Why Barbara Hepworth’s success was truly forged in Hampstead

Barbara Hepworth. Picture: Tate photography

Barbara Hepworth. Picture: Tate photography - Credit: Archant

The artist is closely associated with St Ives, but as a Tate exhibition shows, she made her name among a group of modernist artists living in Hampstead, says Alsion Oldham.

Hepworth, Barbara (1903-1975): Discs in Echelon, 1935.. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Hepworth, Barbara (1903-1975): Discs in Echelon, 1935.. New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) - Credit: www.scalarchives.com

Barbara Hepworth is now so closely associated with St Ives, where she lived for the last half of her life, that she was described as a Cornish sculptor in an article promoting the current retrospective at Tate Britain. Yet she believed that her Yorkshire upbringing was central to her art.

“Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent trying to say it,” she wrote in 1951.

She made her name during her 13 years in Northwest London, when she was a core member of the group of modernist artists and designers living in and around Hampstead.

Hepworth first settled in the area through her connection with the Yorkshire author and naturalist Leo Walmsley, whom she met when he worked at a marine laboratory in the fishing village of Robin’s Hood Bay where she holidayed as a child. She collected seaweeds which he identified.

They became reacquainted after meeting in a King’s Road restaurant when she was a student at the Royal College of Art in the early 1920s and he was writing short stories. He modelled the appearance of his heroine in the 1926 story The Green Rocket on Barbara’s striking features and dress style. That year marked Hepworth’s return to London after three years studying in Italy, where she had married John Skeaping, a virtuoso carver of animals. Walmsley invited them to live in the basement flat of his house in St Ann’s Terrace, St John’s Wood and its billiard room became their studio.

The earliest Hepworth sculpture in the exhibition, Doves, was made there in 1927. Walmsley’s description in his autobiography So Many Loves suggests how contemporaries responded: “A pair of doves sitting head to tail, carved life-size from a single block of marble; they were eyeless, feetless, and had neither visible bills nor individual feathers, only what Barbara called ‘significant form’ and so little of this I thought that unless I had been told, I would not have recognised them as doves at all.”

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Others were more appreciative and Walmsley recalls the collector George Eumorfopoulos calling in his Rolls-Royce to buy works by Hepworth. Such sales enabled the Skeapings to take a larger studio.

They moved to 7, The Mall Studios off Parkhill Road in Belsize Park in 1928 and their son Paul was born the following year but the marriage foundered. Barbara stayed at the studio when John left after she met her second husband, Ben Nicholson, in 1931. Barbara and Ben lived there with their triplets, born in 1934, until they evacuated to the St Ives area on the outbreak of war.

The first half of this exhibition, titled Sculpture for a Modern World, covers Hepworth’s London period. It puts her early stone and wood sculptures in context, showing them alongside direct carvings by her predecessors and peers including Skeaping and Henry Moore.

The focus of the adjoining gallery is her artistic relationship with Nicholson, juxtaposing her early abstract sculptures with his paintings and drawings which often make use of her distinctive profile. This is preserved in a rarely seen self-photogram which she made in 1933.

The photograph albums that the two artists compiled show them with their works, demonstrating a shared idea of life integrated with art. Blown-up images of the Mall studio reveal their careful arrangement of objects to create new experiences – fishing floats, pebbles and bottles.

This ambitious exhibition has most of Hepworth’s surviving abstract carvings from the later 1930s, including the original Padouk wood version of the elegant Discs in Echelon, carved in 1935 and cast in bronze in 1959. Another highlight is the reunion of four carvings, made in 1954-5 from huge logs of sumptuous African hardwood guarea, widely held to be the pinnacle of her carving career.

Whilst working on the largest she wrote to art historian AM Hammacher: “A great cave is appearing within it and I have tunnelled right through the 48 inches and daylight gleams within it. It is terribly exciting to have such enormous breadth and depth. When I have finished perhaps I shall be able to get inside it.”

Hepworth’s writings are collected into a new book from Tate Publishing - Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, edited by her granddaughter Sophie Bowness (£24.99).

Until October 25 at Tate Britain, Millbank SW1, daily 10am to 6pm, £16.30 and concessions.