A Wakefield private school has been accused of “selling its heritage” after it revealed it was selling off two sculptures by former pupil Dame Barbara Hepworth, in an auction expected to raise £1m.
Old girls’ from Wakefield Girls’ High School (WGHS) are calling for the sale, to be held at Sotheby’s next month, to be halted, and the decision process behind the move to be examined.
Their campaign was by boosted by Hepworth’s granddaughter, an art historian, who said she “shares the dismay” felt by the former pupils and said the artist “would never have imagined” the works would one day by sold off.
As revealed in The Yorkshire Post last weekend, WGHS plan to sell the two sculptures, Quiet Form and Forms in Movement (Galliard) to fund new bursaries and educational opportunities in Hepworth’s name, after the price of insuring the works rocketed due to the increasing price paid for the artist’s work.
But the former students say the pieces are an important part of the school’s history and selling them would go against Hepworth’s wishes. They are also claiming a “lack of transparency” in the way the school has gone about selling the works.
The idea that the memorial to Miss Knott, Quiet Form, is thought of by the school as something that could be sold is mind boggling. People feel genuinely betrayed.Former student Carol Atack
Former pupil Wendy Henry, of Ripon, North Yorkshire, has urged the school to stop the sale.
She said many of the former pupils “are suspicious of the motives behind the decision”.
Mrs Henry said: “Surely due process would dictate that all options to keep the pieces in the school should be looked at before moving to sell them, including appealing to all former and current stakeholders for financial assistance?”
Hepworth’s granddaughter, art historian and a trustee of the Hepworth Estate, Dr Sophie Bowness, told The Yorkshire Post that she shared the dismay “that’s been voiced by many at the decision of the Governors”.
“The school will lose an important part of its heritage with the sale of their Hepworth sculptures,” she added.
The first piece, Galliard, was provided to the school in 1960 at a reduced price of just 200 guineas to celebrate the opening of its new gymnasium.
Dr Bowness said: “She was thrilled that it was to become part of the life of the school, and would never have imagined that the school would one day sell it.”
The second piece, Quiet Form, was made specially by Hepworth as a retirement present for her friend, then-headmistress Margaret Knott in 1973. Although she waived her sculptor’s fee, the costs were paid for by the school’s Parent and School Association, with parents and the school donating towards the cost.
Miss Knott, who died in 2014 at the age of 100, gave the piece to the school for display in 2003.
Former student Carol Atack, who attended between 1975 and 1982 and is now a lecturer in history at the University of Warwick, said: “I was at the school in the late 1970s when the sculptures were on display and it was a real inspiration to hear about a woman who could go from Wakefield to take on the world and become an international figure. Having a visible and tangible link to Barbara Hepworth was really important.
“These pieces are part of the school’s history. Their value is not in what they can bring at auction, but what they commemorate and represent.
“The idea that the memorial to Miss Knott, Quiet Form, is thought of by the school as something that could be sold is mind boggling. People feel genuinely betrayed.”
Marketing consultant Ruth McNeil, who left WGHS in 1964, said the acquisition of Galliard represented her “first close acquaintance with high art” and that for her and many of the students, it had an important role in making us appreciate the role that art can play in the world.
In her letter to governors, she pleaded with the school to loan the sculptures to The Hepworth Wakefield where they could continue to inspire the school’s pupils.
A spokesperson for the gallery, which put both pieces on display for its opening exhibition, said it did not have an acquisitions budget to buy the pieces, but would be “delighted” to present the two works in the future if there was an opportunity to do so.
A spokesperson for WGHS said it had received a “very balanced” postbag from a cross-section of its old girls since the story ran in The Yorkshire Post and the national press.
It said there has been “no lack of transparency” in the decision to sell. With regard to Quiet Form, Miss Knott did not place any specific requirements when gifting it to the school and its believes that the sale of these works for the benefit of scholarship at the school “is very much in her spirit, and something she would have supported”.
The sale of the artwork, he said, would give the school the chance to widen participation at the school, which “provides a broad, liberal education, in which the arts are valued”.
He added: “The Governors thought carefully about the impact of selling the two sculptures, across the whole school community, including parents, pupils and Old Girls.
“While we are grateful for the support of Old Girls across our careers, mentoring and philanthropic programmes, no one component element of the school community can hold disproportionate sway over the decisions of the Charity, especially when only a proportion of that group holds the view in question.”