Meet the man behind Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Peter Murray on the Wakefield estate that became a European arts centre

Peter Murray has just returned from giving a major speech in New York and is looking a little frazzled. He orders a strong cappuccino, then changes his mind and orders two.

‘I’m afraid I might ramble a bit,’ he says apologetically. ‘I hope you’ll forgive me.’But when the discussion turns to his life’s work – Yorkshire Sculpture Park – the fog of tiredness lifts and, far from rambling, he talks with intense erudition and infectious enthusiasm.

It’s easy to see how he persuaded Bretton Hall College, where he ran a post graduate course, to let him organise a sculpture exhibition in the grounds 33 years ago. And how he has continued to motivate visitors, artists and investors with his deep-felt sense of purpose.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield is now an international centre for contemporary sculpture, but back in 1977 Peter had less lofty expectations, hoping instead to create something akin to a children’s nature trail with added art.

‘I was interested in how to teach children about the aesthetic aspects of art rather than just the practical making skills,’ he says. He organised a small exhibition in the grounds and began the slow process of establishing a permanent landscaped sculpture park – the first of its kind in the country.

‘It wasn’t easy early on,’ he says. ‘We started with �1,000 from Yorkshire Arts, which was quite a generous amount from them at the time.’When he says ‘we’, he actually means ‘I’. He didn’t have any staff and had to work on the sculpture park in his spare time when he wasn’t teaching, trying to convince politicians to get on board and financiers to back his ambitious plans.

Most Read

The turning point came in 1983 when he audaciously organised a major international sculpture symposium, attracting visitors from around the world. It was then that artists, politicians and investors sat up and began to take notice.

‘It took a while for politicians to grasp what we were trying to do, but artists got it immediately,’ he explains.

‘There is a strong connection between landscape and art in this country – and in this county in particular. Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore showed the important link in their work'

‘The time was right for a sculpture park. It seemed obvious; it just needed someone to take up the challenge.’One of the most taxing challenges is finding the right place in the 500 acres of grounds for each piece. Like most 18th century designed landscapes, each area has a different mood that can work with or detract from a sculpture.

‘The location of a piece has a great impact and the piece itself has an impact on the landscape,’ he says, now on to his second cappuccino and showing no signs of flagging.

‘This landscape was designed to create a sense of discovery, of revelation, and we have to use that to our advantage. We have to distribute the art so visitors can enjoy a slow process of discovery.’The landscape is also a factor when it comes to organising the exhibitions that have helped to seal the park’s enviable reputation. In a gallery, art doesn’t have the changing seasons and unpredictable weather to deal with.

‘The landscape changes all the time,’ says Peter. ‘But the dynamics are a very motivating force. When you organise an exhibition you don’t just have to think about the practical logistics of getting the pieces installed, you have to think about trees, plants and animals.

‘You also have to remember that when this landscape was first designed it was cutting edge. That means we need to maintain that forward momentum without ruining its original spirit.’

This is one of the reasons why organising an exhibition is such a long, arduous process. The David Nash exhibition, which starts in May, has taken three years to put together.

‘When you are working so intensely on projects like this you have to totally immerse yourself in the work,’ says Peter. ‘For the time you are working on it, it has to be the most important exhibition by the most important artist.’

Thankfully, he now has a staff of 106 to help him in his work and a board of trustees who back him all the way.‘I have always believed in appointing great staff,’ he says. ‘It’s important for them all to sign up to the vision. They have to believe in what we are doing.’

What they are currently doing is  assessing the landscape to see what it needs to sustain it over the next 10 years, taking into account the wear and tear caused by the 300,000 or so people who trek around the grounds every year.

They are also converting an old chapel into a gallery space; restoring 2.5km of ha-ha; and keeping a close watching brief on plans by Leeds-based developer Rushbond for a new luxury hotel and spa in the original Grade Two listed mansion at the heart of the estate.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park has links with universities, colleges and schools, attracting upwards of 40,000 young visitors a year, and it’s clear Peter would have preferred Bretton Hall to retain its educational purpose. But he is determined to take a positive approach to the hotel complex.

‘We get visitors from all around the world,’ he says. ‘For them to be able to stay at the centre of the park can only be a good thing.’The continuing success of the sculpture park can only be a good thing for Yorkshire too. Wakefield in particular has reaped the rewards in terms of jobs, inward investment and prestige.‘An attraction that brings people to Yorkshire from all over the world has to be something special,’ says Peter.

‘The park has helped to put Wakefield on the map and establish the county as an important centre for the arts.'

‘Being a part of that has been very difficult at times but it’s also been an absolute privilege.’

And it’s not a privilege he’s planning on giving up any time soon. Other galleries, exhibition spaces and academic institutions have tried to tempt Peter away from Wakefield over the years but their offers have always paled into insignificance when set against the scope of his work at the sculpture park.

‘When you start something like this and bring people on board, you can’t just do it as a career move,’ he says. ‘This is a lifetime’s work.’

Park life

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is set in 500 acres of Bretton Estate parkland, a landscape designed more than 200 years ago as a private pleasure ground.

The design was dictated over the years by the families that lived in the mansion, most notably the de Brettons (until 1261), the Dronsfields (1261-1407), the Wentworths (1407-1792) and the Beaumonts (1792-1948).

Many of the top architects of their day have been involved in creating mansions, lodges, glass houses and follies here, including John Carr, Jeffrey Wyatt (later Sir Jeffrey Wyatville), William Atkinson and George Basevi.

The estate has seen its fair share of eccentric owners over the years. Sir Thomas Wentworth, who created a lot of the parks and gardens around his father’s mansion, often entertained guests on his lakes with firework displays and mock naval battles fuelled by plenty of alcohol.

And Diana Beaumont, his illegitimate daughter, doubled the size of the mansion and built the Far Famed Dome Conservatory, which was thought to be the biggest of its kind in the world. Unfortunately, she was a rather antagonistic woman who fell out with almost everyone, including her own son, Thomas Wentworth, who auctioned off everything that reminded him of his mother.

The estate was split up in the 1940s with the mansion reopening in 1949 as Bretton Hall training college for teachers of art, music and drama.Yorkshire Sculpture Park has gradually brought the original estate back together again since its launch in 1977.

To find out more about the park, click on, phone 01924 832631 or, better still, pop along yourself to Bretton Hall just a mile from junction 38 of the M1 at Wakefield.

Comments powered by Disqus