Exhibition Guide

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life

Explore the Tate St Ives exhibition room by room

Barbara Hepworth with Figure (Archaean) 1959

Barbara Hepworth with Figure (Archaean) 1959 in the garden of Trewyn Studio in 1961 © Bowness. Photograph by Rosemary Mathews

Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) is one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. She was at the forefront of international modern art, deeply spiritual, and passionately engaged with political and technological change. Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, she moved to St Ives in 1939, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life. Her works reveal a singular vision of art and life, integrating her interests in music, dance, science, space exploration, politics, and religion, with personal events and experiences. This exhibition presents almost five decades of her sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints and designs.

Hepworth expanded the possibilities for sculpture and art’s purpose within modern society. She continually returned to three important shapes in her work: ‘standing forms’, ‘two forms’ and ‘closed forms’. These iconic shapes are represented in this first exhibition room through works in wood, stone and bronze. Hepworth associated these forms with physical and emotional states, such as a figure poised at the top of a hill or a mother holding a child. Working in both abstraction and figuration, much of her art expresses our relationships with each other and our surroundings, and how art can reflect and alter our perceptions of the world.

Hepworth considered St Ives her ‘spiritual home’. Her former residence and workspace in the town, Trewyn Studio, is now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. Hepworth’s works – from drawings to monuments – are treasured in public and private collections and civic spaces worldwide. Celebrating her extraordinary life and achievements, Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life is organised by The Hepworth Wakefield in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh) and Tate St Ives.

The forms which have had special meaning for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape); the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) which translates for me the association of meaning of gesture in landscape; in the repose of say a mother & child, or the feeling of the embrace of living things, either in nature or in the human spirit.

Hepworth 1970

Into Abstraction

Hepworth’s early artworks explore the figure, later developing into the abstract forms she is most known for.

Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield in 1903. At seventeen, she was awarded a scholarship to the Leeds School of Art and later to the Royal College of Art in London. After graduating, she travelled to Italy and married the artist John Skeaping. While most British sculptors at this time were modelling in clay, Hepworth and Skeaping learned to carve marble and practised ‘direct carving’ into blocks of wood and stone.

Hepworth and Skeaping returned to London in late 1926, and their son, Paul, was born in 1929. The couple separated two years later, and Hepworth began a relationship with the artist Ben Nicholson. Nicholson spent time in Paris and introduced her to the avant-garde art scene there. After the birth of their triplets in 1934, Hepworth recalled that her work had become more abstract and ‘seemed to have changed direction although the only fresh influence had been the arrival of the children.’ By the time the family moved to Corrnwall in 1939, both Hepworth and Nicholson had developed abstract practices and increased international recognition.

Strings, Colour and Cornwall

Just before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, Hepworth, Nicholson and family arrived in Carbis Bay, near St Ives. The land and seascapes of Cornwall would influence Hepworth for the rest of her life. She made many of the works in this room in response to her new surroundings.

During the War, Hepworth’s days were ‘filled with running a nursery school, double-cropping a tiny garden for food, and trying to feed and protect the children’. As an artist, she was community-focused and politically engaged. She was a member of the socially motivated Artists International Association and even organised a group of artists to paint camouflage ‘dazzle’ patterns on the local power station. During wartime austerity, sculptural materials were expensive and scarce, so small models and drawings became her main outlet as they were practical to make and sell. Hepworth described her drawings and paintings of this time as ‘sculptures born in the disguise of two dimensions’. When these ideas emerged as sculpture, they transformed her work with contrasting colours and tensioned strings to connect the inner and outer surfaces.

Figures in Unity

In the late 1940s, Hepworth began to focus on groups of forms and figures in degrees of contact and harmony. This emphasis on interrelatedness occurred as her marriage to Nicholson deteriorated. She made observational drawings of dancers and teams of surgeons and nurses at work and designed stage sets and costumes for live theatre performances. In many of these works, people working together with a common purpose became Hepworth’s metaphor for an ideal society.

Hepworth’s ‘hospital drawings’ mark a shift from her earlier pure geometric abstraction. She wrote, ‘I don’t feel any difference of intention or of mood when I paint (or carve) realistically or when I make abstract carvings ... It all feels the same – the same happiness & pain, the same joy in a line, a form, a colour – the same feeling of being lost in pursuit of something.’

In 1949 Hepworth bought Trewyn Studio in St Ives. She transformed this former store building into a workshop and studio and later into her home. Trewyn Studio is now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, located in the centre of the town.

Metal & Movement

In 1956 Hepworth returned to making works in metal, a material she had last considered almost three decades before. This extended the possibilities of her sculptures ‘beyond the capacity of stone & wood’.

Casting in durable metals meant that editions could be made of the same sculpture, allowing more to be sold or placed in collections worldwide. Using metals’ properties and strength, Hepworth now explored fluid and open forms to describe the rhythms in dance and music, spiritual experiences, or the movement of people, tides and weather across the Cornish landscape. She wrote about a series of her works of this time: ’these are all sea forms and rock forms, related to Porthcurno on the Land’s End coast with its queer caves pierced by the sea. They were experiences of people – the movement of people in and out is always a part of them’. Her paintings of this period also explore movement, expressed through dynamic shapes and vigorous brushstrokes.

Single Form

Hepworth developed her first ‘standing form’ sculpture in the 1930s. The upright, vertical shape came to represent her ideas of solidarity and unison within society and the natural world.

In 1961 Hepworth purchased the Palais de Danse in St Ives, creating a larger studio. She developed her most monumental works in this former dancehall and cinema, including the 6.4 metre sculpture Single Form 1961–4. The work was created as a memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, following his death in a plane crash in 1961. 2

Hepworth and Hammarskjöld became friends after he selected one of her earlier Single Form sculptures for his office. They began to share views on the responsibility of the artist in the community and, more broadly, the individual within society. At the unveiling ceremony of the United Nations Single Form, Hepworth said, ‘I have tried to perfect a symbol that would reflect the nobility of [Dag Hammarskjöld’s] life, and at the same time give us a motive and symbol of both continuity and solidarity for the future.’ The sculpture remains installed at the United Nations Plaza in New York, US.

Space & Spirituality

Hepworth lived through times of rapid technological advances and social change. She witnessed two World Wars, the first transatlantic passenger flights in the 1930s, and the astonishing coverage of the first crewed Moon landing in 1969. In this decade of space exploration, she was also looking to Christian Science and Anglican faith and was made a Bard of Cornwall. Repeated circles began to appear in her sculptures and prints, symbolising the Sun, Moon and stars and expressing her ‘deep interest in a new sense of poetry in our scientific age’.

In 1962 the Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station opened in Cornwall. Hepworth recalled: ‘I was invited on board the first [satellite dish] when it began to go round, and it was so magical and strange.’ Several of her works from this time echo the spherical forms of satellite dishes and celestial bodies. Some also combine elements of her Christian Science faith which states that the ‘divine mind’ – the spiritual entity of which all existence is a part – ‘is in perpetual motion. Its symbol is the sphere’.

Hepworth made nearly as many sculptures in the 1960s as in her whole career before. She continued to experiment with materials and techniques throughout the 1970s, returning to the forms that had held meaning for her since childhood: the ‘single form’, ‘two forms’ and ‘closed form’. These expressed, for Hepworth, the human within the landscape, but now her landscape expanded to include the infinite universe.

Dame Barbara Hepworth died in a fire at Trewyn Studio, St Ives, in 1975. Her vision of art and life remained to the end. On her 70th birthday, she said: ‘I detest a day of no work, no music, no poetry … It’s all brewing in my mind, all I want is time.’

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life is organised by The Hepworth Wakefield in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh) and Tate St Ives.

Curated by Eleanor Clayton, Senior Curator, The Hepworth Wakefield, Anne Barlow, Director, Tate St Ives, and Giles Jackson, Assistant Curator, Tate St Ives. With thanks to Sophie Bowness and the Hepworth Estate, Helen Bent, Louise Connell, Tom Ketteringham, Sally Noall, Katy Norris, Emma Sharples, Ben Waggett, Elana Woodgate, and Tate’s technical and conservation teams.

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