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.


Sculpture and Landscape

01ada5367e4539481d00fe5a8d3e1c3012e0aa5965On holiday recently, we visited Tremenheere sculpture gardens for the first time, and found the combination of plants and landscape with works of art a really interesting experience. Over the site there are 16 installations, all very different from each other, and which work with the landscape in different, appealing ways. The site is planted with the lush, tropical vegetation for which the climate of Cornwall is known, so that one almost expects the unexpected to appear anyway (or, in the case of my son, dinosaurs). Actually this is a great place for children, as the map you are given to follow for your walk creates a kind of treasure hunt as you search for the sculptures. There are also wonderful views of St Michael’s Mount from the gardens, and the food in the restaurant is excellent.


One of my favourite works there – and, I imagine, one of the most popular – is ‘Tewlolow Kernow’, or ‘Twilight in Cornwall’ designed by James Turrell, a sky space which turns the sky into art, framing the sky with an oval hole in a dome. The entrance to the space feels as though one is entering a place of ritual, and though it echoes beautifully  – making it tempting to sing – I felt as though I ought to be silent whilst observing the clouds moving ahead (I am a little obsessed with clouds, and how they are portrayed in art, after reading Weatherland by Alexandra Harris). One of Turrell’s sky spaces was featured in ‘Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature’ on BBC4, and the presenter James Fox sat watching the sky for hours; I could happily have done so too. The clean, blank lines of the space you are in shifts your entire focus onto the world above.

Billy Wynter’s Camera Obscura was also hypnotic, projecting the world around onto a table in a small, dark room – which prompts questions about when nature becomes art, or vice versa. Like so many of the works, art and nature merge here, reflecting each other. Many works consequently prompt ideas about humanity’s place in the world, our relation to landscape and the land, and the cycles of nature and life. A remarkable, huge work, Penny Saunders’ ‘Restless Temple’ consists of counterbalanced pillars which sway in the wind, perhaps ‘challenging our preconceptions of what we hold secure and stable in everyday life’, the guide suggests. This link takes you to a video which shows my son enjoying this instability. We were all fascinated by the cloud form of Matt Chivers’ ‘Hybrid’ and Richard Marsh’s ‘Untitled X3’, both organic shapes which one can walk around endlessly.

We have got used to thinking of ‘art’ as an indoors thing: paintings of nature hung on a wall, perhaps, so it both refreshing and inspiring to walk around looking at art which grows, art which is placed in the landscape, art which is part of the natural world. My reflections were on the contrasts of transience and permanence, and questions about what art is and what it does, but it also works simply as a nice walk with some interesting things to look at.

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.

Finding Woolner in Wrexham

Last week I was in Wrexham, North Wales, and had a look in the Parish Church of St Giles, where there is a monument sculpted by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. Woolner is one of the less popular Pre-Raphaelites, despite having been a member since its inception. The only sculptor of the Brotherhood, he contributed a poem, ‘My Beautiful Lady’, to their magazine The Germ. He was later Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy, but his work both poetic and sculptural is often overlooked since his death. This beautiful monument is to Ellen Peel, and the insciption says she was the daughter of Sir Roger Palmer of Cefn Park (a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and buried in the churchyard at St Giles) and wife of Archibald Peel of Marchwiel (don’t you love how women in history are usually defined by their male relations?) According to the guidebook, it “shows Ellen being greeted by her infant son, Archibald Roger, who had pre-deceased her”. There is pathos of a particularly Victorian kind here: the bereaved mother, only 33 when she died, is greeted by her dead son, when they are reunited in Heaven after death, thus presenting a happy life after death for Ellen.  Beneath the relief sculpture is the motto ‘There shall be one fold and one shepherd’. Yet it doesn’t seem overly sentimental: there is pathos but there is also joy, of a religious and also domestic kind; typically, for the Victorians, it envisions a domestic afterlife in which reunion with the dead and a kind of resumption of lost love and a domestic centre feature strongly. This monument shows Woolner’s talent for figures, in my opinion, though it is very different from his more famous sculptural portraits of Dickens and Tennyson, for example.

Incidentally, St Giles is well worth a visit for other reasons, most prominent among which must be the tomb (right) of Elihu Yale of Plas Grono, who was born in America but returned to his family home in North Wales, a very wealthy man who made many gifts to St Giles and was also the primary benefactor of Connecticut College, which was renamed Yale after him – the rest, as they say, is history. There is also, on the outside of the church, a stone which replaces one which was presented to Yale University in 1918.