Discovering Hepworth, Abstract Sculpture & St Ives (inside the Artist’s Studio)

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On a brisk winter’s morning in the coastal town of St Ives, we negotiated our way down the steep lanes, past whitewashed slate-roofed cottages to Trewyn Studio.

Home to one of Britain’s most important twentieth-century artistsDame Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth (1903 – 1975), who lived and worked here for more than 25 years.

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Trewyn Studio – now the Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden, St Ives, Cornwall

Her secluded garden studio lies behind the white arched doorway and protective stone walls to the right of the house. The property is now owned by Tate gallery but has been left as close as possible to when she worked in the gardens under the Cornish light and amongst the seagulls.

Hepworth, 1963 with unfinished wood carving Hollow Form with White Interior, photograph by Val Wilmer

Primarily a sculptor, Barbara Hepworth was a leading figure of the international modern art movement in the 1930s.

Fiercely ambitious with great talent, her works were amongst the earliest abstract sculptures produced in Britain, carved wood and stone, tactile bronzes, much of her work massive and monumental.

Hepworth’s art was all about relationships.

Figures and the landscape, colour and texture. She took the shapes from nature, the rhythm of the sea, sand dunes, of birds in flight or the human figure and translated them into the contours of her pieces.

Hepworth drawing on Rosewall, above St Ives, Cornwall 

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, Hepworth grew up surrounded by cobbled streets and industrial mill chimneys which lay in sharp contrast to the surrounding vast and open moorlands. Fascinated from early childhood with natural forms and textures, Hepworth decided at age 15 to become a sculptor.

All my early memories, the forms and shapes and textures, I remember moving through the landscape with my father in his car and the hills were sculptures, the roads defined the forms.

Feeling, seeing, touching through the mind, the eye, and the hand. The touch and texture of things, sculpture, rock, myself and the landscape. This sensation has never left me I, the sculptor, I am the landscape.

Barbara Hepworth

Early works

She studied for a year at Leeds School of Art, with fellow student Henry Moore, striking up a friendly rivalry that would last professionally for many years. Rather than modelling a sculpture in clay or plaster before handing to a foundry to cast, they both took the approach of direct carving. This is a more traditional hands-on method, having an affinity with the material and taking ownership of the whole process from beginning to end.

“Carving to me is more interesting than modelling because there is an unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration”

Barbara Hepworth

Following further studies at the Royal College of Art, now in her early 20’s, Hepworth was awarded a West Riding Scholarship for one year’s travel abroad. She went to Italy visiting Florence, Siena and Rome, where she met and later married sculptor John Skeaping.

The couple lived in Rome and both learnt to carve marble from the master sculptor and craftsman, Giovanni Ardini. Visiting the marble quarries at Carrara taught them invaluable practical techniques for moving such huge pieces of stone.

“Italy opened for me the wonderful realm of light – light which transforms and reveals, which intensifies the subtleties of form and contours and colour”

Barbara Hepworth

They moved back to London, set up a studio and their son Paul was born in 1929, although this marriage wasn’t to last.

Hepworth carving one of her earlier figurative pieces Head, 1930

Abstraction

Hepworth fascinated by abstraction and emerging concepts on the continent became part of an art movement in Hampstead that included Henry Moore and abstract painter Ben Nicholson, whom she later married.

Together Hepworth and Nicholson spent time travelling throughout Europe visiting studios of their contemporaries and meeting other artists. From Brancusi, Picasso, Braque, Mondrian to Kandinsky, all having a big influence on her outlook and aesthetic as a sculptor.

Her early works were simple naturalistic forms, but by the early 30s, she was creating purely abstract work, but it wasn’t just modern sculpture Hepworth had a passion for. Establishing their home in London, their studio became a meeting place for other contemporary artists to discuss these new ideas and concepts. Bringing abstract ideas to the public, looking at realistic objects in purely abstract shapes and colours.

In 1933, Hepworth and Nicholson were invited to become members of the Paris based group Abstraction-Création, with which Hepworth exhibited in 1934. Later that year things got even busier when the Nicholson-Hepworth triplets were born.

Abstract & Concrete exhibition, 1936

In 1936, Hepworth became part of the groundbreaking Abstract & Concrete exhibition which opened in Oxford, it was the first International exhibition of abstract art in Britain. The show included the work of Mondrian, Kandinsky, Arp, Giacometti, Miró, Calder, Moholy-Nagy, Hélion, Nicholson, Hepworth, Moore and Gabo.

This reads like a ‘who’s who’ of abstract artists but at the time, the exhibition was seen as a bit of a joke. It was only after touring to Liverpool and Cambridge that a London Gallery expressed any interest in showing the work at all.

Mondrian who throughout his life didn’t experience great wealth through his work, showed 3 paintings each for sale at £50.

Only 2 of them sold (and one of them to the exhibition organiser)

In 2015 a Mondrian sold for in excess of $50 million!

Hepworth in St Ives

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View from Tate, St Ives

In 1939 as political unrest spread throughout Europe, a number of artists relocated to Cornwall, attracted by the already established community of painters, St Ives was also far enough away from London to be a haven from looming war.

By the end of the year Hepworth, Nicholson and family had joined them, encouraged by Adrian Stokes, an art critic, closely followed by their friend abstract sculptor Naum Gabo and his wife Mariam.

Three influential abstract artists now living in St Ives.

This remote coastal town is surrounded by the sea with turquoise waters next to angular rugged rocks, palm trees and almost tropical plants sit amongst yellow ochre-tinged slate rooftops.

It was amongst this romantic, wild landscape that Hepworth settled to create her living, working studio for the next 25 years.

The Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden

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Brilliant light clarifies every colour and standing in her garden you could believe you were in the Mediterranean. The precise forms of her sculpture have a clean cut beauty, the surfaces textural and tactile, Hepworth stated that she thought “every sculpture must be touched”.

Her use of circular shapes and cutouts within the pieces offer brilliant glimpses of ‘scenes’ within the garden space, it was this piercing of a solid form that most intrigued her about the shapes.

“When I first pierced a shape, I thought it was a miracle, a new vision was opened.”

Dame Barbara Hepworth

The way that the light hits the central bronze ellipse shape, frames the view and makes it feel much more like a tropical rainforest than an overcast day in England.

Hepworth in Trewyn garden with Cantate Domino, c. 1958

Hepworth acquired Trewyn Studio in September 1949 and immediately began working and living there.

“It is completely perfect for me”, she wrote to Philip James, Director of Art at the Arts Council. 

“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.”

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Hepworth initially used the large upper room of the house for wood-carving but after her divorce in 1951, this room gradually became her main living space, as well as her bedroom, with a simple kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor.

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To the left of the photo above, you can see a small white outbuilding. Inside is a single bed, much in the style of Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Sorolla, it seems a daybed, extremely close to your working space is of high importance to the working artist life!

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As you step into the garden and outside studio spaces, you’re first hit by the combination of large-scale metal sculptures amongst an abundance of plants and trees. The metal has this fantastic deep green colour and I love the way Hepworth uses the inner warmth of bronze against it.

When you have the white plinths and the warmer terracotta pots you get this fabulous balance of colours. Some of my favourite Hepworth pieces have these fine lines built into the interiors, they remind me of architectural bridges and supports like they’re hanging onto the inner edges.

Most of the bronzes are in their original positions, laid out by Barbara Hepworth with help from a friend, the composer Priaulx Rainier.

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The stone carving studio and yard became the centre of her creative output. From the vivid greens outside, the working studio space has a simplicity of white. You can also get an idea of the scale of some of Hepworth’s pieces. I like how the once terracotta floor tiles are now a muted blush pink from all the years of plaster dust in the air.

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The first studio space is filled full of fantastic hand tools and materials used for carving. Many of the tools have reminiscent geometric shapes of the sculptures, from the white circle within the dark circle of the sanding tool to the hard sharp lines of the metal hammers. You can also see a bundle of string in the toolbox which became an integral part of the sculptures.

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Hanging on the wooden door are Hepworth’s well-used work overalls.

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A quick sketch of an arrangement of metal hammers, I love how you’ve got these strong angular blocks next to the circular plates and guides, dotted around the space. I used a Muji 0.5mm fine liner for the main sketch and then a Pentel brush ben for adding the darkest darks. There is a subtle grey using a number 75 marker from Tombow.

water-colour-hepworth-tools

Once this was drawn out I added a few dashes of watercolour using Winsor & Newton watercolour pans and a Pentel Aquash brush pen. The colours were a mix of Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre, and Ultramarine Blue, with a touch of a Cadmium Red on the handle.

The same palette of terracotta, white and green continues in one of the sunrooms in the corner of the garden.

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There was something about the simplicity of the construction of this building that was appealing. To the left of the frame is a tall exterior wall that the corrugated roof has been attached to. It created such a calm space within a potentially underused corner of the garden.

The later years

Over the following 25-years, her working practice and development of the studios evolved, her strong work ethic never wavering.

“She would start work at eight in the morning and go on till six. She’d stop for dinner, then draw from eight till ten at night. She did that without fail, all the years I knew her.”

David Lewis, Hepworth’s studio assisant

Hepworth received many commissions for public sculptures in the second half of her career, one of the most famous is Single Form for the United Nations building in New York (1961–4).

Hepworth loved her sculptures to be seen outside of the museum environment, reacting to the light and the seasons that inspired them. Hepworth once wrote: “Imagine the critic having to climb a hill, or walk a mile through a forest … to see a sculpture.” 

Hepworth working on Curved Form, Bryce II, 1961

In 1960 Hepworth increased her working space by acquiring a cinema and dance studio, the Palais de Danse, just across the street from Trewyn. This additional studio was essential for the construction of her large scale bronzes.

Still relentlessly driven, smoking cigars, drinking whisky and wearing unconventional clothes, during her last decade, she created more sculptures than she had done in the previous thirty years.

“The last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth,” she wrote, in 1971. “I have found a greater freedom for myself.”

She was one of the few female artists of her generation to achieve international recognition.

Sadly Hepworth died in an accidental fire at her Trewyn studios on 20 May 1975 at the age of 72.  

As she wished, her home and studio have been opened up to the public, giving an amazing snapshot into her life, and much of the artist’s work has been given to the nation placed in the care of the Tate Gallery.

Tate St Ives

The Tate St Ives has recently re-opened after a two-year expansion plan. They mainly show works by British artists with links to Cornwall and the St Ives area and faced limited space restrictions for building to the side of the gallery (they had some carving to do of their own!) They came up with an ingenious solution of digging deep into the granite hillside behind the original gallery.

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This view is from the rear of the gallery and on the left, you can see a number of rectangular skylights. They illuminate the new gallery space below and the light level can be controlled by blinds to balance the interior gallery lighting (on my light meter it was around 40-50 lux on my visit)

It’s one huge open space that can be split into different arrangements of movable internal walls, pretty impressive!

The fishing lofts adopted by the St Ives artists in the 1940s were rough constructions in stone with exposed timber joists for their ceilings. These have been adapted into concrete beams to span the 16.5m width of the gallery. Above these sit six large light chambers diffusing the beautiful light of St Ives which brought the artists here a century ago.

Jamie Fobert Architects

They’re also perfect for shadow selfies!

beach-squid-st-ives-porthmeor beach cafe

Just opposite the museum entrance is a fab beach cafe (Porthmeor beach cafe), crispy fried salt and pepper squid, crab sandwiches with aioli dip and a couple of brews were the perfect gallery refresher!

On the empty St Ives beach, you can see the fab textures and curves formed by the movement of the sea.

This whole coastline is really fantastic and the sculpture garden gave a real glimpse into Hepworth’s inspiration from the area. We left feeling energized and excited by the idea of an outside working studio space, with a daybed of course!

You can read more about visiting here: Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden

OPENING TIMES
Tuesday to Sunday

This Post Has 78 Comments

  1. Thanks Will what a great article! Looks like a lovely place to visit!

  2. Another educated and thoughtful article. The pictures really help to show us the artist’s work, studio and environment. This should bring a lot of people to St. Ives to appreciate her work.
    Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Hey Sherrie, pleased you enjoyed reading about Hepworth.
      Will

  3. What a great article Will! I visited the Studio back in 2002 and thoroughly enjoyed it. John

    1. Thanks John, glad you had a chance to visit.
      Cheers,
      Will

  4. Very nice article. Great information and inspiration. Thanks so much for keeping me in the loop!

  5. Nothing inspires me more than your narrative art adventures. Often, the beauty of location & artist works bring me to tears of appreciation & then to pure joy for your choice of edibles (even though I’m vegan)! No doubt, you’ve been encouraged to write a book! Please DO.
    I remain a true fan in “troubled” USA.
    Val0rie P

    1. That’s very kind of you to say so Val0rie, so pleased you enjoy them.
      Will

  6. Great read, thank you will and happy new year to you

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this trip to her studio! Loved the read!

  8. Cheers, Will,
    Another wonderful glimpse into an artist’s life and work. Even though I cannot declare abstract works to be my primary personal taste, I discovered much about Dame Hepworth’s sculptures to intrigue and delight. St Ives, and Cornwall itself, are so alluring to those of us who have only read about them. Your wonderful articles bring them to life.

    Oh, and I like your less-than-resolute New Year’s attitude…chocolate and no gym! Roll on 2019!

    1. Ha, ha, pleased you enjoyed the resolutions Helene!
      Cheers,
      Will

  9. Really enjoyed your discriptions and photos. Having never heard of Barbara Hepworth, I was intrigued by her life’s story, created a bright spot in my day, thank you.

  10. What a lovely place! Hepworth’s sculptures are new for me. I love what she did! Great home and gardens, too! I know this visit must have been inspiring! Cornwall sounds divine!

    1. Pleased you enjoyed learning about her work Su.
      Cheers,
      Will

  11. Thank you for this latest post. Fascinating artist and who wouldn’t want to have a studio like that full of light and the perfect setting to put all your creative energy to work! Love the idea of the little garden house and daybed too, great for contemplating your next project or just the next step. Painting/sculpting can be mentally taxing, for me anyway.

    Kind regards Colleen

    1. Cheers Colleen, yes it felt a great space to work within.
      Will

  12. Fascinating, thank you for bringing her work to light for me. The calamari and brews were THE perfect ending to what seemed a fun filled day!

    1. So glad you enjoyed reading the article Deb.
      Will

  13. Amazing job my dear English Teacher…

  14. Lovely and inspiring

  15. A marvellous read! Thanks so much for painting such a fascinating picture of the life of this artist and her work!

  16. Very interesting article. Haven’t visited St, Ives for many years but I am inspired to return and visit Barbara Hepworth’s gallery on our next trip to the
    U.K. In the summer

    1. That’s great to hear Christine, so pleased you enjoyed it.
      Will

  17. Thank you for this. Learning about other artists, in other times, other corners of the world, their process…it’s really magical and inspiring. Feels good. I think the world could use a big dose of this these days. I also fell in love with that studio!

    1. My pleasure Louise, so pleased you’re feeling inspired.
      Will

  18. I really enjoyed your article Will – it has inspired me to read more about her life.

  19. Loved looking and reading About Dame Hepworth. It was an education for me, as I didn’t know anything about her. Cornwall and St. Ives look beautiful. Loves seeing it all. Many thanks, and a great 2019.

    1. Thanks very much Kathleen, pleased you enjoyed learning about the studio.
      Will

  20. Simply beautiful.

  21. Thank you for such an insightful article. You have a great ability to inspire, Will!

  22. Thanks for your great insight into an artist I have recently been looking into. You have convinced me that my next trip to England will definitely include Cornwall. I always get excited when your emails arrive as I know there will be something interesting in them.

    1. So pleased it was timely to your research Jennifer,
      Cheers,
      Will

  23. OMG Will, you always educate with such inclusion, I wouldn’t know half as much about art and its influences without your lovely emails, good luck on getting the daybed!

    1. That’s great to hear Lennie, really pleased you’ve been enjoying the articles.
      Cheers,
      Will

  24. So much accomplished, and yet it leaves me wondering if in her heart she was lonely. Thanks to much, Will!!
    God bless, C-Marie

  25. Happy and Blessed 2019 to you and your family Will. Many more creative and teaching years are wished for you. You are a teacher who likes to share and see your students grow at their own pace. I enjoy what you offer through your website. Thank you!!
    Thank you also Will for always sharing of your artistic sojourns… you have added a chapter to my art education on Barbara Hepworth’s ..article on sculpture / garden…I love nature and am fascinated and awe struck each time with everything it offers humanity…space, shape, water, colors, hues, tones, materials in stones, pebbles, drift wood, flora and fauna …so many things that draw an artist to them..An informative and interesting article and giving us the glimpse of Cornwall.

    1. Thanks so much Margaret, really pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons and glad to introduce Hepworth to you.
      Cheers,
      Will

  26. Wow! Great article, Will. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into these articles.
    Mike (Ottawa, Canada)

  27. Wonderful artwork and presentation! Thanks very much. Regards, Maria

  28. Wonderful article Will….you never disappoint! Thank You.

  29. I have been a follower of your school for a number of years now and enjoy so much hearing you speak about the art you create as you teach us to do the same. Though I am in the United States and have limited opportunity to travel, I enjoy your narratives about the places you visit but, more so, when you write about the lives of artists you admire. For me, the stories are aspirational and encouraging to continue to work on the small projects I manage to carve out of the time available. Thanks for all you do for those of us who love pursuing art.

    Matt Lambert

    1. My absolute pleasure Matt, thanks for your kind comments.
      Will

  30. Thank you for your inspiring account and images Will. I can’t wait to visit the Hepworth studio this year. I visited Henry Moore’s home when training to teach art in the 1960s. I was wowed then and expect to be wowed again by Barbara’s work.

    1. Really hope you get to catch them Maureen.
      Cheers,
      Will

  31. Thank you for another interesting “tour” for us to enjoy. Hepworth’s work is not my cup of tea — too cold and boring to get my interest. Was interested in your piece on her and her work, though. Thanks again, and God bless you!

  32. Will, your article was a delight to read and inspiration! Thank you for sharing about your trip to the Hepworth studio.

    1. My pleasure Deborah, really glad you enjoyed it.
      Will

  33. Thank you for writing such an interesting review of one of my favorite artists. Cornwall is now definitely on our list when we visit England. What I wouldn’t do for one of her pieces in my modest backyard?!!

  34. Aloha Will – thanks for the update on Barb Hepworth. She was an early-on hero to me when I was studying sculpture, but I turned toward figurative in the direct carving field. Still, that woman had guts and determination a-plenty and for me she remains a flag bearer for those who want to walk their own path in art.

    Carry on……….ciao

    1. Cheers Michael, really pleased you enjoyed it.
      Will

  35. Your articles are always welcome Will. I really enjoy the way you write your trip experience giving to us so much valuable information. Till your next trip article be well

    1. Thanks so much Katerina, glad you enjoy them.
      Will

  36. Hi Will
    I was lucky enough to visit Barbara Hepworth’s studio recently too, after I’d finished a fantastic three day course at the wonderful St Ives School of Painting. There were no other visitors around so I had a very moving visit, just me, the sculptures and the spirit of a great artist. It was a beautiful day with the sun shining on the plants intermingled with the works. An amazing and profound experience. Thanks for the great post, it brought it all back.

    1. So pleased it brought back good memories of your trip Sue.
      Cheers,
      Will

  37. Thanks Will. Very interesting. Happy New Year!

  38. Thanks Will for all your shared research, you are a marvel!! Get back to the gym though, we need you to keep in good shape. (The more you exercise the more chocolate (dark) you may eat.) And definitely no cigars and whisky please.
    Love your work.
    XX Liz

    1. Ha, ha, so glad you enjoyed it Liz.
      Will

  39. Greetings Will , and thank you for that great feature on Barbara Hepworth . I am looking forward to going to St. Ives some day soon and seeing all those works -and , of course , her studio .
    Hope you have a great year ahead .
    Patrick Halloran .

    1. Cheers Patrick, really glad you enjoyed it.
      Will

  40. Well, this was a lovely diversion from a frosty, Indiana, winter morning. I didn’t know much (or anything really) about Barbara Hepworth, and I feel like I’ve had a chance to visit her home and studio. This is a real treat and I appreciate you sharing your adventures with those of us who can’t travel. Perhaps now I will add St Ives to my bucket list. Thanks so much, Will. You inspire me in more ways than one.

    1. So pleased you enjoyed it Elizabeth, glad you enjoyed learning about Hepworth.
      Cheers,
      Will

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