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Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St.Ives

Barbara Hepworth is arguably one of the greatest artists who has come out of Britain.

A contemporary of Henry Moore and champion of returning to natural forms and ways of creating, Hepworth shunted the advancements of electric tools in her sculpture studio for the more traditional (and bohemian) tools in order to create her monumental out-pour.

Spare a moment for the the physical implications of such a decision.

Time, strength, accuracy & more importantly, the belief in your skill to disregard modern day advancements which would have made her life so much easier when creating. And yet, Hepworth’s remained loyal to the ways which, for centuries, sculpture came to be.

It was not until I recently visited Hepworth’s Studio and Sculpture Garden that her reason for choosing a more traditional way of working clicked completely for me.

Hepworth moved her studio and young family to St Ives in 1939 on the on break of WW2 and was immediately inspired by the rugged coastline of Cornwall; a landscape shaped and formed from centuries of nature battering itself at a place where land, sky and sea meet. Hepworth founded her studio in a quiet back street of this small fishing village in c.1949.

Having already gain a reputation in London, she set about continuing her already abstract sculpture practise and in 1956 moved into casting some works in bronze, which further catapulted her into international stardom with large scale woks for John Lewis London and The United Nations building, New York.

What strikes me about Hepworth’s sculptures is just how tactile their minimalistic forms appear; and when placed within the context of her studio garden, seem to grow in strength and admirability.

I would describe the studio as ‘falling down the rabbit hole’. Stepping off a bustling street on an exceptionally hot day in St Ives, I was almost disheartened to enter the museum through a side door into a very humble white washed room.

Perhaps I was surprised by my own inflated assumption of where a ‘successful’ artist would choose to live & work but, much like her art, there is beauty in simplicity.

Something I so often forget.

It was the artist’s wish that her St.Ives studio would become a museum for people to visit, a request her estate set about making a reality almost immediately following her tragic death in 1975. Opening in 1976 but the estate, it has been looked after by Tate since1980.

Entering the humble first room, a displayed cabinet lining the space takes you on a ‘highlight walk-through’ of Hepworth’s life in the form of archive material. Pictures, medals and journal articles about the great artist lead you chronologically by the hand through her life, including her Damehood medal which she was awarded in 1965.

Although it was great to see the varied accomplishments and family photos of the artists, I found the layout a little dated and dry - I was soon to understand why.

Following the marked route, I climbed a small, crooked staircase into a large sitting room / come studio, filled with sculptural treasures from the great artist. Much like the surroundings, their forms were simplistic yet beautiful. The smooth inviting surfaces caused much delight and were undoubtedly, some of Hepworth’s maquettes for her great commissions.

As I followed the marked route once again, I found myself walking into the most inviting garden I believe I have ever laid my eyes on. It took my eyes a minute to adjust in the beating sun but I know, I had reached the main event.

Beautifully curated in both elements of greenery and sculpture, the simplicity of inside the studio suddenly made sense - it was Hepworth’s blank canvas for inspiration which the artist could move through before entering her garden studios to work. The detail and love within the garden made even more sense upon learning Hepworth worked outdoors here as much as possible.

Wandering around what felt like a sacred space, the silence is what I found most surprising; particularly as St.Ives was anything but the day I visited - a 35 degree day during an August bank holiday weekend.

I couldn’t help but close my eyes and imagine the hustle and bustle of busy studio life working under Hepworth who was, by all accounts, a hard taskmaster for her assistants. (No more so than her male counter parts would have been may I add.)

My true thoughts is this little slice of art history heaven is something special, so much so I feel my words have failed me somewhat in accurately describing the peace and beauty which I found in the space.

Speaking with fellow visitors who were drawing in the garden, they told me it was their yearly pilgrimage to the studio. “It is a trip worth making every year’ said one to me.

I agreed and turned to explore further.

Jo McLaughlin

November 2021

For more information on Hepworth’s Studio and Garden in St.Ives. Click here:

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