We’ve been doing a fair bit of walking lately – I blame the sunshine – so it wasn’t a great surprise on leaping from my bed this morning (yeah, right) to discover my knees had been removed during the night and replaced by a vastly inferior pair, completely unfit for purpose.
We’d already arranged to go to St Ives today, driving as far as the splendidly named Lelant Saltings and taking the scenic route train into town.
‘We could try the Barbara Hepworth exhibition again, ‘ Marigold said, ‘or even the Tate. They don’t know we’re coming as we only decided last night.’
We’ve been to St Ives several times in the past couple of years and each time have seen our hopes of cultural enlightenment dashed as both the Barbara Hepworth museum and Tate Gallery were closed. This happened so often we had started to take it as a personal slight, but this time we may foil them as they may not be expecting us.
They don’t muck about in St Ives; when an attraction closes its doors they stay closed for six months or so. Marigold and I have renovated entire ruined houses in less time than that.
We reached the roundabout leading to the Park and Ride at Lelant Saltings, only to miss the exit and had to stay on the roundabout for another circuit. Marigold was driving but was most insistent the fault lay elsewhere as her navigator had failed to say ‘it’s the next exit’ the required five times. On our second trip around the roundabout Marigold decided unilaterally to take the previous exit.
‘I decided we’d drive in, not go on the train,’ Marigold explained, not entirely convincingly.
‘I also decided the traffic might be bad so you can drive.’
We swapped over at the next lay-by. Marigold has not yet fully recovered from a juggernaut she was following down a narrow lane suddenly deciding to reverse. No idea what the technical term is for juggernaut induced trauma but it’s chiefly manifested by an acute dislike of narrow roads, traffic cones and most other road users.
We try and refine our parking options on the way into town. Even if we’d come on the train it’s a bit of a hike down the hill – hard work for knees – so we find a space (phew!) in the same car park we used on our last visit; the one with the big mural on the wall.
As I’m taking a photo of aforementioned mural, a man in a people carrier decides it is a good idea to reverse his car into a space at least a foot too narrow for his car, right at the car park entrance, thus blocking the road for everyone else. I can see his car won’t fit into the space, as can Marigold and a couple of local residents who offer the driver the benefit of their advice in colourful terms. Undeterred, the driver keeps trying every possible angle, seemingly without any concern for the traffic behind him now blocking the road completely.
One of the locals, morbidly obese and wearing an off white vest and very tight trousers, decides he has seen enough, walks over to the deluded would be parker and bangs a meaty hand on the bonnet.
‘Oy,’ he shouts, ‘it ‘ain’t gonna go in that space. Go away.’ (He doesn’t actually say ‘go away’ but words to that effect, one of which ends in ‘off.’)
The driver looks at him calmly, winds down the window and says ‘I always park in that space.’
We can only assume the space between the two neighbouring cars must have been wider on every other occasion.
We leave them to it as the overweight local seems to be getting even more agitated and could have a seizure at any moment Fortunately, there’s a funeral home over the road.
We walk down the hill, well aware that at some stage we will have to head uphill again to reach the Barbara Hepworth Museum. My knees are protesting at every step, but courageously I utter not one word of complaint. Well, hardly any! I am aware such symptoms of caducity, allied to increased hearing loss, are unlikely to gain much sympathy as I had mentioned my intention to strap my knees before leaving this morning, but forgot.
Better add short term memory loss to the decrepitude list.
The Hepworth Museum is great and the sculptures in the garden look fabulous in the sunshine. The artist said she ‘loathed’ seeing her work exhibited in galleries with only blank walls as a backdrop, and seeing them here, surrounded by flowers intermingling with tall bamboo it’s hard to disagree.
I recently read a biography of the artist and one sentence stayed with me:
Hepworth wrote: ‘Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one's life is spent trying to say it.’
Profoundly thought provoking I felt at the time and reading that sentence back after writing it now I still feel the same.
Hepworth was a leading figure in the colony of artists who resided in St Ives during the Second World War, but her work as a sculpture first came to my attention in my teens when I made my first of many visits to Twickenham to watch a rugby international.
On the morning of the match me and a group of other boys found ourselves in Central London, sightseeing, and I noticed a metal sculpture on the wall of the John Lewis department store. I was interested in art, but what fixed the occasion in my mind was having recently seen another metal sculpture recently installed over the main entrance of Lewis’s store in my home city. The ‘tin man’ as the locals called it, wasn’t particularly well received but I liked it and liked this London version, bigger, more stylish and stunningly impressive, even more.
I read up on that John Lewis sculpture. 19 feet high and called simply ‘Winged Figure’ it had been created here in St Ives, first as a wooden prototype, then constructed at actual size from sheet aluminium.
The main body of the final work was cast in aluminium by the founders Morris Singer in Walthamstow, with supporting rods of stainless steel. It was installed on the John Lewis building on Sunday, 21 April 1963, (so I saw it soon after it made its first appearance) on a plinth 13 feet above the pavement. It was refurbished for its 50th anniversary in 2013.
I’ve no idea how much Barbara Hepworth received for her work of genius, still attracting attention 55 years later, but a brass maquette – a small scale model of the intended sculpture - for Winged Figure made in 1957, i.e. six years prior to the finished article, sold at Christie's in November 2012 for 422,500 dollars, round about £325,000. Just for the rough draft scale model.
Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth was born in 1903 in Yorkshire and moved to St Ives with her second husband in 1939, never to leave again. She had a son from her first marriage and five year old triplets in tow, but from reading her autobiography it appears work took precedence for most of the time. The triplets were farmed out to nursery and boarding school and were never allowed in Hepworth’s studio when she was working. She told an interviewer in 1966 that ‘we lived a life of work and it is taxing if the children fall ill. That becomes a strain.’
Trewyn Studio appeared to satisfy her every wish: ‘Here was a studio, a yard, and garden where I could work in open air and space.’ She increased her studio space when she purchased the Palais de Danse, a cinema and dance studio, across the street from Trewyn in 1960 and used this new space to work on larger commissions.
Barbara Hepworth's studio and garden remain as they were when she lived and worked here for 26 years until her death in a fire on the premises in 1975. I was particularly taken by her workshop; untidy, full of tools and dusty old working clothes. I have a shed very like it.
Her sudden death at the age of 72 was not a complete surprise. Hepworth had cancer and much preferred whisky and cigarettes to food, but her lifestyle at that time was only the indirect cause of her death. She died in a fire while working in her studio, undoubtedly while drunk as she was for much of the time, according to her biographer, Sally Festing.
A remarkable woman and a great talent. We enjoyed our visit here so much. Hepworth was a slender, quite small woman yet defied the assumption that carving vast pieces of stone required brute strength. A woman in what had long been considered a man’s world she certainly was but decried any attempts by others to label her a feminist.
‘I hadn’t much patience with women artists trying to be women artists,’ she once said. ‘At no point do I wish to be in conflict with any man or masculine thought … Art is anonymous. It is not competition with men. It’s a complementary contribution.’
We walked down to the harbour, not with any great expectations of seeing the nine foot shark that had visited the harbour yesterday. We probably won’t be swimming here today, just in case. He’d have been welcome to bite a chunk out of my knees, as that’s what my various surgeries have amounted to, but that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go.
The tide was almost completely out as we reached the harbour with fishing boats and pleasure craft canted at unnatural angles on the sand, but by the time we reached the end of the harbour wall an hour later they were all bobbing around in the briny.
We called for a cool drink at the Sloop Inn, a St Ives institution since 1312. It’s a real pub, dark and a bit dingy inside and pretty noisy too. I love the drawings on the walls of local characters by Hymie Segal, but a mobile phone is hardly conducive to taking photographs in such a low light and so, sorry, no photos.
Before we went back up the hill to our car, we walked the crowded tangle of narrow cobbled streets leading from the port known as The Downalong. Is there a season when St Ives isn’t busy? We’ve been here at all times of the year and it’s never ‘empty.’ I love the street names: Teetotal Street, Virgin Street, Fish Street to name a few favourites and stopped, as we invariably do, to look at the battered old green door at the rear of The Bakers at number 1, Virgin Street. A passer by, also taking a photo told us the door was 200 years old (it looks even older) and has its own site on Social Media. I don’t doubt it.
We also passed a plaque on a cottage where Daphne du Maurier stayed in the 1840s. After our previous trip around Fowey, awash with references to the author, we both groaned and said, ‘Not her again.’
Back at the car park we were relieved to see no sign of the man who we’d last seen attempting the car parking equivalent of squeezing a quart into a pint pot.