Up the steep cobbled Back Lane in St. Ives, Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden look out past the church tower, over the ‘island’ of the old town and across the harbour. It is an idyllic spot, open to the ever-changing Cornish skies and full of verdant foliage and exotic shrubs – amidst which the smooth organic forms of Hepworth’s sculpture sit in comfortable splendour.
The bronze or marble forms might look exquisitely pure in a minimalist whitewashed gallery space or within a modernist architectural piazza, but they truly come alive in the small jungle of this garden, interacting with the twisting stems and softly undulating leaves, the reflections of the lily pond and the dappled light filtering through a network of interlaced branches.
The texture of the sculpture – a perfectly smooth outer shell, the interior moulded or chiselled with a bright greenish patina – reflect the contrasts of rough bark and succulent shiny green leaf.
The pierced forms – the negative volumes giving the heavy materials their vitality and apparent weightlessness – allow the garden to be viewed afresh through each new frame, like a Claudian
glass. Some perform elegant arabesques like metallic ribbons dancing on the wind, while other sit solid and motionless like ancient totems, in eloquent contrast to the transient spring leaves and flowers.
The vibrant red clusters of Japonica on their twiggy branches complement the coppery turquoise patina in the colours of a woodblock print; the pink-tinted camellia blossoms and their glossy leaves display their delicate allure against a hard bronze backdrop.
Slender bamboo stems form a curtain behind a zen-style arrangement of angular polished bronze forms on pale gravel. A greenhouse shelters plaster studies surrounded by dusty cacti and geraniums.
Meanwhile the seagulls screech hoarsely and a dark grey cat dozes unconcerned on a cushioned windowsill in the pale north-easterly sunlight.