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Barbara Hepworth and the St Ives Story

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View of St Ives, August 2017, photograph L.Myers


On the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Barbara Hepworth’s death, Lund Humphries Managing Director, Lucy Myers, 
reflects on the life and art of a pioneering artist and her unique connection to a location which was to shape the history of Modern British Art.

~ ~ ~ ~

On 20 May 1975, Barbara Hepworth died suddenly in a fire in her Trewyn Studio in St Ives, aged 72. In an obituary for Arts Review, Susan Bradwell wrote that ‘Dame Barbara rarely wanted to travel or change her life-style. For her, success meant more material and more space, and time to work at her own speed in St Ives, which she said she never wanted to leave.’[i] In more colourful language, the New York Times obituarist observed that Hepworth found ‘the rough, craggy coastline of Cornwall a constant source of inspiration. Dressed in baggy corduroys and a sheepskin jacket (to ward off the Cornish chill), she spent hours watching the waves or studying the geometry of seashells.’[ii]

Hepworth had first travelled to Cornwall with Ben Nicholson and their young triplets in August 1939, about a week before the outbreak of war. ‘They loaded their old car with the children, the cook and the whole ideological baggage of 1930s abstract art, variously assembled in Paris and London, with added components from Moscow, and now to be transplanted again to Cornwall’, writes Michael Bird with characteristic wit in The St Ives Artists. [iii]

    

Hepworth with plaster for bronze Sphere with Inner Form (BH 333) in the Palais de Danse studio, St Ives, 1963. 
Photograph: AP/Press Association Images, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

& page 59 of The St Ives Artists [Ben Nicholson taking a photograph of Barbara Hepworth, c.1932]

 

In many ways, Hepworth bookends the story of St Ives Modernism, a continuous presence linking the idealistic 1930s to the art colony’s complex post-war narratives. She and Nicholson could have left in 1945 (both of them thought about returning to London once the war was over) and had they done so, says Bird, ‘St Ives’s temporary incarnation as a modernist outpost would have come to a natural close’. But they stayed – Nicholson until 1958, and Hepworth for the rest of her life. On Nicholson’s departure for Switzerland with his new, young wife Felicitas Vogler, Hepworth became ‘St Ives’s senior modern artist, in both fame and years […] a civic institution in her own right, a reliable feature of the town’s artistic landscape […] It was as if she had joined the Cornish pantheon of female patron saints’. In Michael Bird’s telling, Hepworth’s death in the summer of 1975, following by just a few months the deaths of Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton, marked the final passing of St Ives’s moment as a centre of avant-garde art in Britain.

~ ~ ~ ~

         

Figure (Archaean), 1959, bronze (BH 263), photographed at Tremorna, overlooking St Ives Bay.   
& Hepworth holding a file with the plaster for Curved Form (Bryher II) (BH305), Palais de Danse, November 1961. 
Photographs: Studio St Ives, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness, Reproduced in Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters

 

St Ives also had a central place in Hepworth’s own story of her development and identity as a sculptor. Starting in the 1930s with statements published in art journals, she was a consistent and meticulous promoter of her own work and ideas, carefully stage-managing her image in photographs and documentary films alongside the written word.  The mythology of Hepworth’s connection to the St Ives landscape, reflected in her New York Times obituary, was one in which she actively colluded, even if, as Michael Bird notes, ‘Outside photographs and filmed documentaries, she was seldom to be seen clambering around the cliffs, let alone looking upside down at horizons or waving her arms around in a Force 8 gale in the Lanyon manner’. From 1944 she worked with local photographic agency Studio St Ives, placing strong emphasis on the setting of her sculptures and directing for works to be photographed in specific locations, whether it was against the backdrop of St Ives Bay, or in the garden of her Trewyn Studio, or alongside their creator in the more industrially scaled Palais de Danse studio and workshop which she acquired in 1960.

Hepworth at work on Oval Form (Trezion) (BH 304) in the Palais de Danse studio, St Ives, 1963.
Photograph: Val Wilmer, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness, Reproduced in 
Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters 

 

Hepworth’s most extensive piece of writing on her life and ideas as a sculptor up to the early 1950s appeared in the first major monograph on her work, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, published by Lund Humphries in 1952. Writing to Lund Humphries’ Chairman Anthony Bell in 1964 about the book, Hepworth said: ‘I thought it had great beauty in format. […] A good book should be the inspired result of co-operation between publisher, writer and artist.’[iv]  But it was clearly very much her book, both in its visual presentation and its ideas, with an autobiographical text which traced a line from Hepworth’s childhood in Yorkshire to her public commissions for the 1950 Venice Biennale and the Festival of Britain.

   

Front cover & Section-opener from Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, Lund Humphries 1952
 

St Ives makes its appearance in the fourth section of her text, ‘The war, Cornwall, and artist in landscape 1939-1946’. It was during the war, she writes, that she gradually discovered ‘the remarkable pagan landscape which lies between St. Ives, Penzance and Land’s End; a landscape which still has a very deep effect on me, developing all my ideas about the relationship of the human figure in landscape’. She goes on to describe herself, the sculptor of the early 1940s, as the figure in the landscape: ‘every sculpture contained to a greater or lesser degree the ever-changing forms and contours embodying my own response to a given position in that landscape’.

St Ives served different purposes for Hepworth in different contexts. On a practical level, she wrote in the 1952 monograph, it provided her with one of her ‘greatest needs for carving: a strong sunlight and a radiance from the sea’, as well as a milder climate which enabled her to carve out of doors nearly the whole year round.

      

Plaster for bronze, Squares with Two Circles, 1963, BH 347 (no longer extant) in the Palais de Danse workshop with Hepworth in January 1964.
Photograph: Mark Heathcote, Museum Photography, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

& Hepworth with the plaster for Single Form (Memorial) (BH 314) in the Palais de Danse, March 1962. 
Photograph: Studio St Ives, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness, Reproduced in Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters


By the early 1950s, aware perhaps of her increasingly public profile, she had started to focus on the integration of the sculptor within the community, writing in 1952 in the final section of her autobiographical text for the monograph: ‘In making my roots in a small seaboard town I have felt compelled to meet the all-round problem of living in a comprehensible community, because I think that the discipline of my sculpture demands this sort of integration. The years I spent preoccupied with the landscape image in sculpture now form the apprenticeship to my present concern with an image in sculpture of the community as a unit in landscape.’ As Michael Bird puts it, ‘For Hepworth in the early 1950s the notion of “me in the landscape” had come to acquire personal and social, as well as creative, meaning’. By the late 1960s she was Dame Barbara and a Bard of Cornwall, a local grandee with an international reputation.

~ ~ ~ ~

The St Ives story lives on, promoted by the art market, in exhibitions, through art tourism. Since 1952, Lund Humphries has published five further books on Hepworth,[v] two of them during her lifetime, as well as monographs on most of the core cast of artists who chose to make St Ives their home between the 1930s and the 1970s. Michael Bird’s book on The St Ives Artists has appeared in two editions. And forty-five years since her death, the studio in which Barbara Hepworth died is now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, a major attraction on the St Ives tourist trail and a permanent physical reminder of the artist’s long association with the town and its landscape.


Lucy Myers 

Hepworth on the dance-floor, Palais de Danse, March 1961. 
Photograph: Studio St Ives, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness, Reproduced in Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters  

 

References:

[i] Reproduced in Sophie Bowness (ed.), Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, Tate Publishing 2015, pp.288-9.

[ii] See https://www.nytimes.com/1975/05/21/archives/barbara-hepworth-dies-in-fire-at-cornwall-studio-a-sense-of-flow.html, accessed 17.5.2020.

[iii] Michael Bird, The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time, 2nd edition, Lund Humphries 2016. All quotations are taken from this revised edition.

[iv] Tate Archives. TGA 965. Barbara Hepworth to Anthony Bell, 10 February 1964. With thanks to Valerie Holman for her research.

[v] J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Lund Humphries 1961; Alan Bowness (ed.), The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, 1960-69, Lund Humphries 1971; Margaret Gardiner, Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir, 2nd edition, Lund Humphries 1994; Sophie Bowness (ed.), Barbara Hepworth: The Plasters: The Gift to Wakefield, Lund Humphries in association with The Hepworth Wakefield 2011; Alan Wilkinson, The Drawings of Barbara Hepworth, Lund Humphries 2015.

 

Books on St Ives artists available from www.lundhumphries.com

     

 

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