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Artists and Their Gardens: A Visit to Barbara Hepworth’s St. Ives Studio


At the end of May, my wife Ashley and I had the great pleasure of visiting England and touring so many amazing English gardens! As soon as we touched down in London, we went to the Chelsea Flower Show, a world-renowned plant and landscape design show where top landscape designers install full-scale landscapes that they’ve created just for the event. These gardens are not staged – they’re fully built and planted, which is an incredible feat of engineering and craftsmanship. The theme for this year’s show was sustainability, and we even saw some of our Texas native plants like Red Yucca and Salvia coccinea used creatively in low-water gardens. While in London, we also visited Chelsea Physic Garden, a massive garden established in 1673 with the purpose of growing medicinal plants – incredible! Then we rented a car and headed Southwest, through beautiful Devon County, on to Cornwall, and back up the southern coast. The highlight of the trip for me – the garden where I felt the most inspired, was the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in St. Ives.

Barbara Hepworth was one of the biggest English figures of the modernist art movement that began in the early 20th century. She created famous modern sculptures from marble, bronze, and wood that were inspired by nature – she’s quoted to have said that she wanted to capture how it felt to exist in both the ancient landscape and the modern world. In 1949, after WWII, she moved to Trewyn Studio, now the Barbara Hepworth Museum, where she lived, worked, and gardened until her death in 1975. The museum, including the garden, is now operated and maintained by the Tate Modern, which holds the UK’s national collection of modern and contemporary art.

The museum and garden is set on a hill right in the middle of the tiny cobble streets of St. Ives, in an unassuming building, walled on all sides. When you enter the garden, it’s pure magic. The garden is tiered with multiple levels, connected by narrow pathways, providing countless different viewpoints of the sculptures and the plants with the beautiful city and coastline just over the walls. The garden has been maintained the way Barbara Hepworth and her friend, the composer Priaulx Rainier designed it – lush, tropical, with an English secret garden feel. Some of the sculptures have been placed by gallerists over the years, but many of the larger bronze sculptures were placed there by Hepworth herself.

Parts of her studio were preserved as she left them in the 70s with supplies, tools, models, and raw stone and wood for sculpting. Looking out from the studio doors on the high side of the garden, it was apparent to me that the whole compound – the studio rooms, the plants and trees, the pathways, the walls – is a perfect sculpture. One of my favorite elements was the simple white shed at the corner of the garden with nothing in it except a small bed, which I assume was for napping! I could easily imagine resting there with a book and the door cracked open, with the cool sea breeze coming in.

I thought about how so many of the artists I know are gardeners or vice versa, including Ashley and I (she makes visual art and I make music). We have so many artists, potters, and musicians on the team here at Gill’s, too! Being close to nature encourages inspiration. As Barbara Hepworth said, in a quote from 1936 painted on the wall in her museum, “In the contemplation of Nature, we are perpetually renewed, our sense of mystery and our imagination is kept alive, and rightly understood, it gives us the power to project into a plastic medium some universal or abstract vision of beauty.”

 – Jesse


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