Barbara Hepworth was a British sculptor, who was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903. She was a leading figure in the international art scene throughout a career spanning five decades.
Hepworth studied at Leeds school of Art from 1920-1921 alongside fellow Yorkshire-born artist Henry Moore. Both students continued their studies in sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. Both became leading practitioners of the avant-garde method of Direct Carving (working directly in to the chosen material) avoiding the more traditional process of making preparatory models and maquettes from which a craftsman would produce the finished work.
From 1924 Hepworth spent two years in Italy, and in 1925 married her first husband, the artist John Skeaping, in Florence; their marriage was to last until 1931.
From 1932, she lived with the painter Ben Nicholson and, for a number of years, the two artists made work in close proximity to each other, developing a way of working that was almost like a collaboration. They spent periods of time travelling throughout Europe, and it was here that Hepworth met Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian, and visited the studios of Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Jean Arp and Sophie Taueber-Arp. The experience was a hugely exciting one for Hepworth, for she not only found herself in the studios of some of Europe's most influential artists, which helped her to approach her own career with renewed vigour and clarity, but also found there mutual respect. The School of Paris had a lasting effect on both Hepworth and Nicholson as they became key figures in an international network of abstract artists.
By now married and with triplets as well as a son from her first marriage, when war broke out in 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St Ives. Though she didn’t know it, the seaside town would remain her home for their rest of her life, and after the war she and Nicholson became a hub for a generation of younger emerging British artists such as Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Terry Frost – who was Hepworth’s studio assistant for a time. As she had found, the wild beauty of the surrounding terrain offered a counter to the disruption and destruction of the war. And, like her, those artists made paintings and sculptures inspired by the place and the forces and their experience of nature.
Though concerned with form and abstraction, Hepworth’s art was primarily about relationships: not merely between two forms presented side-by-side, but between the human figure and the landscape, colour and texture, and most importantly between people at an individual and social level.
Hepworth is known first and foremost as a sculptor, but she also worked in other mediums – and was very interested in documenting her own work through photography. The landscape around St Ives became part of the way her works were presented in the media; St Ives Bay, Godrevy Lighthouse and The Island all become compositional tools for those documenting her works, creating an additional dialogue between the forms and their surroundings.
From 1947–49, during an illness her daughter suffered, Hepworth produced a series of drawings and paintings based on her time observing doctors and surgeons at St Mary’s hospital in Exeter.
Barbara Hepworth’s name is still intertwined with the history and culture of St Ives and her studio and sculpture Garden remain one of the town’s most popular destinations. In the town where Hepworth was born, as well as housing a rich archive of the artist’s work and serving as a platform for contemporary artists working today, The Hepworth Wakefield also pays lasting homage to an artist who spoke frequently of the effect her surroundings had on her formative years.
In her lifetime, however, she was also a major international figure, showing her work in exhibitions around the globe. As a woman in a largely male-dominated art-world, Hepworth took an active role in the way her work was presented. She was particular about documentation of her works, and collaborated closely with others. She established innovative ways to push the boundaries of her technique and thematic investigations and sustained a career that saw her mount a retrospective at Kröller-Müller Museum in 1965, represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and won first prize at the São Paulo Bienal in 1959.