Barbara Hepworth and Yorkshire

Learn about the artist's relationship with her home-county.

By The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth at Trewyn Studio (1961) by Rosemary MathewsThe Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth spent the early years of her life in the city of Wakefield in West Yorkshire, an area famous for its coal mining and wool and cotton trade.

Euro(Bri-E) Yorkshire RichmondLIFE Photo Collection

'I know that all I felt during the early years of my life in Yorkshire is dynamic and constant in my life today.'

~ Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927 to 1954

Cow and Calf rocks above Ilkley, West Yorkshire by Lee Sheldrake/Penwith Photo PressThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1921 Hepworth moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art and never again lived in Yorkshire. Despite this, she often wrote about the influence of her early memories of the Yorkshire landscape. In 1964 she commissioned a series of photographs of Yorkshire for her book Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor’s Landscape.

High Street at Haworth, West Yorkshire by Lee Sheldrake/ Penwith Photo PressThe Hepworth Wakefield

'More and more I observed the granite sets, the steep hills of industrial Yorkshire, the scurrying of mill girls in their shawls huddled against the cold and wind –the lonely figure against a street gas-lamp, the squatting miner outside his door, and the gleaming ‘withinness’ of his sparkling ugly house.'

~Barbara Hepworth, ‘A Sculptor’s Landscape’, 1966

Haworth, West Yorkshire (1964) by Lee Sheldrake/Penwith Photo PressThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s early experiences of Yorkshire were not simply of pastoral, rural landscapes, but of the industrial heartlands of West Yorkshire. Travelling across the county with her father, first a civil engineer and latterly County Surveyor for the West Riding, she experienced these landscapes in transit as ‘a sort of bird’ from her father’s car.

Photograph of the Yorkshire landscape commissioned by Barbara Hepworth in 1964 (1964) by Lee Sheldrake/ Penwith Photo PressThe Hepworth Wakefield

'I became a sort of bird soaring over the landscape. My father would mention very quietly the stresses and strains of roads and bridges and we would continue to float through the landscape in our private thoughts. It was an early and very high car, which enabled us to see over hedges...'

'..At the furious pace of about 25 miles per hour, and being very careful not to disturb the horses and drivers of their carts, we roamed through the dales and valleys and up the moors, and through the Pennines. From the deep indigo and blacks and scarlets of the industrial heart we sailed through unimaginable beauty of unspoiled countryside.'

~Barbara Hepworth, ‘A Sculptor’s Landscape’, 1966

Cow and Calf rocks above Ilkley, West Yorkshire (1964) by Lee Sheldrake/Penwith Photo PressThe Hepworth Wakefield

When Hepworth retrospectively recalled her early memories of Yorkshire, she described it in sculptural terms with a focus on tactile experience. 

'All my early memories are of forms and shapes and texture. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the forms. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fullness and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me. I, the sculptor, am the landscape.'

~Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970

In her recollections, Hepworth’s focus is not only on the landscape itself –whether natural or industrial – but on the relationship between an individual or group and their surroundings, what she would later term the ‘figure in the landscape’.

'I cannot write anything about landscape without writing about the human figure and human spirit inhabiting the landscape.'

Robin Hood's Bay (1920) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

It was at Robin Hood’s Bay, where the Hepworth family holidayed annually, that Hepworth first began to ‘co-ordinate the human figure and landscape’, observing the importance of a figure standing far out on the rocks.

Study of Robin Hood's Bay (1920) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Robin Hood’s Bay also offered Hepworth an early opportunity to interact with the artistic community based in the village.

'Artists lived in Robin Hood’s Bay and I was able to go and sniff the smell of paint and canvas and explore this wonderful free world of changing light and tide and colour.'


~Barbara Hepworth, ‘A Sculptor’s Landscape’, 1966

Barbara Hepworth, Leeds School of Art (circa. 1920) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

It was also in Yorkshire where Hepworth first began her formal art training. At Wakefield Girl’s High School, the headmistress Miss McCroben recognised her talents and encouraged Hepworth to take the Junior County Scholarship exam in 1920 to attend Leeds School of Art. 

Henry Moore (2004-01-06) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Here she first met the sculptor Henry Moore and painters Raymond Coxon and Edna Ginesi, with whom she would continue her studies at the Royal College of Art. 

After Dulac (1921) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The education programme at Leeds focused on drawing, including life drawing, modelling, perspective and anatomy. Few of Hepworth's works from this period now survive, but one rare example is the watercolour study After Dulac (1921). Edmund Dulac was an illustrator and costume and stage designer whose work was  popular during Hepworth’s student days.

Edna Ginesi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in Paris, 1922 or 1923 (1922/1923)The Hepworth Wakefield

In 1921 Hepworth won a senior scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art. She was joined by Henry Moore, Edna Ginesi and Raymond Coxon, who collectively became known as the ‘Leeds Table’. 

Hepworth and her fellow students eagerly followed the Paris art scene and visited the city several times, where they would divide their time between visiting galleries and free life-drawing classes at Colarossi and Grande Chaumiere academies.

Pierced Hemisphere (1937/1937) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Yorkshire was also the county that gave Hepworth some of her first exhibitions. By 1937 she had started participating in the Wakefield Art Gallery annual West Riding Artists’ Exhibition. In 1940 Hepworth’s father bought her sculpture Pierced Hemisphere I (1937) and presented it to the gallery.

'I should like to have an exhibition at Wakefield – I think I’m less known in Wakefield than anywhere! Partly because I have never been back there & don’t know anybody living there except you, & partly because sculpture is so difficult for most people to understand.'

~Barbara Hepworth to Ernest Musgrave, 1942

By 1942 Hepworth was in discussion with the director of  Wakefield Art Gallery, Ernest Musgrave, about the possibility of holding an exhibition. Her first retrospective was planned to take place in 1943 at Temple Newsam in Leeds, alongside Paul Nash. This was followed by a solo exhibition at Wakefield Art Gallery in 1944, which toured to Halifax.

Poster from early Hepworth exhibition at Wakefield Art Gallery, 1951 (1951) by The Hepworth WakefieldThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1951 Hepworth had a second retrospective at Wakefield Art Gallery as part of Wakefield’s contribution to the Festival of Britain celebrations.

Barbara Hepworth with Frank Atkinson, Director of Wakefield Art Gallery, at her exhibition at the gallery, May 1951The Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth made her first visit to her birthplace since the 1920s for the exhibition. It was opened on 19 May 1951 by the Yorkshire-born writer and critic Herbert Read, who had been an important friend and champion of her work since the 1930s.

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