Barbara Hepworth’s Studio

20160711_110310In St Ives on holiday, we visited Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden, now part of Tate St Ives; Hepworth (1903-1975) died there in a fire about 40 years ago, and in her will asked that Trewyn Studio and gardens, complete with her sculptures and belongings, be opened to the public. Now, it is a tranquil place to visit, and one can imagine the haven it provided for Hepworth, who moved to St Ives in 1939 to escape London in the advent of war.  The move initiated a shift in the focus of her work, to natural forms inspired by the Cornish landscape she grew to love.  This is displayed to great effect with the sculptures in her garden, where a natural sense of form and movement blends with plants, trees and natural light, for which St Ives is remarkable.  Previously Trewyn had been a children’s home, but in 1949, ten years after her move to St Ives, Hepworth fell in love with it and bought it even though she couldn’t afford it, and the garden in particular became integral to her work.

From the dark entrance hall, paved with Delabole slate, which she used for many of her sculptures, and filled with photographs of Hepworth’s life, the visitor emerges into a light, bright studio space equipped with many examples of her work, including the famous stringed designs, sketches, and photographs of the space as it was during Hepworth’s lifetime.  It is also still furnished with pieces of furniture she acquired herself, which give it a homely touch.  Through the studio the garden can be reached, where sculptures are set among an array of plants and flowers, their organic shapes demonstrating Hepworth’s understanding of the holistic form and harmony with nature and landscape.  Winding paths lead around the garden, where one is assailed with the smell of the flowers and the sea, and the sight of nature and art entwined.  The garden is based on a formal layout, which is a relic of the Georgian estate of which it was once a part.


In the garden is a small, white-painted summerhouse, with a makeshift bed, where Hepworth used sometimes to sleep; there is also a large outdoor studio, consisting of several rooms not unlike a conservatory.  This makes the most of the St Ives light, and is airy and warm, housing a number of cacti, and sometimes a cat, which dozes in a shabby armchair in the sun.  There are also a number of unfinished works in the studio, which adds an unusual sense of immediacy, as though the artist may return at any moment.  Jars of coffee sit side-by-side with glue and varnish on the dusty shelves, and her tools are scattered about.  Hepworth used a number of assistants in her work, especially in later life when she became frail, but her own tools are clearly marked with red tape. While resting in the summerhouse, she could hear her assistants working, and would call out to them if they made a mistake, which she could tell by the sounds of the tools on the material.


Some of the sculptures are small and unassuming, almost hidden by the foliage in which they reside, while some are towering focal points that demand attention.  These are combined with beautiful flowers, and gnarled trees, which are works of art in themselves.  A small lily pond with a bridge completes the picture.  Somehow the holes in the forms of her sculptures seem to make more sense when trees, flowers and the sky can be seen through them, giving an appropriate sense of context to these smooth and natural forms.  While modern sculpture is not something that appeals to everyone, there is a strong sense here that searching for meaning is beside the point; it is feeling which is important, and the garden is an ideal environment for this.  Unlike a gallery, here you can walk around the sculptures, and give in to the irresistible urge to reach out and touch them.  By walking around and peering through the pieces, a visitor can become a part of the sculpture garden. Visiting with my son, I was fascinated by his enthusiasm for interacting with the sculptures, looking at them from all sides and even touching them.

Hepworth is well known for her exploration of form, especially the “pierced form”, which by means of a hole or depression in a solid mass allows exploration both of form or shape, and material. Like many of her contemporaries in abstract art, she believed in the concept of “truth to material”, where the artist works with rather than against the inherent qualities of the material.  Frequently she worked in wood, but in later life she moved on to bronze sculptures, and it is these and stone sculptures which form the majority of pieces in the garden.  Some are totem-like, giving a feeling of standing in an ancient, pagan landscape, while some are smaller and curved, with strings demonstrating tension in the landscape.  One such sculpture fills up with water when it rains, giving it a fourth dimen20160711_104917sion which adds to the organic feeling of her work.

Although very much rooted in the Cornish landscape, her work was never insular, influenced by international movements in art and sculpture.  At art school in Leeds, she was a contemporary of Henry Moore, and had many friends and acquaintances in the international art scene.  It was after the birth of her triplets in 1934 that she moved to abstract art, and endeavoured to ‘infuse the formal perfection of geometry with the vital grace of nature’.  Her work reflected both her own emotions, and her feelings towards nature, examining seed forms and maternal instincts along with regeneration and regrowth.  This last was considered particularly significant in the post-war world.


The Poetry of Form, inspired by Barbara Hepworth

Visiting the Hepworth exhibition at the Tate, I began to think about form. Hepworth’s fascination with form and structure is obvious in her sculptures: she looked, we assume, at a lump of marble or a piece of wood and began to perceive, however dimly, the form it might take in her hands. Sometimes the eventual form it takes is smooth, closed, irreproachable (and perhaps a little unapproachable, too). Sometimes it is open, inviting, offering unexpected glimpses and perspectives. In either case, the form invites us to consider it, ‘read’ it, re-evaluate it and our relationship with the world. Hepworth, as both a sculptor rooted in the English landscape and also a part of an international Modernist movement, was aware of the way in which form affects people, how sculpture interacts with us, with landscape, with the world, and the effect that a deceptively simple form might have upon the viewer.
How, I have been wondering, might I bring this concretised idea of ‘abstract’ form to bear upon poetic form? Bear with me; these are metaphors which might seem fanciful, but equally, I hope they may illuminate. Perhaps the poetic process might be equated in some way to the artistic one; a poet sees the kernel of an idea forming and develops it until it takes a form. This is isn’t a woolly idea; I’m talking about prosody, the very shape of a poem and the way in which it is held together, structured, devised from building blocks which include not only language but also poetic devices such as metre and rhythm, alliteration, rhyme, imagery, metaphors and so on. (For more on prosody see here, a piece I wrote a while ago for The Virtual Theorist).

If the poet carves out a poem well from the raw material (which is the words, the ideas, which are developed using the poet’s tools of poetic devices) then it may appear deceptively simple, though when viewed from other angles we can catch sight of unexpected complexities. Using a poetic structure (say, sonnet form or the villanelle) is not about pouring the words into a mould any more than Hepworth’s sculptures were created this way (even works that were moulded were always finished by hand, indicating her anxiety with artistic integrity); rather, it’s about the poet carving out ideas into a form that is meaningful, chipping away – a word here, a comma there. Like a sculpture, its imperfections reveal its humanity, giving it tactile appeal which makes us pause.

I’m not really talking about ‘concrete’ poems here, which take a particular shape on the page (such as George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’), but about poetry more generally. After all, poetry is primarily defined by form: we can look at a page and see the difference between poetry and prose, but the rhythm which holds it together and the structure it employs makes it a more complex matter than just the length of the lines.


Enough of abstraction; I’d like to try to apply this idea. Look at Hepworth’s ‘Oval Sculpture’ (1943). It has a clear, distinct shape, the oval defined by its colour, as though it was once a smooth, closed form. The carving has opened it up, so that now we get a fresh view of the material and also of the world around us: look through it at different angles and you see things differently. It’s a complex form, difficult to see exactly how it works, yet it’s also tactile, pleasing to the eye and tempting to the touch. Moreover, you can read into it the metaphors of the enfolding landscape of Cornwall which Hepworth abstractly depicts; the idea that something does not need to be figurative to make us think of something. Its curves and waves echo the sea and the hills; moreover, in its smoothness and seeming randomness it also recalls the shapes of stones washed smooth by the sea.

A poem can be an object, a thing, in a similar way. The Modernist poet H.D. wrote poems which are artefacts, too. This is ‘Oread’, one of her more famous works:

Whirl up, sea—

whirl your pointed pines,

splash your great pines

on our rocks,

hurl your green over us,

cover us with your pools of fir.

The Oread is a sea nymph, the speaker of the poem who seems to be conjuring up the powers of the sea. The poem is short and deceptively simple; it doesn’t take much thought to penetrate its central metaphor of the sea as a forest. The poem is a good example of Modernist poetry which aims to reduce language and ideas to a minimum, to focus on the image not the words, and the beautiful simplicity of this poem is one of the reasons for its popularity. But it still retains a structure: the first line is simple, one-syllable words calling on the sea like an ancient poet summoning his Muse. The dash causes us to pause (try reading it aloud) before the spiky consonants of the ‘pointed pines’ cause the sibilance of ‘splash’ to break over the rocks of the reader. ‘Pines’ is repeated, linking the two, and the language intertwined sea and land, as though the sea is surging inland and taking over. The glimpse of the sea breaking over the rocks, just as the words are rushing over the reader, provides us with a surprising view, of a world covered with the deep green of the water, ‘pools of fir’, a very unexpected image. It’s as though the nymph is invoking the end of the world, the destruction of the land as the water embraces it.

This is a fairly quick reading of the poem, and of course I have chosen a sculpture and poem which have some similarities to focus on, but the idea of seeing form as a concrete thing which can be given literal shape in sculpture and read in a similar way in poetry is one I rather like. I’d be interested to know what others think.

Discussing these ideas with a friend, the poet Sarah Doyle was enlightening, hearing the views of a poet on her writing. She said:

I take a fairly architectural approach to the writing of formal poetry. For example, I will compose the first and last two lines of a sonnet, and then generally write (build) inwards, or at least ‘jump around’ until the poem is ‘filled in’. I almost never write a poem ‘in order’.

I consider that I create/form, as much as write, poems. And the crafting/drafting/editing stage is perhaps not dissimilar to a sculptor removing excess material. But I take a very pragmatic view of writing, which I am not sure others share. I am fascinated by form and prosody generally, and frequently perceive poems as physical things, with all the hallmarks that implies. Curves, contours, textures…

This sculptural or even architectural way of writing is one which enables the poet to scaffold ideas around a structure, and to play with that structure and shape it as required. I find this a helpful way of thinking about poetry.

Exhibition Review: Barbara Hepworth

infantBarbara Hepworth’s work fascinates me. I want to stroke it, and take it home with me and stare at it (though I’m not sure how well it would sit in my Victorian house!) It’s appropriate that, forty years after her death, the Tate’s summer blockbuster should be devoted to her, and it does a good job of demonstrating the development and breadth of her work, along with appropriate and interesting context. Though I have seen several Hepworth exhibitions before, I appreciated seeing her early work – carvings, mostly small enough to feel intimate and domestic, of figures both human and animal – in the context of other artists’ work of the period, including Henry Moore, of course. These works, in wood, onyx, stone, demonstrate how Hepworth worked with – rather than against – the grain of the materials she chose, creating beautiful, simple, tactile works which one wants to touch (in fact, this is clearly an issue, given the number of warnings about alarms being triggered if you touch them!) ‘Infant’ (left) somehow seems to carry within it the very essence of babyhood, a tiny figure holding up its arms as babies do, while the green onyx toad, reflecting the fashion for small animals in hard stone, somehow seems so toad-like despite its simplicity and apparent lack of detail.

The Studio section provides photographs as well as work during the period she shared a studio with Ben Nicholson, and mother and childmany of his works, too, which offer illumination on the period in which she was working as well as being interesting in their own right; his works on paper demonstrate an interesting echoing of form across their works. At a time when Hepworth wrote ‘we are building a new mythology’, she was creating her Mother and Child series, which abstracts the concept of a relationship between two bodies to demonstrate a kind of relationship in stone in which one appears to be cradling the other. These, too, are tactile, the flaws and grains in the material becoming part of the work of art.

The context of her working practices is extended in International Modernism, which not only indicates her position within a growing movement – and her importance in it – but also shows her her work developed, becoming more deeply abstract as she played with ideas of forms and how they relate to one another. There are single, monolithic forms, forms placed together and shadowing one another, and then increasingly complex echelonforms; looking at them makes form seem both simple and complex; we can peer through them, walk round them taking in unexpected angles and views, and interact with them; this is true of works such as ‘Forms in Echelon’ (left). It’s easy to look at pictures of them and think, What’s the point?’ but to see them is somehow to experience them – I can’t really explain it, except that there is a sort of magic about these works. The room entitled Equilibrium explores her growing interest in more complex forms and shapes, often using other materials such as she does in her famous stringed works. ‘Oval Sculpture’ may seem simple, from some angles, with its clear outline and shape, but the more one looks at it the more one is drawn in. By this stage in her career she was working in Cornwall, and much of her work expresses her sense of being enfolded by the landscape, becoming part of it, and this is very clearly represented here, though in a highly abstracted sense which draws on mathematical forms as much as a concept of nature and sense of place.oval

The closing rooms look at how her work has been displayed in architectural constructions, complementing and sitting alongside architecture rather than as an adjunct to them (something which can be seen to marvellous effect in the Hepworth Studio and Garden in St Ives). This sites her work in reconstructed structures, giving a sense of how she might have intended them to look. There is also a section on Guarea, a hard wood she used for some later works, explores the effects she achieved with this particular material. ‘Solid timber opened up to create an interior space’, she wrote, as though she could see the final sculpture in a piece of wood (which I don’t doubt she could). Guarea also gave her the chance to work with really large pieces of wood, creating wilmerenormous wooden sculptures which again move her work into a new phase.

The exhibition indicates – without forcing – a trajectory in her work which makes sense of her work, with a narrative which is clear and helpful without being prescriptive. As I wandered round, I found myself thinking about form – in sculpture, in poetry, in the world – nature, society, everything – and that, to me, is what makes any exhibition particularly rewarding to visit: it provokes wider thinking, a broader conception of the world; and I left feeling uplifted and enriched.

Books, music and art at Port Eliot Festival

IMG_1976The Port Eliot festival is one of my favourite events of the year. Held in a beautiful country estate in Cornwall, it’s a weekend filled with books, music, food, gin and general jollity. It’s impossible not to find something to inspire you, and although it’s exhausting having so much fun it’s also inspiring (and I came home with a large pile of books to read). I even heard some comedy I found funny – Shappi Khorsandi (I don’t usually enjoy comedy). There are always small tragedies of the writers you don’t get to hear because they clash with something else you simply must do – but I’ll try not to dwell on that! I won’t test your patience with a rendition of my notebook, but instead will just go through a few highlights. First, music. I went to a singing workshop run by the Chaps Choir, where we sang gospel songs, a Finnish reindeer call, and a great arrangement of The Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love‘. I love to sing, and this has really inspired me to go and find another choir; I haven’t stopped singing since (especially as we got to perform the song in St Germans Church on Sunday). The singing was also inspired by hearing Fishermans Friends, the Port Isaac group who sing sea shanties (and drink beer and laugh whilst singing). I love the shanties, and sing them with my son, who would have loved their show, which had everyone singing along. We also heard Stealing IMG_1985Sheep, and the Unthanks, who were great in concert (‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw‘, with its socio-historical roots, especially appealed to me).

The writers I heard included Rachel Holmes talking to Shami Chakrabarti about her forthcoming book on Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve bought her previous book, on Eleanor Marx, and even had a quick chat to her about the nature of feminist biography, and the Pankhurst book should be a good addition to the canon of works on the Suffragettes. Next, I listened to Laura Barton talking about music and sadness – how we bring our own sadness to music we listen to, but how music can also be a way out of sadness, a concept echoed by Matt Haig the following day, talking about reading and writing as a way out of depression, perhaps because it forces us to IMG_1990externalise our emotions and make connections.

In the pouring rain we listened to Owen Sheers (whose book Resistance I have bought but have yet to read) talking about his new book, I Saw A Man, which I bought for my husband, as well as his diverse other projects including a film-poem commemorating the disaster at Aberfan. His comments on Welshness and poetry – that poetry is well-supported in Wales, perhaps better so than in England – interested me. As a complete contrast, we also heard Luke Wright performing his poetry; he’s a great performer, with poems about parenthood, suburbia, politics and failed dreams.

The biggest draws of Saturday were Sarah Waters and Simon Armitage, speaking to packed marquees (the strange angle of the photographs indicates that I was on the floor directly in front of the stage!) I enjoyed Waters’ talk, as I enjoy her novels (though her latest, The Paying Guests, is probably my least favourite). She talked about her research, the periods in history she is interested in (she plans her next novel to be set IMG_1982in the 1950s), and her apparent obsessions with houses, mothers and daughters, gender and class. In The Paying Guests she wrote about the Twenties because it was a period she knew little about, and intentionally undermined the stereotype of the Roaring Twenties, instead focusing on the class conflict and quieter lives of those bereaved after the war. Her interests are often in ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary events, rather than extraordinary characters. I’m interested to hear that The Little Stranger is to be made into a film and The Paying Guests a TV series.

Simon Armitage, recently elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has a refreshingly down-to-earth approach for one of the most famous (living) British poets, He talked about his books Walking Home and Walking Away, in which he walked first the Pennine Way and then the South coast, ‘testing poetry’, as he put it – giving readings along the way to support himself, and asking what payment people felt he deserved; though he is an optimist about poetry, he felt that he should take poetry to people to see their response, and on the whole he seems positive about this (again, I have both books but haven’t yet read either!) The extracts IMG_1983he read are not only poetic but humorous too, and suggest that both in the people he met and in the landscape itself he found, unexpectedly, a strong and positive sense of Britishness.

I managed to catch some of a conversation between the sculptor Alice Channer, Nicholas Serota of the Tate, and Chris Stephens, focusing on Barbara Hepworth, the subject of an exhibition at the Tate currently. I was particularly interested in Channer’s comments about how Hepworth makes a solid, hard material look somehow elastic, as though she has changed its very nature in the process of her work. The relationship of people and places to sculpture is something the exhibition has encouraged me to think about too, and the three of them in conversation on Hepworth were inspiring.images

Finally, I was especially inspired by a discussion between Philip Marsden and Tim Dee. Both nature writers (or travel writers), they discussed, among other things, how we use language to construct nature, poetically, socially, historically, and these days politically and ecologically. This is, of course, to nature’s complete ignorance of it: a blackbird has no idea it is a blackbird, or that we have all kinds of cultural connotations of blackbirds; it just is. Obvious but needing stating, I think. And the naming of nature is itself a colonial project, they suggested, implying our dominion over it in a way which is uncomfortable. I’ve only recently become interested in ‘nature writing’, so was fascinated by their discussion about ‘the new nature writing’ – particularly around the resurgence of interest rising-groundin it which is, perhaps, stemming from our disconnection with nature in the modern world, as well as a desire to capture what seems to be a vanishing world (though both of these have been the impetus for much nature writing for centuries). It’s also politically motivated, very often, though, raising awareness of the changes in ecosystems, threatened species, etc; we are looking into the abyss. I’ve bought Marsden’s book Rising Ground, on the ‘spirit of place’ in Cornwall as a way of thinking about how we connect to the landscape more broadly, and how this gives both individuals and cultures meaning. It’s yet another book I can’t wait to read!