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Barbara Hepworth

Sculpture Workshop and Gardens

I find her in a maquette on a white spattered plinth, pencil ovals on its sides, guiding lines for the her chisel. I meet her in a block of granite waiting by the door, anxious to know what it will become.

The photograph is black and white, and dates to 1972. She is an old woman already, with her hair and the tops of her ears covered by a scarf. She wears an ornate pendant at her throat, and a plain metal bangle on her wrist. A cigarette is clasped between the index and middle fingers of her left hand. Her forehead is high, and crisscrossed with lines. Her eyes look out beyond the frame of the picture. The contours of her face are strong and sculptural, but her expression is unreadable. Behind her, a smooth pear shaped depression in clean bright stone contains a circular aperture. Light shines through it, white on white.

I lean in for a closer look at one of the glass display cases that dominate the ground floor of Barbara Hepworth’s modest white painted house in St Ives. I piece together the life of the woman I hope to meet here from a dot to dot of letters, certificates, awards, celebrations, and finally, obituaries. I see her outline, narrow and elegant, between the information and the ephemera, and in the gaps between the lines of grey text on the white walls, spelling out quotes and significant dates and achievements. I see her edges, but the detail is in silhouette. I climb the stairs, wondering if I will find her on the upper floor. It is flooded with light, half sitting room, half gallery. Smaller works in wood form a circle around the walls like spectators, or timid guests at a party where no one knows one another, and the hostess is mysteriously absent. A large shard of smoky quartz looks down on us from the mantelpiece, our faces reflected in its panopticon stare.

Trewyn Studio, perched on a steep hill in the middle of St Ives, was her home from 1949 until 1975 when she died here in a fire. The place was a “sort of magic” for her, giving her space and light to carve outside all year round. This “pagan landscape” offers up a synthesis of those formative locations that shaped her work. Her native Yorkshire, “dynamic and constant”, is represented in the ponderous geology and scarred earth that birthed her first memories of “forms and shapes and textures”. Italy, where she learnt to carve, is present as a “wonderful realm of light – light which transforms and reveals, which intensifies the subtleties of form and contour and colour.”

A whitewashed wall attached to the house wraps itself around Barbara Hepworth’s garden where her favourite works assemble. Midges scribble through the air, their tangled trajectories a perfect counterpoint to the silent bulk of the sculptures beneath them, broad shouldered and tapering. Form embraces emptiness in their outlines, the marks of palette knife and fingers transposed from plaster to bronze, like scars on the slick skin of a whale. I peer through a circular opening to the shade and clattering bamboos beyond. Sentinels in stone and metal guard intersecting pathways, and hide under sprawling shelves of foliage. They proclaim their presence obliquely, suggestions of humanity, silent statements of line, mass, and tension. I walk slowly, lingering over every step in order to take in more information in the hope of drawing the garden’s creator out, summoning her from the sum of her work. I lay my hand on the hide of a giantess, the ravaged skin of her torso cold enough to make me wonder about the conductive properties of bronze. A puddle collects in the belly of a sleeping form, the surface tension of the water fluttering toward a void in its back. Wires stretch taut from pelvis to scapula in a tall standing form, spider’s webs festoon the tentacles of a nearby aloe. The more I look, the more my mind converts everything to sculpture; the ribs on the undersides of the leaves, the threads like sinews tying back the extravagant creepers, a tap protruding from a bed of ivy, the spaces between the paving stones. These forms, intended and accidental, line up, mute and complete. The garden is silent, and she is not here. A large grey cat sleeps on the path in a patch of sunlight. He is so inured to the presence of strangers that he does not stir, even as I scratch behind his ears.

I form a shield against the sunlight with my hands, and look through the windows of her workshop. She is there, waiting for me, in the files, rasps, chisels, mallets, hooks, and planes, mustered on every surface, and ranked in order of size. I see her, in my mind’s eye, selecting the right tool through a tobacco haze, measuring its weight and heft in fingertips smoothed by plaster dust. I find her in the jam jars and the tins, jostling for space on every shelf. I watch her, hands steady, filling a Mellow Birds coffee jar with varnish, pouring resin into a marmalade pot, tightening the lid on a spice jar filled with glue. On coat hooks by the door, a beret, and three jackets hang, one black, one denim, one leather. The set of her stance is still visible in the folded cloth. I find her in a maquette on a white spattered plinth, pencil ovals on its sides, guiding lines for the her chisel. I meet her in a block of granite waiting by the door, anxious to know what it will become. I find her in the doing and the making, the incomplete and the becoming. I find her in the splinters flying before her chisel, fleeing the clang and tremor of each strike.

She stops and stands back to look at her work, lays down her tools, and wipes her hands on the front of her shirt. She reaches for a pack of cigarettes, and drapes one of the jackets over her shoulders. I follow her to the conservatory, sitting beside her on a delicately tattered rattan chair, among geraniums, watering cans, and cobwebs. While she smokes, staring into the middle distance, her mind full of nascent shapes, I leaf through a folder of postcards left by visiting schoolchildren. ‘I love your sculptures. From Cora, age 5’, ‘How did you do it? I have never seen better. Declan, Bristol, age 8.’, ‘I like your sculptures, the holes are big. See you in the promised land, love Bella.’

‘Feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye,’ she says, ‘the sensation has never left me. I, the sculptor, am the landscape.’ She stubs out her cigarette, stands up, and picks her way back to her work. The renewed sounds of her hammer blows ring out as I reach the front door. I look up at the gulls wheeling overhead as I turn left onto the cobbles in the direction of the sea.

barbarahepworth.org.uk/st-ives

Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth