Yorkshire has a sculpture park, as everybody knows, and now it has another. If you are seeking a link between the two, look no further than Michael Lyons. The sculptor, who died in 2019, lived at Cawood in North Yorkshire He was regarded as one of the finest steel sculptors of his generation, known for cutting, bending and folding steel in his monumental pieces. He loved working outdoors as this offered the “freedom to cut metal and smoke cigars”.
Lyons was a founding member of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall, near Wakefield. Now his work is featured at Thirsk Hall Sculpture Park. This venture has been launched with a selling exhibition of Lyons’s sculptures, alongside work by Austin Wright, Geoffrey Clarke, Gerald Laing, Richard Hudson and Emily Young.
The park is operated by Willoughby Gerrish Ltd, a formal way of saying that it’s run by Bill, the art dealer husband of Daisy Bell, whose family has owned Thirsk Hall for nearly 300 years.
Daisy grew up there with her sisters, Lettie and Zillah. Their father John named his gallery in Thirsk after his youngest daughter, thanks to her having the most striking name, although she has no connection to the gallery that bears her name. “Drives her mad,” says Daisy. “Her Amazon address is Zillah Bell Not The Gallery.”
Daisy is the eldest and each sister has a role in the family. “Lettie’s going to look after the farm and she married a farmer, and I’m going to look after the house and I married an art dealer/interior designer.”
Zillah lives in a cottage near the hall and “she’s running the show, the most capable of us all”.
Daisy and Willoughby (known to family and friends as Bill) moved in last year with their two sons. Daisy says her father didn’t mind leaving the hall as he no longer had to worry about returning from a weekend away to find the roof leaking in three places. We are sitting in the mercifully dry drawing room – “the only one that’s been properly decorated” – which has expansive views of the grounds behind the hall.
Thirsk Hall is surprising because of its location, almost in the middle of the town rather than up a long drive in a picturesque middle of nowhere.
The grade II*-listed town house was built in 1723 and extended in 1770 by York architect John Carr, who added Georgian elegance and a “floating” staircase that rises without apparent support. Cantilevered from the wall, these staircases were one of his favourite architectural tricks.
Daisy points out that family members tend to stay close to the wall, rather than going up the suspended, seemingly wonky, side. It’s a big step up from London, where they lived in a “fairly modest flat in Shepherd’s Bush, one extreme to another”.
Willoughby formed his eponymous company after working widely in the London art world. He represents the estates of Lyons, Laing (1936-2011) and Wright (1911-1997), and often works with Emily Young, and is based in London for two days a week.
Daisy runs an art consultancy, also partly based in London, and used to work at the Tate and the Royal Academy. Her consultancy works with interior designers and offers advice on how to fill a whole house or restaurant with art.
“My work is like interior art, whereas Bill’s is more intellectual,” Daisy says.
Now in their mid-30s, the couple met at university in Edinburgh, and have always worked in the art world. They hope their 20-acre sculpture park will grow and help to create an arts hub in Thirsk.
“In Yorkshire we have phenomenally important galleries and museums,” says Willoughby. “We’re trying to do something more boutique-y and it is commercial. We’re saying come for the weekend and do classes.”
They have an Airbnb in part of the house and are planning a glamping site and aim to turn old stables into holiday lets. The idea is to encourage people to stay in Thirsk for longer than an hour or two.
We leave the drawing room for a short tour of the house and garden, heading past the unsupported staircase and into the great dining room, which has a plaster ceiling by James Henderson. The room is huge. “We’d love to restore it but it would need a heritage grant,” says Willoughby.
At present the room contains sculpture and early work by Michael Lyons for sale in a mini-exhibition.
“This is a ridiculously big house and it’s very grand, but originally we weren’t a very grand family,” says Daisy.
“One of my ancestors married a wealthy woman and she came into the Bell family with money and basically pimped out the house.”
Much of the furniture and many of the paintings have been here for generations, and some of the original furniture was made for the house.
“Normally you move into an empty house and you put all your stuff into it. But we moved into a full house and it was just like sorting out stuff. So you pull a drawer open and find something like a Tube map from the 1920s,” says Daisy.
“It is amazing, every single drawer you open there is something historical,” says Willoughby. “Daisy’s dad’s got an amazing memory for all this stuff; you can spend hours in a room with him and it’s really exciting but takes a long time to sort anything out.”
After a peep into the green room, where the family tend to gather, Daisy leaves for a phone call, and Willoughby leads me outside. The garden is wide, running roughly the width of this old town house, with a fine view of St Mary’s Church next door.
Willoughby felt Michael Lyons was a good fit as the work on show had been seen in the garden at York Art Gallery. “It was an exhibition almost
ready but we could put it in a different setting,” he says.
Also key to the new sculpture park is artist and printmaker Norman Ackroyd. Born in Leeds, Ackroyd is a Royal Academician and the “greatest landscape printer alive”, says Willoughby.
“We asked if he wanted to do a mini-show in the summer house here. He’s a very good friend of the family and whenever he’s come here, he’s done etchings of the house and gardens.”
Close by the back wall is a large head by Emily Young, acclaimed by the Financial Times in 2013 as “Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor”. “It’s really exciting to get a piece by her in,” says Willoughby.
Beyond the formal garden is parkland where industrial metal pieces by Lyons share space with the local sheep.
“I love the idea of big abstract sculpture in the natural world,” says Willoughby. “But I was a bit worried by the sheep at first.”
Round the corner on the lawn stands a polished sculpture by Richard Hudson, a huge shiny tear that reflects the garden and fields beyond. A short distance away is a tall, spindly sculpture by Austin Wright.
“It’s one of my favourite pieces in the show,” says Willoughby.
Wright lived at Poppleton in York and his work was much influenced by nature and the wooded garden behind his house on the village green.
A tour of the sculpture park takes about 45 minutes if you look carefully at each piece and Willoughby is usually on hand to guide visitors and bring it all to life.
Thirsk Hall Sculpture Park is open from 11am to 5pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets have to be booked in advance through www.thirskhall.com/sculpturepark