‘The wonderful structure of the human frame is an architecture of highest proportion, and all sensitivity to landscape is in one’s ability to feel within one’s body: to feel with a primitive humility a response to life and location, a response to form, texture and rhythm, and a response to the magic of light, both sun and moon everchanging’
— Barbara Hepworth.
Perching seagulls call to one another above the bowing slate rooftops and cluttered narrow streets of St Ives fishing harbour. Easter break holiday makers bustle from shop to shop, but climb the steep cobbled lane of Barnoon Hill and the hubbub of the main thoroughfare grows faint behind you. Hidden behind an unassuming white door and fortressed by high granite retaining walls, stands the simple two-storey studio and subtropical garden of Trewyn. For the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who purchased the plot in an auction in 1949, ‘Finding Trewyn Studio was a sort of magic’. Here was a secluded place to work away from the duties of motherhood and a strained marriage. It offered ‘space, air, sun and a real proper workshop’. When Hepworth and her husband, painter Ben Nicholson, divorced two years later, the studio was to become her final home.
Forced to flee London at the outbreak of WWII, they had arrived in St Ives by night almost a decade earlier. Fierce rain thundered on the roof of their car and after a long drive with five year old triplets Hepworth, perhaps understandably, described reaching their destination as like coming to the end of the world. There followed a tumultuous period of moving between rental properties, and cramped living space and the demands of providing for a young family during war time stemmed any artistic output. Trewyn, with its small south-east facing square of garden and two workshops, marked a new dawn. In making a garden Hepworth was digging in, becoming rooted to place and the surrounding West Penwith landscape which was to become so integral to her sculpture work. Gardeners are by their nature home-birds, but from her little studio garden Hepworth produced an incredible 500 pieces which secured her international status as one of the world’s foremost female artists who through her modern sculpture was vital in forging new ground in British art.
On leaving the first floor of the studio you come level with the garden and onto a small concrete yard where Hepworth did most of her carving. It is bordered on one side by her plaster and stone-carving workshops; light, rudimentary spaces with whitewashed stone walls. In the centre of the yard is a large turntable on which four imposing blocks of marble stand waiting. It was the mild oceanic climate of St Ives that allowed Hepworth to carve outside most of the year. The workshops and garden tripped easily into one another and sculptures gradually accumulated among the lawn and paths, strewn as if blown by a breeze. Nowadays there are a representative collection of three large stone carvings and eighteen bronzes. The outdoor space was necessary for her Direct Carving (4) method which she had learnt from the Italian masters in Rome, when travelling from 1925-26 with her first husband, sculptor John Skeaping. Hepworth dogmatically pursued “truth to materials”(5), carving directly into large pieces of stone and wood. She was sensitive to form, working with the grain of the wood or stone, and celebrating the ‘unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration’. This was a world away from the intricate modelling (6) taught at the orthodox British art schools of the time, and considered the work of a stonemason. Photographs reveal Hepworth’s improbably petite frame leaning against stone creations that soar above the garden’s neighbouring rooftops. She was a determined woman, with intense brown eyes set behind a distinctive domed forehead, who wished to be known simply as a sculptor, never a sculptress.
Let the gravel path that circumferences the oval lawn lead you around past the sharp blades of a Yucca gloriosa and towards the south-facing end of the garden where a simple white chair and table set is embraced by a smooth curved wall. It is a typical capricious April day of bright sun and showers, gone as quickly as they came. After a momentary deluge a nearby thatch of Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica) is cleaned anew, its tight clusters of deep pink petal cups vivid and hung with water droplets. Next to it, dazzling light bounces off the glistening bronze arc of Sphere with Inner Form (1963). It is that unmistakable Cornish light that reminded Hepworth of ‘the Mediterranean light and colour which so excites ones sense of form’. Sitting among terracotta pots of succulents, with Chusan palms (Trachycarpus fortune) and Cordyline australis (Australian cabbage palm) towering above, basking in the sun, you could easily be in Italy or Greece. Hepworth chose plants that would thrive in the warmer climate but also survive the bite of salt-laden winds. There is the bright-eyed yellow daisy of Euryops pectinatus and in summer the cheery fried egg blooms of marguerite or Paris daisy (Argyranthemum frutescens), a native of the Canary Islands. Many trees were planted for privacy including eucalyptus and also a fuchsia hedge for shelter. The masses of blue agapanthus and Brugmanisia sanguinea (orange datura) with its exotic, pendulous orange trumpets were no doubt inspired by Hepworth’s frequent holidays to the Isles of Scilly and the subtropical Tresco Abbey Garden.
A puff of wind and a cloud of petals falls from the low spreading branches of the Japanese cherry tree (Prunus ‘Kanzan’) at the centre of the garden, scattering like confetti over the lawn. The petals are a delicate pale pink, so pale as to be almost white. Hepworth drew great inspiration from such natural forms surrounding her in the garden. In her sculpture she would strive to capture the abstract beauty and essential truth of such a tree:
‘If a pebble or an egg can be enjoyed for the sake of its shape only, it is one step towards a true appreciation of sculpture. A tree trunk, with its changing axis, swellings and varied sections, fully understood takes us a step further. Then it is finally realised that abstract form, the relation of masses and planes, is that which gives sculpture life.’
She was the first British sculptor to make non-representational art. During her marriage to Nicholson in the 1930s her sculptures became austerely abstract and geometric, influenced by the international avant-garde movement in which they were absorbed. But moving to Cornwall rekindled Hepworth’s sensitivity to nature again and organic forms made their presence firmly felt in her future sculptures.
Nearby the cherry tree, beside a small fish pond crossed by a stone bridge, stand two such sculptures. The bronze Torso II (Torcello) (1958) has the appearance of a human torso or single bone and then there is the small Corymb (1959) whose unfurling planes mirror the curled white petals of the neighbouring arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica ‘Crowborough’). Hepworth’s careful positioning of the sculptures around the garden reinforces their association with natural forms that act as a counterpoint. As a visitor you begin to see anew, perceiving the shape, light and texture of bark, leaf, snail shell, bamboo…. the striking beauty of a Cammelia japonica, ballerina pink flower iridescent in a shaft of sunlight.
A few steps down the path and an ominous shrouded figure looms between the dense foliage of palm fronds and tall grasses. Its title, Figure for Landscape (1959-1960), hints at Hepworth’s burning interest in the relationship between the human body and its wider environment. From the Bronze Age standing stones and Celtic carvings to J.M.W. Turner’s visit in 1811 there has long been a dialogue between artists and the landscape of West Penwith. Hepworth was likewise drawn to ‘The barbaric and magical countryside of rocky hills, fertile valleys, and dynamic coastline of West Penwith [that] has provided me with a background and a soil which compare in strength with those of my childhood in West Riding’. The experience of being in a landscape was a tension she could tangibly feel ‘beneath one’s feet’, and was represented in her sculptures by taught strings drawn across hollows and between planes.
You can feel it in the garden. Curving paths lead you around a space quartered into thick, jungle-like beds and pillared with palm trunks. You must peer around corners and move through dark corridors into lighter spaces where the sun sifts through the canopy of trees. The garden cannot be appreciated at a distance, but must be sensually experienced. Hepworth playfully invites you to interact with the sculptures. The smooth ovoid of the bronze River Form (1965), a pool of sun-warmed rain water casting rippled turquoise reflections on the hollow’s roof, tempts you to place your hands in the water and touch. Four Square (Walk Through) 1966 can be physically stood inside. Look up and a cyclorama of cumulus white clouds and blue sky slides across a framed square. Children particularly appreciate this aspect of the garden. It is art without the inhibitions of a silenced gallery, tactile and with a sense of fun.
There is of course a more solemn side to Hepworth’s life and work. Her life was threaded through with tragedy and in 1953 her first child, Paul Skeaping, a RAF pilot died in an air crash over Siam in Thailand. He was just 24. In a shadowy area at the back of the garden, near the greenhouse, stands Cantate Domino (1958), its upright form suggesting hands clasped in prayer or the shape of a solitary flame. Cantate Domino is Latin for ‘O Sing unto the Lord’, the opening line of Psalm 98, and reflects Hepworth’s renewed spirituality following Paul’s death. It closely followed her divorce from Ben Nicolson two years earlier which she described as like losing her right arm. At these times Hepworth’s small Cornish garden provided a salve and a place to retreat to her sculpture work which was in her words ‘primitive, religious, passionate and magical – always affirmative’.
During Hepworth’s rising public acclaim in the 1960s the garden offered a haven of a different sort. After years as a struggling artist during the war, recognition was thrust upon her. She was awarded a CBE in 1958, a DBE in 1965, appointed numerous honorary degrees and granted a plethora of public commissions, including that of Single Form (1964) erected outside the United Nations building in New York. By now she was beginning to suffer from ill health and rarely left St Ives apart from occasional exhibition openings. The garden became enmeshed with her public image. A white wooden summer house where Hepworth would take power naps stands in a corner of the garden, and is appointed with an elderly person’s put-you-up bed and embroidered blue blanket. In later life she developed throat cancer, no doubt caused be a lifetime’s smoking habit, which perhaps inadvertently caused her death in a studio fire in 1975. Hepworth never left Trewyn garden — a testimony to its profound importance to her life as an artist.
(4) A method of carving in which the sculptor carves directly into the material without preparatory models and often working from memory.
(5) A doctrine largely originating from the twentieth century Arts & Crafts movement which rejected industrialised methods and advocated that the innate physical qualities of an artist’s materials should remain visible and dictate its final form.
(6) “Modelling” in this case refers to the practice of making a small model using a material such as clay, wax, or papier-mâché which is later sent off to be scaled up by a professional stonemason or caster.