A short drive from Junction 38 on the M1, leads to the well-signposted way into the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), where scores of massive, mainly metal, sculptures dot the landscape of the 500 acre Bretton Estate not far from Wakefield.
Well placed in an open landscape for the best effect, there is everything from Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Family of Man’, to Henry Moore’s massive bronzes, and quirky exhibits such as the larger than life sized man reading his mobile phone, this is called ‘Networking: uphill from this is the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s group of animal heads apparently in conversation, then a rabbit headed woman’s body made from chicken wire made by Sophie Ryder; and just outside the café, is a life sized version of Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros drawn in 1515. I found the piece called ‘The Cave’ by Mark Suvero the wittiest. It looks as though it is made from bits and pieces of cast off JCB machines, as it is quite likely, for Suvero was a construction worker at one time.
Bretton Estate was acquired by Wakefield Council and converted into the sculpture park in 1977, but the estate has a longer and fascinating history. Originally awarded to one of William the Conqueror’s knights for his services at the Battle of Hastings, lands in Bretton and West Bretton including the estate are listed in the Domesday Book of 1086, but by 1158 it was settled by the de Bretton family. Through changes of ownership following convenient marriages, the estate passed through three interconnected families, the Dronsfields, the Wentworths and the Beaumonts.
It was the Dronsfields who built up the estate on the banks of the River Dearne, living there until 1407 when it passed to Elizabeth Wentworth, wife of John Wentworth; she bequeathed it to her son Richard and the Wentworths lived at Bretton for the next four centuries, with the house passing through the male line until 1792.
The first documented house probably half-timbered, was built by Sir Thomas Wentworth around 1508. The estate continued to prosper until the Civil War when its Royalist owner another Sir Thomas, was imprisoned after the Battle of Naseby. Following the Restoration of the Monarchy, King Charles II made him a baronet in 1664.
It was yet another Thomas, the 5th Baronet who by employing the landscape gardener, Richard Woods, a talented contemporary of ‘Capability’ Brown to develop the gardens and park in the mid to late eighteenth century. Although Thomas never married, he had an illegitimate daughter, Diane to whom he bequeathed Bretton. Through her marriage to Colonel Thomas Beaumont an MP for Northumberland the estate became owned by the Beaumonts, later Wentworth Beaumonts for the next hundred years or so.
Like many estates before it, Bretton became a drain on its owner’s finances and gradually it was sold piecemeal, first to West Riding County Council, and eventually in its present form to Wakefield Council. Around 1949, the house became Bretton Hall Teacher Training College, later merging with the University of Leeds, specialising in music, the arts and drama. While the mansion has been neglected to some extent and is currently in line to become a hotel, the rest of the park is now an imaginative open air sculpture gallery, with the added bonus of new buildings for the YSP Centre devoted to displays of individual artist’s work and restaurant and café facilities.
The 500 acre Yorkshire Sculpture Park is open daily throughout the year. Allow at least three hours to do justice to a visit.