How Wakefield's history and architecture has inspired new colourful art trail shining a light on its people and places

Vibrant artwork installed on a Wakefield street is helping to tell the stories of the area’s past, whilst encouraging people to take note of its architecture. Laura Reid reports.

Behind each of the pieces of art installed on a busy street in the heart of Wakefield city centre is an insight into the rich heritage of the buildings and the colourful stories of the people who lived there.

Artist Ekaterina Sheath’s outdoor trail along Upper Westgate is designed to encourage passers-by to re-imagine and engage with the city’s history, as they enter and leave its high street.

The series of bold pieces take inspiration from the area’s industrial heritage and from stories collected from local people and businesses.

Artist Ekaterina Sheath with Councillors Darren Byford and Michael Graham. Photo: John Clifton.

Installed on buildings and lampposts, her artwork is already prompting people to look up and explore the area and its varied architecture.

“Westgate has a diverse history and the art trail is helping to capture the spirit of this special place in our district,” says Coun Darren Byford, Wakefield Council’s cabinet member for regeneration.

“Our historic buildings are wonderful and it’s a joy to see how archives, stories and the memories of residents, local businesses and communities have inspired these fabulous art works.”

The pieces sit on and around six adjoining listed buildings including Unity Hall, the Theatre Royal Wakefield and The Lodge at the Orangery and illustrate unique stories relating to the sites. They include a portrait of writer George Gissing at his childhood home, a scene depicting the laying of the foundation stone at Unity Hall and a collection of vibrant characters that have featured on the theatre’s stage over the years.

Sheath marries Westgate’s past with its present by intertwining contemporary characters and collected stories from residents and workers in Wakefield whilst bringing to life research by Wakefield Historical Society and Wakefield Civic Society.

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Her artworks feature tools and equipment associated with textiles, such as wooden dyer’s ladles and sheep shears. Shapes and patterns from Westgate’s listed buildings can be seen intertwined into the work, such as Unity Hall’s stained glass windows and details from the Theatre Royal’s façade.

Sheath says: “Delving into Wakefield Museum’s Collections I was fascinated by the fabric samples and tools I found there dating back to 1820-1830. The illustrations I created are a bespoke twist on textiles from Mr Smith’s linen book, originating from late Georgian Wakefield. It is exciting to see the lamppost banners showcased on Westgate, where Mr Smith’s drapery shop once stood.”

The art is part of a four-year programme, promoting the Upper Westgate Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) area and is a collaboration between Wakefield Council and Historic England.

The £3.8m HAZ partnership scheme offers grants to owners of historic buildings along the street to repair and revitalise them and includes a cultural programme. Work has already started on a number of buildings and the scheme has seen improvements made to four of the historic yards leading off Westgate.

Nicky Brown, from Historic England, says: “This is a fantastic, creative way to draw people into the history of the area, combining the rich and colourful stories of the people who lived here alongside the heritage of the buildings.

“It’s a great example of the innovative way that the High Street Heritage Action Zones are helping to revitalise town centres, celebrating their rich history and making them more attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors.”