Tom Stuart-Smith plots grand design for The Hepworth’s riverside gallery garden

Tom Stuart-Smith
Tom Stuart-Smith
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A globe-trotting landscape architect who created the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Garden at Windsor Castle is turning his attention to transforming the land outside a Wakefield art gallery. Phil Penfold reports.

According to those in the know, Tom Stuart-Smith – the English landscape architect, writer and award-winning designer – “specialises in gardens that combine naturalism and modernity”. Which just about sums up why Tom, 58, has been picked as the man to deliver the new garden that will surround, enhance and transform The Hepworth, at Wakefield.

An artist's impression of how the finished site will look.

An artist's impression of how the finished site will look.

The award-winning gallery designed by Sir David Chipperfield is bounded by a busy main road on one side, some Victorian industrial buildings on another, and the River Aire with a gushing weir on the other two, has rightly been acclaimed as one of the leading Yorkshire attractions. But the large open space alongside it, while kept clean and tidy is, well... dull. Not much more than a lawn, some parking, and a children’s playground. All fair enough, but hardly zinging on the eye.

And this is where Stuart-Smith comes in. It is the 20th anniversary of him establishing his own business in 1998, and from that date, he has been involved in designing, re-designing, and creating scores of gardens and public spaces across the UK and around the globe. His Yorkshire work includes Mount St John. His is an almost annual high-profile appearance at the Chelsea Flower Show, where he has been awarded no less than eight Gold Medals – three of which were given added kudos by being named as Best in Show. You can see how he works his magic if you visit places as varies as RHS Wisley, the prestigious Connaught Hotel in London, Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park, and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee garden at Windsor Castle.

Tom has tackled the climates of places as diverse as India, the US and the Caribbean, and he has always come up trumps. And now, after all that, he’s turning his attention to Wakefield. His birthday is on February 14, the day when love is declared – and Tom’s mission is to “put some love back into The Hepworth’s garden spaces”. It is, he concedes with a chuckle, “very much a blank canvas, but an amazing space. Who couldn’t resist a challenge like this? You have the ultra-modern Gallery itself, the water, the traffic, and those old warehouses and their Georgian-Victorian brickwork... I don’t think that I’ve ever come across such a remarkable combination.

“The first thing that we are going to do is to create a sympathetic wall alongside the road, so that the whole area will be transformed into a sort of piazza space. I have to assure you that the wall will in no way cut off The Hepworth. The gallery and the land around it is open to all, throughout the day. It is an important public area, it belongs to the people of the city, and to the visitors. We will be forging a relationship between place and those people. But what that wall will do is to give the garden an integrity of its own. We are going to deliver a sense of intimacy, but also a sense of space. After all, we are talking 3,200 square metres here.”

Tom Stuart-Smith is a three-time Best in Show winner at Chelsea Flower Show.

Tom Stuart-Smith is a three-time Best in Show winner at Chelsea Flower Show.

The scheme, of course, has to be paid for, and budgets are tight. But The Hepworth was delighted by a grant from the G and K Boyes Charitable Trust – of an impressive £100,000 – which was added to the already banked £250,000 which came from the Garfield Weston Foundation, generous support from many private donors and half the prize money that The Hepworth landed when it was named Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2017. To date, that’s about 40 per cent of the total that will be required, but the momentum is by no means slowing down.

Tom is clear that he sees his involvement as giving The Hepworth an outdoor extension. “I want it to be a series of interesting angles, where nothing quite lines up, things are unexpected, where there are no parallels, and plenty of pleasant surprises – what you might call a ‘pastoral patchwork’ approach. I’ve always wanted to offer places where people feel that they are discovering what no one else has seen. It’s really lovely and personally very rewarding when you hear someone say ‘Well, fancy. I’ve been here 20 times, and I’ve never noticed that before!’ They feel, in their own individual way, transformed.”

There will also be a sensory area, and keen attention is being paid to colour – but also to smell. “What good is a rose,” says Tom, “if it doesn’t have a delicious scent?”

Tom admits that he “acts like a magpie” when it comes to finding inspiration. “I remember being in Barcelona when I was about 17 or 18, and being bowled over by their use of open areas. And of course, which gardener does not, even after your very first visit, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Sissinghurst and Hidcot?”

An artist's impression of the new garden.

An artist's impression of the new garden.

Another challenge in Wakefield will be to make the garden interesting all the year round. “You cannot possibly entertain the idea, not for a single second, that this is a ‘spring and summer garden’,” says Tom. “It has to be as beautiful in February as it is in June, as attractive in November as it is in April. Gardens are for appreciating and enjoying for 365 days, not just for a few weeks. Plants are with us all year. And I have to admit that I really do love the opportunities of projects which have a strong social and community side to them. This will be a further asset, and a big one, for all the people who live nearby. The message has to be ‘Here we are, come on in!’”

“The other thing, naturally, is the opportunity to work with people who know the local plants, to talk to the folk at the Sculpture Park, and at RHS Harlow Carr and to get their ideas. Being part of revitalising the area is an enormous privilege, believe me, and I can promise that the waterfront will be transformed into a destination point in its own right, encouraging people to come over and explore this side of the city. It goes without saying that we’ve all been to Dame Barbara Hepworth’s own garden in St Ives in Cornwall, just to see how she tackled her own constrictions of space and display of her sculptures.”

Another bonus is the warehouses are – it is hoped – going to be revitalised to provide retail opportunities, cafes, and studios for creatives. There may even be a hotel here. Tom plans low-maintenance planting, with meadow beds, lots of wildflowers and grasses. “Come 2020, this will be a glorious garden, a blossoming and welcoming amenity bought into life,” he says. “The playground won’t vanish, it will be redesigned and expanded. The road to it will be realigned. That’s the way that you get the visitors of tomorrow – get the youngsters of today.”

Simon Wallis, the Hepworth’s director, says that this new amenity will be “world class”. In the next few months, trees, bulbs, varieties of anemone and late flowering asters, will all be going in. Tom praises the Hepworth team highly. “They have the gift of true engagement with their visitors. They know what people want, and they deliver. Not in a ‘we know best’ way, but because they listen. They engage. This Hepworth commission has really energised me. I love the city, I love the gallery, I love the way that the people here have such a commitment. I hope that they are going to love my – sorry, their! – garden.”

The Hepworth opened in 2011.

The Hepworth opened in 2011.

Public talk on plans

Tom Stuart-Smith will give an in-depth insight into his plans for The Hepworth Riverside Gallery garden at a public talk in November.

The event will take place between 6.30pm and 8pm on Wednesday, November 28 at The Hepworth, with tickets costing £15 or £10 for members.

All proceeds from the event will goes towards funding the garden.

Tom will also discuss his past projects, which have included Mount St John in Yorkshire, and a new garden at Windsor Castle commissioned by the Royal Household to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

For more information or to book tickets, visit https://hepworthwakefield.org/whats-on/talk-by-tom-stuart-smith.