Visiting the Barbara Hepworth Museum is like seeing an old friend. I’ve been coming to St Ives since I was a child, and the grande dame of British art’s sculptures feel almost ubiquitous in the sun-drenched, whitewashed seaside town.
When I went to Tate St Ives as a teenager to see a Hepworth retrospective, with the sweeping windows of the main gallery space allowing a panoramic view of Porthmeor beach to be seen between Hepworth’s undulating wooden and stone carvings, it was a eureka moment. Her work defies the traditional and clinical gallery setting unlike any other artist I have ever seen. It is my firm belief that the only way to truly appreciate a Hepworth is to view it surrounded by nature. Preferably, nature at its most dramatic, and wild.
Mimicking the forms, or more broadly, trying to capture the suggestions of nature, was at the root of Hepworth’s ideology. She said herself, “all my sculpture comes out of landscape”. Her place as part of these surroundings was very important, and how a human experienced and interacted with nature even at its most threatening piqued her curiosity.
If I’m ever going to get thrown out of a gallery (and let’s face it, it’ll happen at some stage, it’s just statistically likely), it will be because my tactile nature has got the better of me. My hands twitch when I’m wandering around an exhibition, especially if there is sculpture involved. I want to reach out and experience the texture of the surface, understand the craft process and feel whatever the artist felt when they were making the work.
This is particularly difficult when surrounded by Hepworth’s work, because she totally understood the interactive and almost sensual power of a sculpture. Whatever it is made of, a three-dimensional object exists in the physical world and exhibits the same type of gravitational pull as any other physical form. Surrounding it with glass or a rope barrier is just asking for trouble.
That’s why (although touching generally is still frowned upon), the garden at the Hepworth Museum is one of the most perfect places to experience her sculpture. This is where Hepworth lived, worked and died in a studio fire in the 1975. There’s still an essence of her indomitable spirit about the place; you expect to find her leaning against an unfinished block of marble somewhere, cigarette perpetually in hand, chisel poised, wiry grey hair held back with a scarf.
Wandering around the greenery is a garden of delights for any sculpture lover. Stone, bronze, wood and plaster figures are hidden between trees, next to ponds or behind screens of bamboo. The man-made forms make perfect sense next to the natural ones; in a Hepworth which would otherwise seem completely abstract, the recognisable shape of a tall tree, a twisted branch, or the sweep of a bird’s wing becomes visible.
When it comes to art, context is key. In the case of Hepworth’s work, the context is as important to the viewer’s understanding as the sculpture itself. Landscape and nature shaped Hepworth as an artist throughout the entirety of her career. Forty years after her death, we have to let landscape and nature continue to shape our appreciation of the sculpture she left behind, or else risk losing its meaning entirely.