A Frieze for Leeds: Imagining a Sculptural Façade for Leeds Art Gallery in 1968
13 June – 2 September 2018
Release date: Monday, 21 May 2018
In 1968 the exhibition Three Ideas for Sculpture proposed a new sculpture for the exterior of Leeds Art Gallery, intended to revive the then eighty-year-old Victorian building. Artists Neville Boden (1929-96), Hubert Dalwood (1924-76) and Austin Wright (1922-2003) were selected to propose a frieze to be installed across the 40-metre façade and Arts Council England provided funding for the production of drawings and models. The project was not realised because the future of the building was brought into question, so the proposals – displayed together again for the first time in fifty years – provide an intriguing set of imagined possibilities.
Between 1928 and 1932 The Headrow – the road directly outside the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Art Gallery – was widened. The buildings that were demolished suddenly revealed the previously hidden façade of Leeds Art Gallery. Never intended to be seen so prominently, the austere façade designed by W.H. Thorp in 1886 was considered too plain and intimidating, the sandstone having darkened from pale gold to almost black with pollution. In 1937 a much larger art gallery, museum and library complex was proposed for the existing site, although the beginning of World War Two brought the scheme to an end before it had really begun.
In 1965 it was argued that ‘the Art Gallery occupies one of the most important sites in the city yet the face it presents is blank and forbidding. If, however, the existing facade were used as a setting for sculpture the Art Gallery might become one of the most noteworthy public buildings in the country’. The Leeds Corporation (which would become Leeds City Council) agreed to set aside £15,000 for a new sculptural scheme to enact this transformation.
Robert Rowe, then Director of Leeds Art Gallery, requested financial assistance from Arts Council England to cover the cost of preliminary work made by the shortlisted sculptors. The Arts Council granted £400 each for three sculptors to produce designs, models and drawings, six of which are displayed together in the exhibition for the first time in fifty years. Rowe, the artist and educator Quentin Bell and the committee agreed on the selection of Neville Boden, Hubert Dalwood and Austin Wright. All three had been Gregory Fellows at the University of Leeds, making them familiar with both the cultural context of the city and architecture of the gallery.
Boden’s contribution was titled ‘The Bach’ and was intended to reference the association between music and the city – especially the periodical festivals staged at Leeds Town Hall next to the gallery. Boden recognised that music was a useful analogy for abstract sculpture and ‘has to do with colours and shapes and spaces and the rhythms produced by repeating and varying them’. The exhibition presents two works by Boden: a work on paper showing his complete design and a painted aluminium and perspex maquette of one section of the sculpture.
Dalwood collaborated with the architect and town-planner Tom Hancock, an enthusiast of Victorian buildings. As the façade was not solid stone Dalwood thought it would be difficult to achieve a unified design so he proposed a continuous horizontal relief in reflective aluminium. On display are his wooden model of the whole façade with the sculpture integrated into it, alongside an aluminium maquette of the whole sculpture.
Wright planned his design around the five sections created by the pilasters and the forms he conceived were drawn both from nature and architecture. He spoke of spending the entire summer studying a sunflower and like Boden, presented his maquettes as provisional objects. Like Dalwood, Wright made a scale model of the façade with a miniature version of his sculpture, which the exhibition presents alongside an enlargement of one of the sections in cast aluminium.
The proposals were displayed at Leeds Art Gallery between 23 November and 15 December 1968 under the title Three Ideas for Sculpture, curated by the new Keeper Miranda Strickland-Constable. By this time the future of the Victorian building was in doubt, resulting in the cancellation of the scheme. Robert Rowe noted that the display had ‘caused a very great deal of interest in Leeds’ and the Arts Council agreed that the models should remain in Leeds. Rowe wrote to Austin Wright in December 1968: ‘Whatever the future may hold I am sure we have not heard the last of this little episode’.
Notes to editors:
- A Frieze for Leeds: Imagining a Sculptural Façade for Leeds Art Gallery in 1968 is programmed alongside The Sculpture Collections (to 2 September 2018) across the galleries of the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Art Gallery, which celebrates a thirty-six year partnership that has built one of the strongest collections of British sculpture in the world.
- The archive of the sculptural façade project at Leeds Art Gallery is held in the Henry Moore Institute Archive of Sculptors’ Papers.
- A Frieze for Leeds: Imagining a Sculptural Façade for Leeds Art Gallery in 1968 is curated by Dr Rebecca Wade, Assistant Curator (Sculpture) for Leeds Museums and Galleries, based at the Henry Moore Institute.
- The University of Leeds will host a two-day conference on the Gregory Fellows in partnership with the Henry Moore Institute on 14 and 15 June 2018.