There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the presence of greatness.
I was standing in the Trewyn sculpture garden of Barbara Hepworth in St Ives.
I felt awed yet uplifted. It was a kind of spiritual joy. The joy that comes from being elevated from the small-minded mundanity of our usual world - with its paradigms of excess/poverty and domination/oppression - into something transcendent.
TL: View of the sea from Hepworth's garden with Vertical Form 1968-1969 and River Form 1965; TR: Sculpture in the window of Trewyn studios; BL: detail of marks in bronze sculpture; BR: Image(Hopton wood stone) 1951-2 - All bronze by Barbara Hepworth unless otherwise stated. Photos © Cherry Jeffs & Paul Read 2019
About Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth was a British sculptor born in 1903. She studied alongside fellow Yorkshire-born artist Henry Moore at Leeds school of Art, and later at the Royal College of Art in London.
Both Moore and Hepworth became leading practitioners of “direct carving” in which the sculptor starts with a block of material, and cuts away until s/he arrives at the form ‘contained within’ the block. (Yep, as in, ‘How to carve an elephant. Keep cutting away everything that isn’t elephant.’)
From 1932, Hepworth lived with the painter Ben Nicholson and, for a number of years, they worked in close proximity, developing a way of working that was almost like a collaboration. Due to their travels in Europe, they became key figures in an international network of abstract artists.
When war broke out in 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St Ives in Cornwall, and after the war their studios formed a hub for a generation of younger emerging British artists.
Hepworth went on to become probably the best known figure in 20th century British and international sculpture - no mean feat for a woman - especially as she did the demanding work of carving her own sculptures until late in life when she finally took on assistants. Her sculptures reflect her passion for the landscape around her as well as a deep belief in the importance of the possibility of physical interaction between the work and the viewer.
She remained in St Ives for their rest of her days, living and working in her beloved Trewyn studios – now the Barbara Hepworth Museum – from 1949 until she died in a small fire in her studio in 1975.
Photos can't do justice to sculpture
As a teenager, I briefly studied Hepworth’s sculpture but I have never seen her work up close. Looking at books of 1970’s photos certainly hadn’t prepared me for the impact of the real thing.
Although her wooden and stone sculptures are stunning, because of my passion for metallic patinas I am naturally most drawn to the bronzes.
Cutting-edge restoration techniques have brought back the artificial surface patinas to their original resplendence. (Until I saw these sculptures, I didn’t even know that you could apply colour to bronze.*) And, of course, I had the good fortune to visit on a sunny day and see the bronzes at their shining best.
Of all the bronzes Four-Square (Walk Through) from 1966, captivated me most.
Which ever way I looked through the holes there were different juxtapositions of metal, colour, and landscape to enjoy.
But the opportunity to actually walk through a Hepworth sculpture made this experience the pinnacle of my visit to the garden.
“I think every sculpture must be touched...with a sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it and walk away from it.”
How often do we give that much license to the public to interact with our art? Make it that accessible? That much of an inviting encounter?
And yet surely this is the aim of art? To transport the viewer to the 'place' that you were when you made it. To help them stand in your shoes, feel how you felt. To create a bridge between human experiences at a profound level.
Hepworth said that she wanted people to step into her work, to touch it, to interact with it, to be drawn into it. There’s no doubt that she succeeded.
*Read this interesting post how surface patinas are applied to bronze by Lyndsey Morgan who took part in the restoration of the colours on Hepworth’s Four Square sculpture.
Have you been deeply moved by a piece of art?
Have you experienced a profound encounter with a piece of art? (It might be music, theatre, writing...) I'd love to hear in the comments!