Dame Barbara Hepworth: The True Rival To Picasso

Like Picasso Hepworth changed art for ever…

Dame Barbara Hepworth and St Ives are inseparable, and there is absolutely no doubt that the Tate Gallery in St Ives could not have been built, or even the idea conceived, had she not decided to head for the town in 1939.

Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, on January 10th, 1903. Her father was a civil engineer (she took great inspiration from his work) and was one of four children. Jocelyn had a gift for mathematics — and its application in the world of art — and at the age of sixteen won a scholarship to the Leeds School of Art where one of her fellow pupils was sculptor Henry Moore. Such was Hepworth’s enthusiasm she managed to fit the normal two year course into one, which, in 1921, won her a senior scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London.

Hepworth spent three years at the RCA, where her large and unorthodox body of work earned her a place as a finalist (the first woman ever to do so) in the prestigious and hard-fought-over Prix de Rome sculpture prize. In the end she lost out to John Skeaping, a handsome and driven young artist who later became Hepworth’s husband.

Hepworth’s runner-up status nonetheless earned her a generous grant from the West Riding of Yorkshire authorities which enabled her to travel around Italy (with Skeaping) for the best part of a year.

The couple married in Florence in 1925, eventually settling in Rome where Hepworth underwent extensive training in both wood and stone carving (something the RCA had dismissed as out of date); a hard won skill that was to remain at the very centre of her art for the rest of her life.

Hepworth and Skeaping returned to London in 1926 where they held several joint exhibitions in their small studio at the bottom of their St John’s Wood garden. Their work was well timed, with the rise in interest in all things modern — especially the burgeoning Art-Deco movement — ensuring a high profile that brought them into contact with the wealthy art collector, George Eumorfopoulos, who became their first patron.

Around this time Hepworth met up again with Henry Moore (he lived just down the road in Hampstead) who was at the centre of a small group of avant-garde artists that included the abstract painter Ben Nicholson.

Hepworth’s son Paul was born in 1929, but she and Skeaping were already drifting apart. After several trips abroad (where she and Nicholson met Picasso and Mondrian), and to the wild and desolate coast of Norfolk on painting and sculpting holidays with Moore’s little avant-garde group, Hepworth and Nicholson became lovers. Skeaping left Hepworth in 1931 (he claimed , amongst other things, that she was ‘unsexy’), with Nicholson moving into Hepworth’s house soon after, where they led, as might be expected, a rather bohemian and intense existence. Hepworth gave birth to their triplets (Simon, Rachel and Sarah) in 1934. The couple married in 1938.

But with the world financial situation deteriorating by the day (with less money being spent on art, even by the wealthy), and as a consequence of their own financial position growing ever more precarious, Hepworth and Nicholson decided, in 1939, to take up the offer of their friend and art critic, Adrian Stokes, to move into his house in St Ives where they could live cheaply, and take advantage of the light and the temperate climate. Barbara Hepworth was to spend the rest of her life in St Ives, becoming, over the years, a magnate to dozens of other artists and writers.

If Alfred Wallis was the first great artistic influence to come out of St Ives, and Virginia Woolf the first modern literary figure to be influenced by St Ives, then Hepworth is certainly the most enduring, and most influential and on a par with Picasso, followed closely by Nicholson, whose landscapes and linear abstract work is quite breathtaking in its clarity and vision.

Ben Nicholson was born on the 10th of April 1894, in Denham, Buckinghamshire. His father, Sir William Nicholson, was also a painter who is perhaps best known today for his book illustrations and stained glass windows. Ben’s sister, Nancy Nicholson, was also a painter and fabric designer and the first wife of the poet, Robert Graves.

After returning from New York in 1918, where he’d been operated on for tonsillitis, Ben Nicholson met and fell in love with the artist Winifred Roberts (AKA Dacre), whom he married in 1920. Winifred Nicholson is perhaps now best remembered for her landscapes, which are usually observed from an open window that will invariably feature a vase of flowers or a jug. I feel Ben Nicholson’s work was, to an extent, influenced by Winifred’s.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 the artistic output of Hepworth and Nicholson dropped off as, like most other people, they spent most of their time supporting the war effort and looking after and feeding their children, and taking-in many children from other, less well placed families. It was simply a time of survival.

With the end of the war came new beginnings, not least with the new Labour government, who saw the need for modern art in a free and hard fought for new world.

Hepworth was keen to get back to work and had begun experimenting with new wood carvings that incorporated string and metal.

In a 2003 Guardian article, Fiona McCarthy wrote:

“ Hepworth was only in her early 40s when war ended . The horrific visual images affected her profoundly: the immediate post-war newsreels of Belsen, with their pictures of emaciated human forms, worked into her imagination and encouraged the ‘easy flow’ of art. Her humanistic preoccupations intensified. In 1947 she made a series of drawings of operations in a hospital, becoming absorbed by the balletic interchange, the community of purpose, in a medical environment dedicated to saving human lives.

“ At that time, her moral imperatives were centred on justifying the place of the artist in society. Her sense of herself as part of a community in the small seaside town of St Ives made her all the more eager to take part in Britain’s post-war reconstruction — by making public sculpture for new schools, for civic centres, for taking art out of the studio. This was Hepworth’s most remarkable phase, although, in some ways it was her most frustrating. In 1949 she received the commission for Contrapuntal Forms, the huge double figures in blue limestone, for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Hepworth might be seen as the spirit of the festival, heroically solemn in her political ideals…”

After Hepworth and Nicholson split-up in 1951 Hepworth, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, worked steadily at her Barnoon Hill studio in St Ives, turning out — with the help of such artists as Terry Frost — sculptures for the whole world.

In the 1950s her son, Paul, was killed whilst serving with the RAF in Malaya, an incident she was never able to overcome, and something that is evident in her work from then on.

By the 1970s Hepworth became increasingly ill with cancer of the tongue, and after recovering from a broken hip could, as Fiona McCarthy describes her, “…be seen walking around St Ives gnarled and baleful like a figure in a Greek tragedy.”

Dame Barbara Hepworth died on May 20th, 1975, after a fire in her home.

Today her studio and gardens are run by the Tate Gallery, and they really must be seen on a first visit to the town. I swear you still smell her cigarette smoke as you marvel at her work.

Read: Augustus John: Welsh Artist of Brilliance

Read: William Orpen: An Artist of Life and The Battlefield

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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