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Curator Diary - The Garden of Time

In spring last year, as we completed the hard landscaping of The Hepworth Wakefield’s new garden, I was rereading Barbara Hepworth’s ideas about experiencing sculpture in the landscape – ‘I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing.’

The curators were discussing how fountain grass (Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ and ‘Karley Rose’) might look fully grown, up to 1.2 metres tall, around two sculptures we were planning to install in the garden, Hepworth’s Ascending Form (Gloria) (1958) and Lynn Chadwick’s Dancing Figures (1956). It was exciting to imagine how a natural setting would contribute to the dynamism of these sculptures.

Another soaring bronze figure, Rebecca Warren’s The Three (2017), was placed alongside Hepworth’s, its pastel colours and sensuous, bulbous forms defying expectations of the medium. In the garden’s changing light, Warren’s tactile, thumb-marked figure can veer from tender to unsettling. When Michael Craig-Martin’s monumental Pitchfork (2013) was first sited, it rose workmanlike from bare soil. Now, it looks enchanted, otherworldly, surrounded by a crab apple (Malus ‘Evereste’) and a happy crowd of tulips.

Later that spring, I came to the end of a year-long research programme, Modern Nature, working with academics, artists and local communities to investigate our contemporary relationship with the natural world. We wanted to fully understand what our unique urban oasis could offer.

The title of the programme was taken from Derek Jarman’s journal, in which the filmmaker describes the joy of creating his stunning garden at Prospect Cottage, a tiny pitch-black fisherman’s house set on a barren shingle beach at Dungeness in Kent. Jarman began the garden in 1986 when he discovered he was HIV positive at the height of the AIDS epidemic, so the book is also a record of nature’s ability to provide solace in a time of crisis. Passages on the pleasures of gardening weave through unflinching descriptions of sex and death, a reminder that our encounters with nature can be joyful and energising but also moments of raw emotional exchange, often evoking strong memories. As Jarman describes, ‘Flowers spring up and entwine themselves like bindweed along the foothills of my childhood.’ He recalls his first, startling discoveries of ‘pristine snowdrops’, ‘the blue stars of wild forget-me-nots’, ‘dusty ivy, spooky with cobwebs’ and ‘dandelions, which bled white when you picked them’.

A year on, and as a new tree-lined wall has just gone up to protect the garden and our visitors from the heavy traffic of the Doncaster Road, another great chronicler of modern nature comes to mind: JG Ballard.

In his beautiful and haunting short story, The Garden of Time, an elderly couple enjoy a stroll together each evening in their high-walled garden, as the throng of an unknown enemy slowly approaches across the surrounding plains. Delicate crystal ‘time flowers’ hold back the onslaught. The story couldn’t feel more prescient as we all grapple with an unseen enemy and when the safe enclosure of a garden has never seemed so vital.

Nicola Freeman
Director of Engagement and Learning