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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.