I’m a big art lover and one of my favourite artists is Barbara Hepworth. I adore her sculptures which are being rediscovered by a new generation as a result of a major show at London’s Tate Britain.
A fascinating character, she carved a niche as a leading figure in a modern art world dominated by men in the 1930s and 1940s. Hepworth went on to become one of the most successful sculptors in the world during the 1950s and 1960s.
But it’s in the fishing town of St Ives in Cornwall where my journey begins. This is where one of Britain’s greatest artists was inspired to create her most memorable sculptures.
St Ives in Cornwall is one of the most popular towns in Britain for artists so it’s unsurprising that Barbara Hepworth moved here in 1939.
With its clear, blue skies, shimmering light, sandy beaches and cliff tops, it has been an inspiration to artists for decades.
It’s 30 years since I visited the town as a grumpy and slightly rebellious teenager so a proper adult trip was long overdue.
I was expecting St Ives to have changed quite a bit. But it’s much the same with pretty cobbled streets and a charming beach front. It’s a little scruffier than I remember, but the cultural scene has grown and stepped up a gear.
There’s the new Tate Gallery, overlooking the seafront, with its changing contemporary art exhibitions. The town’s cafe culture has become more eclectic too compared with the traditional scene of fish & chips and Cornish pasties that I remember in the 1980s.
But my trip to Barbara Hepworth’s house and studios proved to be the biggest revelation. What a remarkable place. Today, you can wander freely around the house and gardens which have been converted into a museum.
Tucked away and hidden by high walls, it was here that Hepworth created many of her iconic sculptures. Most of the house’s interior, workshops and outside gardens have been left as they would have looked in Barbara Hepworth’s time.
Once inside the house, it’s like walking back in time. It’s almost as if the great artist has popped out to the corner shop, leaving us to wander around her sculptural creations.
Sculptures in bronze, stone and wood are on display together with paintings and drawings, a feast for the senses.
Inside the house
Barbara Hepworth came to live in Cornwall with her husband Ben Nicholson and their young family in 1939 just as the Second World War broke out.
Hepworth described her joy of living and working in Cornwall in her writings: “Finding Trewyn Studio was a sort of magic. Here was a studio, a yard and garden where I could work in open air and space”.
Today, that magic lives on and it’s a thrilling experience as you step inside this house of artistic treasures.
When Barbara Hepworth first arrived at the Trewyn Studio, she worked mainly with stone, marble and wood. Many of these gorgeous pieces can be admired today in the main studio room.
My favourite sculpture is the beautiful Oval with Two Forms. This hollowed-out oval in pure white marble contains a smaller black piece in slate and a taller white shape. There is something mysterious and abstract about this piece that captured my imagination.
Another great work is a curved, wooden sculpture (see below) which reminds me of an elongated guitar with its delicate wire and elm case. It looks so curvaceous that it’s hard to resist touching it.
Barbara Hepworth lived and worked in the Trewyn studios from 1949 until 1975. The atmosphere of the house remains authentic but I was shocked to learn that Hepworth was accidentally killed in a house fire here. A tragic end to a great artist’s life.
Inside the sculpture garden
Once you move out to the sculpture garden, the artistic delights come thick and fast. Everywhere you look, there are iconic Hepworth pieces nestling in the scrubberies, dotted along the wooded walks and standing proudly on the lawns.
During the 1950s Barbara Hepworth started to experiment with making sculpture in bronze. The nature of this metal meant that her works became monumental in scale. There were too large to fit in the house so the garden was converted into a viewing area.
What’s great is that even today these bronzes in the garden are seen in the environment for which they were created.
The garden was laid out by Barbara Hepworth with help from a friend, the composer Priaulx Rainier. It feels intimate and welcoming, a world away from a stuffy art gallery.
Today, it looks much the same as it did when Hepworth lived in the house. It’s almost as if time has stood still.
It’s remarkable that most of the sculptures remain in the exact positions in which the artist placed them herself.
There’s a real joy in seeing an artist’s work in the place where they were created rather than in the artificial environment of an art gallery.
Sitting in the garden in the summer sunshine is like being home from home. The only difference is that these sculptures are worth millions of pounds.
Around every corner, there are surprising views of the sculptures which make this a photographer’s paradise. Don’t forget your camera.
Like her famous friend Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth has that uncanny ability to capture the inner essence of the materials she is working with.
The sculptures sit in their landscape naturally and become part of their environment, even in this small but perfectly formed garden. The garden’s high walls mean that it’s easy to lose yourself and imagine being somewhere exotic.
As you wander around the house and gardens, Barbara Hepworth comes alive as a person, not just an artist.
Her private life was sometimes difficult but she never lost her self-belief and determination. Hepworth married and divorced twice, both times to fellow artists. She was a mother to four children, three of whom were triplets.
She sacrificed so much in her pursuit of perfection. Her daughters were sent away to boarding school as youngsters whilst she worked away on her sculptures and carvings.
Although she remained focused on her career, Hepworth never stopped being maternal. In fact, the theme of maternity is often seen in her art and she loved creating ‘natural’ forms associated with birth and creation.
She also believed that being a mother nourished her art: “A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles – one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one’s mind.”
In 1951, her husband Ben Nicholson left her and Hepworth stayed on in St Ives in her Trewyn Studio after their divorce. In 1953 her son Paul was killed on a RAF mission in Malaya. What determination it must have taken to carry on alone.
Hepworth’s art is very much about relationships, especially those between the human figure and the landscape, colour and texture, and between people. No place is this better demonstrated than at the St Ives Sculpture Gardens.
The artist’s workshop
During her 50 year career, Barbara Hepworth made more than 600 works of sculpture, many created in her workshop which can also be seen at the Hepworth Museum.
People in St Ives remember her as an unassuming figure, walking unnoticed down the street to buy a loaf of bread from the bakery.
Inside the workshops, it’s hard to imagine how this petite artist grappled with great blocks of stone and bronze, controlling them and shaping them into works of true beauty.
Although you can’t go inside the workshop spaces, you can peer through the glass like a child looking into an artistic candy shop.
Not far away, inside the potting shed, you can see yet more of Hepburn’s sculptures and their fearless geometry.
During my visit, I got a real thrill from sheltering inside the shed, protected from the pouring rain, standing quietly amongst the Hepworth sculptures.
Barbara Hepworth at The Tate
Over in London, the Tate Britain is currently showing the first major retrospective of Hepworth’s work in five decades. It couldn’t feel further in ambience from the St Ives house and gardens.
The exhibition features over 70 works by Hepworth from major carvings and bronzes to less-familiar works and pieces by other artists from her circle, notably her husband Ben Nicholson.
The impressive show opens with Hepworth’s earliest surviving carvings from the 1920s alongside works by her predecessors and peers, from Jacob Epstein to Henry Moore.
Her early works also reveal the influence of Yorkshire and its landscape. Born in Wakefield, Hepworth grew up in a textile town surrounded by bleak moorlands and slabs of rock so it’s unsurprising that her sculptures draw on those elements.
Whilst Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures are instantly recognisable, her drawings and photographic works at The Tate come as a pleasant surprise.
Her experiments with photography and ‘photograms’ reveal her interest in shape and light. I’d never seen these works before and they are arresting pieces.
Also less well-known is the fact that Hepworth was a skilled draughtsman. When her daughter was in hospital in 1944, she became friends with the surgeon Norman Capener who invited her to view surgical procedures.
From these trips, she produced around 80 strikingly original drawings of operating rooms in chalk, ink, and pencil. It’s a joy to see them in the Tate show.
One of my favourite rooms in the exhibition reunites four of Hepworth’s large carvings in sumptuous African hardwood, the highpoint of Hepworth’s carving career.
After the Second World War, Hepworth’s sculpture became a prominent part of the international art scene and her work was featured in major shows.
The Tate has recreated one of these – her retrospective at the Kröller-Müller Museum in 1965 – with an impressive reconstruction of a display of bronzes from the museum’s Rietveld Pavilion.
One of the best things about the Tate show is the way it shows the diversity of Hepworth’s art including her sculptural work designed for the landscape, galleries and gardens as well as her theatre and textile designs.
But one of the frustrations is how little the exhibition mentions St Ives and the impact of Cornwall on the artist’s work, except for a 1950s TV film about Hepworth.
Figures in a Landscape places Hepworth’s sculptures alongside locations close to her home in St Ives – on cliff tops, beaches, promontories and gardens. It is here where her sculptures come alive.
The Hepworth show at the Tate is great but it cannot hold a candle to the St Ives house and sculpture garden which is more personal and rooted in the Cornish landscape.
Cornwall and the St Ives house are where Barbara Hepworth and her sculpture truly come alive.
A magical place locked in time.
Tammy’s Guide to Barbara Hepworth
The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is located in the centre of St Ives. It’s open daily 10.00–17.20 (except Christmas).
There’s a frequent rail service between London Paddington and St Ives via Reading, Exeter, Plymouth, Truro and Penzance. If you’re travelling by car, St Ives is a 15–20 minute drive from the A30.
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World is at the Tate Britain in London from 24 June-25 October 2015. It’s open 10:00-18:00 daily. Admission charges apply.
Another great place to see Barbara Hepworth’s work is the new Wakefield Gallery in Yorkshire.
A trip to the gallery can be combined with a visit to the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park which also boasts some outdoor Hepworth sculptures.