HEPWORTH, Barbara (1903-1975) and SKEAPING, John (1901-1980)
Plaque erected in 2020 by English Heritage at 24 St Ann's Terrace, St John’s Wood, London, NW8 6PJ, City of Westminster
BARBARA HEPWORTH 1903-1975 JOHN SKEAPING 1901-1980 Sculptors lived and worked here in 1927
The sculptors and married couple Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping lived at 24 St Ann’s Terrace, St John’s Wood in 1927, during the early stages of their careers. Hepworth broke new ground with her abstract sculptural forms and became a pioneering figure in British modernism, while Skeaping ultimately moved away from the avant-garde to become a renowned Animalier – a specialist in the realistic representation of animals. For both, the blue plaque at 24 St Ann’s Terrace represents a significant period in their artistic development.
24 St Ann’s Terrace
By the time Hepworth and Skeaping moved into number 24, they had been married for two years. Their mutual friend Henry Moore had put them in touch while they were studying sculpture in Italy and, following a whirlwind romance, they married in Florence in 1925. Both had displayed artistic promise from an early age – Hepworth won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1921 while Skeaping studied at the Royal Academy. He later beat Hepworth and others to win the Prix de Rome competition in 1923.
The basement flat at 24 St Ann’s Terrace was leased to them by the writer Leo Walmsley who, like Hepworth, was a Yorkshire émigré. A former billiard room to the rear served as the studio, which was spacious and bright, being top-lit by a glass roof. Walmsley, trying to write in his attic upstairs, would envy the physicality of their work as he listened to the incessant thump of mallet on stone.
Outside, Skeaping built an aviary that ran the length of its wall which, he recalled:
house[d] the birds we had brought back from Italy – a colourful collection of budgerigars, weavers, waxbills and Nyasaland lovebirds … Life was delightful – the only commodity we lacked was money.
When funds were particularly low, Skeaping would collect stones and hard-woods from Hampstead Heath, but when they could, the couple bought stone from specially selected quarries or sought out dealers in exotic woods, such as Acacia and Burmese hardwoods.
The few but important surviving artworks from this period reveal the couple’s joint interest in representative yet simplified sculptures – particularly of animals and the human form. In 1927 they held a joint studio exhibition – Hepworth’s first exhibition – and their work caught the eye of art collector George Eumorfopoulos. He bought several of their pieces, including Hepworth’s Seated Figure and Mother and Child, and introduced the couple to other influential figures in the art world, including collectors and curators from the British Museum and the V&A.
They left number 24 in early 1928 and moved to Mall Studios, Belsize Park, but their relationship broke down shortly afterwards and they separated in 1931. During their time at St Ann’s Terrace, Skeaping was the better-known artist – he had received commissions from Wedgwood and exhibited in group exhibitions – but it was Hepworth who would go on to make her name as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century.
HEPWORTH’S LATER CAREER
In the 1930s Hepworth pursued her interest in abstraction. In 1931 she produced Pierced Form, her first work that featured a hole as part of the form – an idea that was later taken up by Henry Moore and would form part of their artistic dialogue. Some consider Hepworth’s works from this time as the world’s very first completely abstract sculptures. She moved in avant-garde artistic circles, including the modernist London Group and the Seven and Five Society. In addition to Moore, other influential figures in her life and work included Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Walter Gropius and her lover and future husband, Ben Nicholson.
Hepworth moved to St Ives in Cornwall with Nicholson in 1939, and it is with Cornwall that her work is now most closely associated. While here she moved away from pure abstraction and started to incorporate references to the landscape in her work – from the shapes of pebbles and rocks to the movement of tides, and the form of ancient standing stones and prehistoric remains.
Some of her most significant commissions in her career include Contrapuntal Forms and Turning Forms for the Festival of Britain (1951), Monolith (Empyrean) (1953) – originally placed at the South Bank, but now on display in the grounds of Kenwood – Meridian (1958–9) for State House in High Holborn, London, and Winged Figure (1962), which can still be seen outside the John Lewis store on Oxford Street.
Hepworth was made a Dame in 1965, and became a Tate trustee in the same year – serving until 1972. She died in a fire at her St Ives studio on 13 May 1975 and was buried in the town’s cemetery, where her grave is marked by a self-carved monument.
SKEAPING’S LATER CAREER
In 1932 Skeaping was one of the chosen artists for the 18th Venice Biennale, and in 1933 he produced a large wooden carved horse, which was originally placed at Whipsnade Zoo, and now resides at the Tate Britain. He had a successful solo exhibition at Arthur Tooth gallery the following year, but it was to be his last exhibition in 17 years. Skeaping had been strongly influenced by Hepworth’s interest in abstraction, but for him the pull of the modern wasn’t as strong and he left the avant-garde circles they had moved in.
His love of portraying animals remained, however, and in the 1940s he moved with his second wife, Morwenna Ward, to Dartmoor, where he raised greyhounds and carved the local granite. He taught sculpture at the Royal College of Art from 1948, becoming a professor in 1953.
Skeaping left England for southern France in 1959, and over the next couple of decades specialised in the modelling and casting of bronze equine statues. He sculpted seven champion racehorses, which were commissioned by their owners, and by the late 1970s he had become the foremost equestrian sculptor of the 20th century. His success rested on his ability to combine the process of imagination needed to portray animals with his practical experience and knowledge of how the animal moved.
In 1979 Skeaping was given a retrospective exhibition of bronzes at Arthur Ackermann's Gallery, London, and he died the following year on 5 March.