn was quick to claim Moore and Hepworth as its own. Moore had his first significant retrospective at Temple Newsam in Leeds in 1941 and sold his ‘Reclining Figure’ of 1936 at a discounted price to Wakefield Art Gallery in 1942. Hepworth’s work was likewise recognised in several exhibitions in Yorkshire during the 1940s and early 1950s.
However, both artists left Yorkshire for London as soon as they could and neither returned to live there beyond their childhood. In Hepworth’s case, especially, the place that more powerfully informed her practice was not Yorkshire but St Ives in Cornwall.
"However, Moore and Hepworth left Yorkshire as soon as they could... In Hepworth’s case, especially, the place that more powerfully informed her practice was not Yorkshire but St Ives in Cornwall."
You could say that the narrative of ‘Yorkshireness’ that they and others constructed around their practice in the 1930s was a means of explaining its strangeness to a metropolitan audience still puzzled by modern art. The artists’ connection with an ancient landscape somehow legitimised the formal simplifications of their work: it was, in modern parlance, a good marketing ploy.
At a deeper level still, the issue of Moore’s and Hepworth’s relationship with Yorkshire touches on questions that concern us all. For when we leave the place of our birth and upbringing, where are we really ‘from’? And which are the life experiences that define us?
For most of us the answer is merely a matter of personal interest and speculation. But for famous artists it has a material bearing on the ways in which their work is promoted, mediated and received.
©Sheila McGregor June 2011