Barbara Hepworth in St Ives

Finding Trewyn Studio was a sort of magic. Here was a studio, a yard and garden where I could work in open air and space”. (Barbara Hepworth A pictorial Autobiography Tate Publishing 1998)

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One of the highlights of our holiday in Cornwall was a visit to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Barbara Hepworth, who was born in Wakefield, left their home in Hampstead and moved to Cornwall with her then husband,  fellow artist  Ben Nicholson, and their young family at the outbreak of the Second World War. They set up home in Carbis Bay, just up the coast from St Ives. In September 1949 she bought the Trewyn studios in the centre of the small seaside town. Initially the building was used only as a studio but, as her marriage broke down soon after, it also became her home. She continued to live there until the fire in1975 in which she died.

Hepworth asked in her will that Trewyn Studios and the adjacent garden, with a group of her sculptures placed as she wished, be permanently open to the public. Today the studio is a museum dedicated to her work, managed by the Tate.

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The studio is tucked away in the back streets of the town. There are brown signs indicating the way from the town centre but, despite this, we almost walked right past the entrance.

The house was relatively small, effectively “one up one down”. The ground floor, originally the kitchen, dining room and bathroom, was mainly devoted to an exhibition of Hepworth’s life. The upstairs room, which would have been used both as a bedroom and a studio, was used to display a number of sculptures and some drawings (see here for a list of contents).

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It must have been quite cramped working, living and sleeping in the house. However, there were a number of outbuildings that she used as workshops and she would also have worked in the garden. There was also a bed inside a small shed in the garden. I don’t know whether it was used by Hepworth or her assistants. I guess it would be pleasant enough sleeping here on a balmy summer’s night, but it must have been cold in there for most of the year, even though St Ives has a warmer climate than most of the rest of Great Britain.

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It isn’t possible to produce large works alone, and, like most sculptors creating monumental work, Hepworth employed assistants. These included the notable St Ives school artist, Terry Frost.

The highlight of the museum is the garden. A peaceful, contemplative space (when it isn’t too crowded with visitors) planted with exotic plants and displaying a significant number of bronze sculptures. A number of casts are usually produced from the mould with metal sculptures, with a copy normally being reserved for the artist.  Although the garden isn’t massive, it doesn’t appear crowded as the sculptures are concealed to some extent by the foliage. So different works appear as you walk around the garden.

I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to get up close to the works and interact with them. With a few exceptions, it was possible to touch them to feel their surfaces and experience their sinuous curves. As they’re exposed to the elements, and not inside a sterile gallery, there are fewer concerns about people damaging them. It was even possible to get inside and walk through the aptly named large “Four square walkthrough”.

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Exposure to the elements changes them due to the effects of rain, sun, wind and, in a seaside town like St Ives, salt. These changes are clearly discernable on some of the works and add to their interest. Hepworth herslf, said

“I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe”  (Barbara Hepworth by Michael Shepherd, 1962)

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The Tate has an interactive video tour on their website here

Before leaving the museum, we bought a leaflet showing the location of other works by Hepworth around the town. We followed the suggested trail and were able to see most of them.

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"Dual Form" (1965) - In front of Guildhall

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"Epidauros II" (1961) - In small park overlooking Porthminster Beach

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"Rock Form" (1951) - Inside St Ives library

A BBC programme about Barbara Hepworth’s work, featuring her studio in St Ives, “The landscape of Cornwall transposed in sculpture” is available to view via the BBC digital archive