Visit To Barbara Hepworth and St Ives Museum

St Ives is synonymous with many things such as crystal clear sea, stupendous sandy beaches and surf and excellent local produce made into delicious food dishes. It is also very well known for its famous artists and heritage as a fishing town. We wanted to visit two very different museums today; the Barbara Hepworth Museum and the St Ives Museum so we could show guests staying in holiday cottages in St Ives and day trippers to the town what sort of experience they will get.

Barbara Hepworth Museum

So, who was Barbara Hepworth? And why does she have a museum all about her?

Barbara was born in 1903 in the North of England. She wasn’t born into an artistic family but her father was an engineer. From a young age she showed she had a creative desire by first getting a music scholarship at school and then she went to Leeds School of Art in 1920 for a year. In 1922 she travelled south to the Royal College of Art in London to study sculpture. In 1924, she was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship from her home town council of West Riding and left to stay in Italy. It was there she met her sculptor husband to be John Skeaping. It’s in Italy that Barbara learned to first carve marble in 1925. In 1926, both Barbara and John return to England due to John’s ill health and they re-settled on the outskirts of London in St. John’s Wood. They moved to Hampstead in 1928 where Barbara worked in her studio and exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London. They extended their family in 1929 when their first son was born.

In 1931 she met a fellow artist, Ben Nicholson, who would later be instrumental in her love of St Ives. Sadly, in 1933 Barbara and John divorced after a time of separation. Ben and Barbara moved in together and shared a studio and exhibitions where her very first ‘hole’ sculpture Pierced Form was displayed. Very sadly this was destroyed in the war. They moved to France and rubbed shoulders with some very established and now, very well-known artists exhibiting together and showing in multiple locations across the UK; she was becoming very well-known for her sculptures plus became a Mum of triplets! In 1939, Ben and Barbara made the move to St Ives just before the start of World War Two. It was in 1942, that she and Ben moved to a house where she could carve in the garden and then in 1949 she bought Trewyn Studio in St Ives which was opened as the Barbara Hepworth Museum 1976 by her family.

Barbara Hepworth was a very accomplished sculptor and worked with some of the most talented artists across the world. She suffered tragedy and loss when her first son was killed fighting as a pilot in the war, she was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue in 1965 and broke her leg on the Isles of Scilly in 1967 which gave her mobility issues. She did,  however, enjoy recognition by the Cornish when she was made a Bard in 1968 and was given the bardic name of ‘Gravyor’ (sculptor in Cornish) plus was given the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of St Ives along with her friend and fellow sculptor Bernard Leach.

1972, Trewyn Studios becomes engulfed in flames with 72-year-old Barbara Hepworth inside. She tragically died and the cause of death is a fire caused by a dropped cigarette she had been smoking. Mine is a very brief synopsis of one incredible lady whose talent is evident in every sculpture she has made. This is why I highly recommend a visit to the museum if you are planning a holiday to St Ives to see where she last lived and worked and take in some of the incredible sculptures within her garden. You can feel her energy and get a real sense of her passion for the materials and tools she worked with. The museum charts her life from a young child in photographs and my favourite is Barbara Hepworth sat on the ledge of a rock on Rosewall Hill overlooking the ocean and St Ives. It’s a place you can visit, recreate and see what Barbara saw.

The museum is just off Fore Street so very central, located just a short walk from Trewyn Gardens where there is a memorial to Barbara Hepworth by John Milne (her pupil) in the shape of a sculpture called Megalith. As the museum was where she last worked in her studio, her tools, smocks and materials feel placed just as she had left them before her tragic death. The cost to get in at the time we visited was £8 per adult which was an admission with donation. It is advisable to book tickets online as the museum is very popular and on the day we visited, the small room where the reception desk is and the start of the museum journey charting Barbara Hepworth’s life in photos was very full with people all arriving for their 10.30am slot, like us. You buy tickets on The Tate Museum’s website and the receipt as well as the tickets are emailed to you. Word of advice, check your junk folder if you don’t see an email come from with the subject title Your Tate Tickets. We didn’t get the email (and heard others behind us say the same) at all so it’s always best to query this before arriving on the day (as we did) but we are happy to say, we were allowed in after the receptionist found our purchase.

You step into the museum at the start of the journey showing Hepworth’s life in chronological order in photos and then it takes you upstairs to a gallery of some of her smaller sculptures and artwork. This is the room that was re-built following the fire that tragically killed her. It is slightly ethereal given it’s huge windows and vaulted ceilings painted white, it actually felt a very calming space and you can see why an artist, who loves St Ives’ special light, would choose a studio like this to create. We overheard a few people say that they ‘felt’ Barbara there. You then step out into the gardens that are simply beautiful. It’s definitely best to visit on a dry day as the sculptures and the plants are simply gorgeous and it’s where you may want to spend most of your time, sat on one of the benches immersed in the verdant scenery marvelling at the skill and enormity of Hepworth’s huge, shapely sculptures. Meandering around the garden’s various tiers, the backdrop of St Ives town (that sort of feels a million miles away from the experience you are having!) allows an empathy for Barbara’s inspiration. Her workshops are open to peer into where her smocks, tools, dated tin cans holding utensils, prototype models and huge chunks of granite and marble still sit as if she is about to walk in and start work.

There is a small gift area when you move back into the area you first arrived selling books and postcards; mementos and information that you can cherish even after your visit.

After visiting the Barbara Hepworth Museum, we mooched through Fore Street window shopping and then headed across The Wharf towards Bamaluz Beach where St Ives Museum sits above.

St Ives Museum

St Ives Museum is open from April to October 10.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday and 10.30am to 3.30pm on Saturdays so we loved the opportunity to pop in on a sunny and warm April morning. It would be a perfect place to visit for a few hours on a rainy day too as it’s packed full to the brim of St Ives artefacts and photos which are mesmerising. The museum is over two floors and for the most part is accessible given there is a stair lift from the ground floor to the first floor reception area. It costs just £5 per person entry and we felt it was incredible value for money. We were welcomed by a charming local man who was enthusiastic in telling us about the artwork lining the entire perimeter of the large room we were stood in. He shared with us information about an art historian, David Tovey, who specialises in Cornish artworks and curates the artwork for St Ives Museum. David pays particular attention to the very early pieces of art approaching other galleries and private collectors and looks to refresh the exhibited art regularly. There were impressive pieces of art dating back to 1830 which pre-dated the railway connection to St Ives. When the railway line reached St Ives many more artists visited St Ives to enjoy its very special light and seascapes. To see the huge pieces of art which were over 193 years old was amazing, it is like a huge colour photo representation of how St Ives looked almost 2 centuries ago. Artists back in the 1800’s also clearly had an artistic license to ‘enhance’ St Ives, romanticising it from being a place full of fish, stink and tin mining pollution to something almost heavenly. Spot where one artist added a church on Back Road East!

What you get from walking around the museum is just how hard life was before tourism turned the town from a fishing and mining town to a Victorian holiday resort. Pilchard fishing was the lifeblood of St Ives, in fact its annual catches far exceeded the amount of fish caught and processed then the whole of Cornwall.

Fun Fact: The largest recorded catch of pilchards in St Ives was a day in 1847 when 57,000,000 fish were caught!

On the ground floor of the museum, there is an information video playing on loop which brings alive the St Ives Pilchard Seine Fishery and how life must have been for fishermen, the women who gutted and salted the fish and children that also worked hard in the industry. It’s fascinating and a far cry from the St Ives we know and love now.

There are so many artefacts from St Ives charting its early rural history as well as its fishing heritage. It really is a fascinating collection of local history; The Hain Steamship Company, Textile, The Great Western Railway, History of the Lifeboat, pots, pans, signs, police helmets, truncheons, rock crystals, weighing scales, clothes, books, even The World’s Smallest Dog called Tiny and so much more will allow your imagination to build a real picture of life in St Ives over the centuries and recent decades. The archive of photos is remarkable and the one I most enjoyed as I was able to draw real life comparisons to the then and now.

Article written by Sam Sheppard

After visiting two museums in a morning, we got up a thirst and the nearest coffee shop to the St Ives Museum was the Pier Coffee Shop which serves Illy coffee and tasty little pastries. We bought our refreshments and walked back along The Wharf to our Orange Roofs office feeling full with the rich St Ives heritage we had just soaked up.

For more ideas and inspiration on places to visit and things to do in St Ives, Carbis Bay and the rest of Cornwall, we recommend you browse our Area Guides or dip into our other articles in our Blog.

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