Michael Lyons’ Ancient and Modern show of outdoor sculptures to close on April 11

Becky Gee, curator of Fine Art at York Art Gallery, with Michael Lyons’ 1993 sculpture Amphitrite in the Artists Garden in May 2019. Picture: Charlotte Graham

THE last chance to see Ancient And Modern, Cawood sculptor Michael Lyons’ valedictory outdoor exhibition in York, is fast approaching.

The free display of large-scale sculpture in York Art Gallery’s Artists Garden and Edible Wood will close on April 11.

On show in the late Michael’s biggest ever exhibition on York soil are nine works created between 1982 and 2000, inspired by nature, myth and ancient cultures, with the central space dominated by Amphitrite, a large painted steel structure evoking the sea that he fashioned in 1993. 

Becky Gee, curator of Fine Art at York Art Gallery, says: “Michael’s incredible work has been shown around the world and in some of the most respected art institutions, and we’ve loved exhibiting it in the gardens here, feeling honoured to have housed his first large-scale exhibition in York, his home city.” 

Opened in late-May 2019, Ancient And Modern originally was booked to run until May 2020, but has remained in place through these pandemic times. “We were so pleased to be able to extend the exhibition and keep it open for visitors to enjoy on their daily walks through the gardens,” Becky continues. 

“The sculptures have brought a new dimension to the unique space and we’re thrilled with the positive response. The works complement and contrast with the ancient walls of St Mary’s Abbey and the more rustic landscapes of the Edible Wood, truly suiting their garden setting, and it’s been fascinating to see how they change as the seasons change how the gardens look.”

Cavalcade, by Michael Lyons, in the Artists Garden at York Art Gallery. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Before his sudden passing in April 2019, Michael Lyons said of the show: “To my knowledge, this is the first time such a large exhibition of outdoor sculpture has been shown in York – certainly for many years.

“It is a great pleasure to make a contribution to the cultural life of York in this way and I hope that the exhibition will help to make sculpture a more integral part of the city.” 

Becky recalls the “wonderful experience” of working on this exhibition with Michael before his passing. “His energy, warmth and creativity made a real impact on the gallery team and the show has proven to be a true celebration of the extraordinary skill and talent he possessed,” she says.

The York exhibition had been in the planning for many years, and once Becky took up her curator’s post in early 2019, she was able to work in tandem with Mr Lyons in the months before his death. They would liaise by phone and email and she visited his studio too.

“Michael was very enthusiastic, full of ideas, and spoke very eloquently about his sculptures, and he loved the space where they were to be exhibited. That inspired the Ancient And Modern title for the exhibition,” says the curator, who collaborated with the sculptor on the detailed wording to accompany each sculpture.

Working from the Cawood studio he established in 1977, Lyons’ sculptures range from small-scale to monumental, made in brass, bronze, clay and copper, with his exploration of the medium of steel resulting in an ambitious body of work equally at home in rural and urban landscapes.

Ancient And Modern exhibition curator Becky Gee is framed by Michael Lyons’ 1989 sculpture High Priest in the Artists Garden behind York Art Gallery. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Although the sculptures are abstract, their starting point is often figurative, as seen in the exhibits Ace (1982), Michaelmas (1982), Mayflower (1983), High Priest (1989), Cavalcade (1990), Hornblower (1992) and the companion pieces Harvest: Ceres’ Key (2000) and Harvest: Demeter’s Dream (2000), as well as Amphitrite.

“Sculptures can be hard to fully comprehend until you see them in front of you, but Michael’s works feel like they have landed here and been here forever,” says Becky.

“The beauty of them is that you can sit on a bench in the gardens and appreciate how each setting has been carefully chosen. That was very important to Michael’s family when they came to see us installing the sculptures.”

Becky’s favourite piece is Cavalcade, the work placed closest to the gallery walls. The most colourful is Mayflower, a yellow disc that evokes the sun, made at Mayflower Engineering in Sheffield, hence its name. Whatever the weather, radiant sunlight has continued to shine in the Artists Garden, thanks to Lyons.

“It’s been a privilege to have Ancient And Modern, and if you’re local we hope you’re able to enjoy the display before it closes,” concludes Becky.

Michael Lyons: Ancient And Modern, on show in the Artists Garden and Edible Wood, behind York Art Gallery, until April 11. Opening hours are 10.30am to 4.30pm daily; admission is free.