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Barbara Hepworth & the artists of St Ives

In August 1939, Barbara Hepworth, her young triplets and her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, left London – due to the threat of bombings – for St Ives. In St Ives Hepworth contributed to the development of an existing artistic community, which included Bernard Leach, who had established the Leach Pottery there in 1920. Living in close proximity to the Cornish landscape that was depicted by many fellow St Ives artists, Hepworth reflected in 1946: ‘The main sources of my inspiration are the human figure and the landscape; also the one in relation to the other.’

This timeline looks at a selection of paintings, prints and ceramics in Wakefield's Art Collection made by artists Hepworth knew and worked with in Cornwall. These include two recently donated paintings by Hepworth’s contemporary Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, and ceramics by Bernard and Janet Leach which were once owned by Hepworth and were given to Wakefield by her family in 2011.

Three works gifted to Wakefield at the beginning of 2020 through the Cultural Gifts Scheme are also featured; a stringed bronze sculpture by Hepworth, Orpheus (1956); a bronze sculpture by Denis Mitchell who worked as Hepworth’s principle assistant for ten years; and a newly conserved landscape painting of Cornwall by William Scott.

Please click and drag left & right to scroll the timeline

  1. - Hepworth and St Ives

    Barbara Hepworth lived half of her life in St Ives. She arrived, as a rather unwilling visitor, just before the outbreak of war. However she found it impossible to leave and 10 years later she acquired Trewyn Studio. She wrote to a friend upon buying Trewyn: ‘it will be a joy to carve in such a perfect place, both serene & secluded – the courtyard and garden protected by tall trees and roof tops so that I can work out of doors most of the year.’
  2. - 1933 (Piquet), 1933 (Oil and gesso on board. Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946)

    Hepworth and Nicholson met in 1931 while visiting Norfolk with their mutual friend Henry Moore, as well as others associated with the British avant-garde. They formed a strong bond, both personally and in their shared appreciation of artistic developments in Europe. Influenced by his time spent in 1920s Paris, Nicholson produced several still-life works. This painting of a bottle, plate of fish and the word ‘Piquet’, a French card game, is an allusion to the café life often depicted by French Cubist painters Picasso and Braque.
  3. - Schooner sailing past five houses in the shore, date unknown (Oil on canvas. On loan from a private collection)

    Alfred Wallis spent most of his working life as a fisherman in St Ives, sailing on schooners across the North Atlantic. He began painting at the age of 70 and was ‘discovered’ in 1928 by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood: ‘On the way back from Porthmeor Beach we passed an open door… and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall’. Having little money, Wallis was resourceful and typically used household paints on found pieces of cardboard and wood. This work is unusual for being painted on canvas, which was probably given to him by Ben and Winifred Nicholson.
  4. - Portreath, 1949 (Charcoal and wash on paper. Acquired by the Wakefield Permanent Art Fund, 1971)

    Portreath is a fishing village in Cornwall that appears repeatedly in drawings and paintings by Peter Lanyon, who was born in nearby St Ives. Lanyon was well known within the artistic community in St Ives for immersing himself totally in the Cornish landscape – walking through coastal storms, exploring the subterranean world of mineshafts and scaling vertical cliffs. This was fundamental to Lanyon’s approach to abstraction, born of ‘disturbing one’s own sense of being fixed in relation to a place’.
  5. - St. Ives Churchyard, 1950 (Oil on canvas. Purchased, 1980)

    Born in Headingley, Leeds, Patrick Heron spent his childhood in Cornwall and Welwyn Garden City. After working in London, Heron returned to settle in Cornwall in 1955, where he had access to a more spacious studio and could therefore produce paintings on a larger scale. Helen Kapp, Wakefield Art Gallery’s Director in the 1950s, championed Heron’s work and organised his first retrospective exhibition in 1952.


  6. - The Leach Pottery, St Ives (est. 1920)

    Returning from Japan in 1920, Bernard Leach settled in St Ives, establishing a pottery studio with Shoji Hamada that prided itself in making ‘Pottery for Use’. Leach saw it as his mission to promote the dignity of pottery in an increasingly industrialised context. Janet Leach, the second wife of Bernard Leach, initially trained as both sculptor and potter in New York. She took over management of the Leach Pottery in 1956 and set up her own private studio alongside the standardware workshop. Like Bernard, she made pots thrown on the potter’s wheel but also explored the possibilities of slab-building vessels, like the work shown here.
  7. - Green Skull Form, 1951 (Oil on Canvas. Presented by the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust, 2018)

    Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was born in St Andrews and became one of the foremost painters working in St Ives after moving there in 1940.
  8. - Glacier, 1951-77 (Gouache on paper. Presented by the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust, 2018, with Art Fund support)

    This is one of several works painted following a visit to the Grindelwald Glacier, Switzerland in 1948. Barns-Graham wrote about her impression of the glaciers: ‘fantastic shapes, the contrast of solidity and transparency, the many reflected colours in strong light, the warmth of the sun melting and changing the forms’. She explained that the ‘likeness to glass and transparency, combined with solid rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through, and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience’.
  9. - Small Cornish Landscape c. 1953 (Oil on canvas. Accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Kate Ashbrook and allocated to The Hepworth Wakefield, 2019)

    Inspired by Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, William Scott spent some months in 1935-6 painting in Cornwall. He returned in the early 1950s when he made this painting. Small Cornish Landscape is characteristic of Scott’s work of this period in that the thickly applied ‘impasto’ paint renders each area as robust blocks of white and blue representing the sea, sky and harbour buildings.
  10. - Orpheus (Maquette 1), 1956 (Bronze on wooden base. Accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Kate Ashbrook and allocated to The Hepworth Wakefield, 2019)

    Hepworth’s Orpheus (Maquette 1), 1956, is one of four ‘Orpheus’ works, three of which were editions. This sculpture is an early example of Hepworth’s move from carving predominantly in stone and wood, to working with bronze and brass. Stringed and shaped like a parabola, Orpheus (Maquette 1) may be an allusion to the lyre of the mythical musician.
  11. - Curved Forms (Pavan), 1956 (Metallised plaster)

    This sculpture was made in the year that Hepworth returned to casting in bronze, a practice she had not regularly used since her youth. Although made in plaster, the material has been ‘metallised’ to give the illusion of bronze.  By building up plaster on a metal armature, Hepworth was able to create flowing forms, perhaps to retain what she described as ‘the qualities of molten material’. The title Pavan refers to a stately court dance of the 16th and early-17th centuries, and hints at Hepworth’s lifelong passion for dance and music.
  12. -

    ‘Living and working in St Ives, Hepworth valued greatly the sense of community, both of fellow artists, writers and musicians, and of the town as a whole. In June 1953, the St Ives Festival, co-founded by Hepworth with her friends the composers Michael Tippett and Priaulx Rainier, took place. A courageous project, the 1953 Festival had an imaginative programme that embraced music, drama and the visual arts. It celebrated the two Elizabethan ages on the accession of Elizabeth II, placing contemporary music alongside the work of Tallis, Byrd, Dowland and others, and brought distinguished musicians such as Peter Pears and Alfred Deller to the town.’ (Sophie Bowness, Hepworth and St Ives)
  13. - Island Counterpoint, 1956 (Oil on canvas. Purchased 1956)

    John Wells initially practiced as a doctor on the Isles of Scilly but moved to Cornwall at the end of the Second World War to pursue a career as a painter. In 1946, Wells shared an exhibition with Winifred Nicholson at the celebrated Lefevre Gallery in London and became an assistant to Hepworth alongside Terry Frost in 1949.  Wells often applied thinly washed, scraped and abraded layers of paint over a strongly textured ground, adding pencil over the paint to emphasise areas of greatest intensity. The overlapping lines and layers of colour in this work are reflected in the use of the word ‘counterpoint’ in the title, which refers to the musical relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically yet independent in rhythm and contour.
  14. - June Horizon, 1957 (Oil on canvas. Purchased with aid from the Gulbenkian Fund, 1961)

    In this painting, Heron applied thin washes of pure pigments to the canvas, unmixed except with turpentine, allowing the canvas to shine through. Many of his ‘stripe paintings’ of the late-50s were composed of either horizontal or vertical brushstrokes, in this work he explores a greater sense of depth by painting along both axes.
  15. - Newlyn, Cornwall, 1958 (Oil on canvas. Purchased with aid from Wakefield Corporation, 1963)

    Born in Frankfurt, Paul Feiler studied in London before settling in Cornwall in the early 1950s, where he became associated with the St Ives artists through his friend Peter Lanyon. Feiler described his attraction to the Cornish coastline as being based on his impression ‘of there being no horizontal as far as the sea ending and the sky beginning was concerned… there were these physical things floating about in the middle of nowhere, as silhouettes against the sky.’ In this work, Feiler uses subtle layers of white paint to evoke the quality of Cornish light, demarcating the walls and masts of Newlyn harbour with thickly applied paint and incised lines.
  16. - Terre Verte and White Figure, 1959 (Oil on canvas. Purchased with aid from V&A Purchase Grant Fund, 1976)

    In 1957 Terry Frost returned to St Ives after a three year stay in Leeds. Frost often reflected on the ‘whole change of visual experience’ he experienced in the North of England, recalling his impression of his walks in the Yorkshire Dales: ‘Being in a vast cape of white and cold but brilliant space, the sharp air and smooth folds of white snow resting in fields, hanging on black lines… the space and the silence went with me as I walked, and I was so small.’
  17. - Trevarrack, 1961 (Bronze. Accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from Kate Ashbrook and allocated to The Hepworth Wakefield, 2019)

    Mitchell was Hepworth’s principal assistant between 1949 and ’59, before developing his own practice. Having started out working primarily in wood and stone his focus turned to bronze in the 1960s. When writing of Mitchell’s work in ’69, Patrick Heron described it as ‘the best sculpture of the present time’. Many of Mitchell’s bronzes are titled after Cornish landscapes and this work, Trevarrack, was named after a hamlet near Penzance.
  18. - Freedom of the Borough of St Ives, 1968

    ‘In 1968 Hepworth was granted the Freedom of the Borough of St Ives in recognition of her international contribution as a sculptor, an honour of which she was very proud; in her acceptance speech at the Guildhall ceremony, she spoke of her deep love of St Ives, “my spiritual home”.’ (Sophie Bowness, Hepworth and St Ives). Alongside Hepworth, Bernard Leach was also awarded this honour.
    Link: Watch Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach receive the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of St Ives via BFI Player.
  19. - Drawing of a vase (To Barbara), 1970 (Pen and watercolour on hand-made paper)

    Drawing of a vase (To Barbara), 1970, was drawn for and gifted to Hepworth by her friend Bernard Leach. It was presented to The Hepworth Wakefield in 2011 by Hepworth’s daughters, Rachel Kidd and Sarah Bowness, through the Trustees of the Barbara Hepworth Estate and the Art Fund.
  20. - Untitled (Figure in Yellow Ground), 1970 (Oil on canvas. Accepted by the commission of the Inland Revenue in lieu of tax, 1992)

    Hilton was a prominent member of the St Ives colony of artists, visiting regularly from 1957 and moving permanently to Cornwall in 1965. This is one of the artist’s last oil paintings, made as he entered a period of ill health. Despite this, the work has a great sense of energy, with its spontaneously drawn charcoal lines and bright, unblended areas of colour. ‘I like my colours dynamic and strongly contrasted,’ Hilton wrote, ‘After all, one prefers something alive to something dead.’
  21. - Hepworth remained in St Ives until her death in 1975

    ‘The “barbaric and magical countryside” of West Penwith, as she described it, the remarkable sculptural coastline and prehistoric standing stones, stone circles and quoits, had a very deep effect on Hepworth. Cornwall brought her Yorkshire roots to the fore (she never lost her identity as a Yorkshirewoman), and she found many continuities between the Yorkshire landscape of her childhood and the landscape of Penwith.’ (Sophie Bowness, Hepworth and St Ives)

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