Dr Helen Pheby: Sculpture for sheep & rhubarb trains; the place ‘extraordinary’ can happen

Mar 30 2020

Dr Helen Pheby talks to David Oakes about art, 'God's Own County' and the tongues of sheep.

David Oakes

David Oakes


Dr Helen Pheby


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About this episode:

Dr Helen Pheby is the head of curatorial programmes at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Set in 500 acres of historic parkland, the park has provided a “gallery without walls” for artists such as Elisabeth Frink, Auguste Rodin, Giuseppe Penone, and local legends such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Helen has collaborated on projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, South Africa, India, and even Barnsley! Born in the so-called ‘rhubarb triangle’, Helen reminisces over “the rhubarb express”, a train which ran from her village in Yorkshire to London, and muses over how magical it was being able to see the contrast between rural and urban environments. In this insightful conversation, Helen explains how she believes creativity and art is a human right, how the YSP was visited by Henry VIII, and how another Henry, Henry Moore, believed it was the job of artists to show people the natural world and subsequently designed artwork for sheep. She explains how the Sculpture Park aims to be inclusive, free from the barriers of social standing, wealth and a gender imbalance that art is often associated with. Subsequently, the YSP is now home to brain-controlled helicopters, women on horseback steeplechasing through the landscapes of the First World War, and all of this second to the migratory routes of the Great Crested Newt. In her own words: “We are places the extraordinary can happen.”

David's thoughts:

David Nash, “Black Mound”, 2013. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Jonty Wilde.

At the time of writing this blog (March 25th 2020), the world remains in the grip of COVID19, and the YSP is now unfortunately closed to the public. Subsequently, I hope this episode does a couple of things:

  1. Keeps your spirits up whilst on lockdown
  2. Gives you something to look forward to once the lockdown is over.

The breadth of my discussion with Helen (recorded back in August 2019) pleased me greatly at the time, and continues to now. I remain merrily stunned by the historical scope we got through in less than an hour: the local area being deemed a wasteland in the Domesday Book, Henry the VIII coming to stay, the area’s rich mining and rhubarb heritage – we even leaned into international affairs with the CIA potentially attempting to relocate the Art scene to New York. Nothing was off limits.

More anecdotally, as I drove down to the YSP from York, I spent most of the journey stuck behind the Natural History Museum’s lorry that was transporting “Dippy” the Diplodocus around the UK on it’s Grand Tour having been replaced by “Hope”, the Blue Whale skeleton. History, wildlife, and the proximity to both, were never far away from me early on this cool August morning.

With all we are having to deal with in the current moment, whether fear or genuine loss, it is perhaps important to remember that this time will at some stage be viewed similarly as an historical event. A time of tragedy, but also a time when people came together. A time when artists were forced to probe their creativities from within their own quarantines (even if that meant papering Instagram with content that may have benefitted from a little more rehearsal). Most importantly, hopefully, this could be a time when hard-earned lessons were etched into our social conscience.

[You can find a number of articles talking about the importance of Green politics in regards to COVID19 – I suggest this article by Fiona Harvey might be a good place to start: Covid-19 economic rescue plans must be green, say environmentalists.]

Henry Moore saw the job of artists as showing the world how to see nature. As fewer planes line our skies, and as inhabitants of the British Isles (and many others) head outside for their one form of exercise a day, you have to ask whether in these extreme times that is still the case. The birds seem louder. The spring buds seem greener. Nature seems more present than I can ever remember. Surely, this is just a shift in perspective. But it is also a warning. Normally we don’t know what we’ve lost until it has been taken from us. On this occasion, when we arrive on the other side of COVID19, now is where society will hopefully learn its lessons.

With that in mind, let me remind you that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a place that prioritises the migratory routes of the Great Crested Newt ahead of the art on it’s grounds, and hosts work by Henry Moore that was made to be enhanced by the raspy tongues of sheep. If ever there was a place that epitomises the value of living at one with nature, perhaps it is here.



Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook

The Horseman – Tim Pears



Dr Helen Pheby:

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/helen.pheby/

Twitter –  https://twitter.com/helen_pheby

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Pheby

Yorkshire Sculpture Park:

Web – https://ysp.org.uk/

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/yspsculpture/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/YSPsculpture

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorkshire_Sculpture_Park


The Heritage of the YSP – https://ysp.org.uk/about-ysp/heritage

Rhubarb Triangle (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhubarb_Triangle

“Kes” (1969) – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064541/

Henry Moore (Wikipedia) – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Moore

Henry Moore Foundation – https://www.henry-moore.org/

Chacmool sculpture (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chacmool

Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (Wikipedia) – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

Giuseppe Penone (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_Penone

Dennis Oppenheim – https://ysp.org.uk/openair/trees-from-alternative-landscape-components

Anthony Caro (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Caro

Peter Murray (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Murray_(Yorkshire_Sculpture_Park)

Jenna Burchell – http://jennaburchell.com/

Barbara Hepworth (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth Musuem – https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-st-ives/barbara-hepworth-museum-and-sculpture-garden

Great Crested Newts – https://www.froglife.org/info-advice/amphibians-and-reptiles/great-crested-newt/

Charles Waterton (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Waterton

Herbert Read (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Read

Joan Miro (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Mir%C3%B3

Katrina Palmer and ‘The Coffin Jump’ – https://ysp.org.uk/films/katrina-palmer-the-coffin-jump

Hemali Bhuta and ‘Speed Breakers’ – https://ysp.org.uk/openair/speed-breakers

Niki de Saint Phalle: Joy of Living – https://ysp.org.uk/exhibitions/nikidesaintphalle

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch – https://www.ghostranch.org/explore/georgia-okeeffe/

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