Magic Stones: A tour of Barbara Hepworth’s garden, St Ives

Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons; Barbara Hepworth measured hers in stones. Or rather, our guide, Andrew Jackson, marks the stages of Hepworth’s life in relation to her sculptures, taking us through the sequence of their development from neo-classical representation, through ‘primitive’ depiction, to abstraction, perforated and strung forms, and eventually to the large bronzes that are sited in the garden.

Not much of the tour concerns the garden. For the most part, we are in the studio, and only for the later years do we move outside. We learn a few snippets about it. The summer house, soon to be renovated, used to rotate, in order to catch the sunlight. Hepworth, when frail and in need of rest, used to lie here, while assistants carried out work in the studio. However, her sense of pride meant that if a visitor came to discuss a commission, the assistants would have to run up the garden and hide in the greenhouse.

The garden was purchased in 1949 and extended in 1957 and in the 1970s, when a piece of land was bought for the siting of the 6 piece sculpture ‘Conversation with Magic Stones’ (Dickinson 2016). In Hepworth’s time, Dickinson notes, the garden would have been more open to the sky and views, while providing a sheltered, somewhat mediterranean feeling, so illustrating perfectly the ‘prospect/refuge’ theory of garden design, which proposes we appreciate a place of safety, with a view of what lies beyond.

I remembered, from previous visits, an impression of the sculptural quality of the planting: cordylines, yucca, agave, bamboo and cacti in the greenhouse. This is still the case, though in this season Japanese anemones, fuschia, roses and other flowers are also dominant. In the spring, I expect the cherry tree is spectacular, but I have not seen it in blossom.

The massive central sculpture, with its square forms and large round holes is, Jackson points out, reminiscent of the church clock tower, which can be glimpsed between the trees.

As Jackson tells us about Hepworth, he is at pains to point out her struggle and I’m struck by the enormous focus and determination it took to develop this career. The sacrifices made seemed enormous for a bunch of cold stones. Although by no means the whole picture of the family’s experience, impossible not to shiver a bit on hearing that she and Ben Nicholson placed their three babies in full time care away from home, and later in boarding school (even if it was the progressive Dartington Hall). Jackson points to a small sculpture of three grey stones, making a connection between these and the triplets. I thought to myself, though feeling disloyal to her as a woman, that I could never believe that the exchange was worth it for either parent. But this is one reason why I will never achieve anything as immense, solid, perfect as their work, which crystallised, almost literally, through that dedicated focus.

Our guide tells us that although Hepworth’s sculptures were clearly influenced by the landscape, she felt ‘in tension’ with it, and that her use of strings, like the strings of a guitar, were intended to express this. ‘What tension could one feel…?’ he mused, acknowledging his own pleasure, as a retiree in the azure and gold light-box of St Ives. At another point, though, Hepworth said ‘I am the landscape’, and at yet another, traced her sculptural sensitivity back to the experience of the forms, shapes and textures of the West Riding landscape, growing up (cited in McCarthy 2003). Is this the tension, between sensitivity to landscape, submergence in landscape, pulling back from and resisting the landscape to create new shapes, new contours, that are not, fundamentally about depicting a world, but abstractions, born of one’s own mind, hand and labour?

I remembered visiting artist Naomi Frears in her Porthmeor Studio, and being struck that she said she rarely looked at the astonishing view outside her window. The work was not about that, and there was a need for attention to the work being produced. Like Hepworth’s, that made its own demand – resisting, if appreciating, the competing demands of the wider, sensory world.







Thanks to Andrew Jackson and Tate St Ives for the tour of the Barbara Heptworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives.

Dickinson, Jodi (2016), ‘Barbara Hepworth Museum, Gardener’s Notes 15/08/16’, accessed 4th September 2017.

MacCarthy, Fiona (2003), ‘The Ambition of Barbara Hepworth’The Guardian, Saturday May 17th.