By Armitage, Simon
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4640
It is 100 years since Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The house where she was brought up -- a less than prepossessing terrace in an unprestigious postcode -- belies the fact that she enjoyed a relatively comfortable lifestyle, and recordings of hervoice suggest a plumminess not normally associated with this former coal-mining area. Hep worth was the daughter of the county surveyor, and some of her first recollections were of the hills and peaks of the Yorkshire skyline, as seen from the window of her father's car - here was an artist who would not be confined by her immediate circumstances, whose future lay above and beyond the horizon. An education at Wakefield Girls' High School indulged her interest in many of the arts, including poetry, dance, music and painting, and led to her enrolling, at the age of just 15, at Leeds college of Art. There she came into contact with Henry Moore, and by this time her destiny was decided. She went on to study at the Royal College of Art, and then to Italy. Not surprisingly, the sight of classical sculpture basking in Mediterranean light came as something of a revelation to a young woman more used to the smog of London and the soot-blackened buildings of her hometown. With her imagination thoroughly sandblasted by the experience, she returned to England, eventually settling in the small Cornish town of St Ives.
It is said that the intensity of light in St Ives is the highest in the country (now a scientifically proven fact). It has also been said that the smell of fish in the once-thriving pilchard port was strong enough to stop the church clock. Today, the aroma of marine life is more likely to come from the kitchen windows of the town's many fine restaurants and trendy cafes. The trawlermen may be few and far between, but the narrow streets of St Ives's quirky "downalong" area are jammed for many months of the year by holiday makers lured into this geographical bottleneck not just by its promise of ultraviolet rays, but by its standing as an artists' colony. Patrick Heron, Alfred Wallace and Ben Nicholson (Hepworth's second husband) are just a few of the local legends. The Tate St Ives acts as a kind of emporium of their reputations, and also as an important venue, attracting international exhibitions to one of Britain's most far-flung regions.
A couple of hundred yards across the isthmus is another shrine of sorts, the Barbara Hepworth Museum, the garden of which is a suntrap, so much so that many of Hepworth's pieces are to be found lurking beneath the fringes of robust-looking palm trees or competing for glory alongside exotic plants. Through the glass of the wooden conservatory, visitors can peer into the ordered chaos of Hepworth's Trewyn studio, untouched since her working days or painstakingly recreated where needed. If nothing else, the chisels, hammers and great slabs of stone are a reminder of the sheer physicality of the art form, giving the impression of a builder's yard rather than the workspace of a sensitive artist. She died there in a fire in 1975.
In almost total contrast is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where the Hepworth Centenary Exhibition has recently opened. To the east of the park, the M1 can be seen and heard, and the cluster of buildings on the southern horizon is Barnsley. The contrast with St Ives, however, is not one of urban versus rural, or even north versus south, but one of space. Among Britain's most enlightened tourist attractions, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is actually a country estate comprising more than 500 acres of managed land - a virtual community, in fact, where dry-stone wallers, lumberjacks and members of many trades coexist with artists and art. So, when visiting the Hepworth, wear decent footwear and a coat, and begin with the bronzes. …