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Barbara Hepworth in her studio

From Oxfordshire to St Ives: A Journey into Abstraction

Oxford and Oxfordshire have long inspired artists – from JMW Turner’s ‘The High Street, Oxford’, to artists who live and work here today
Marie Boyle Beach Houses

"Technique is part of one’s style."

Esther Lafferty


Oxford and Oxfordshire, even in February, with dreaming spires and lush green countryside, have long inspired artists – from JMW Turner’s ‘The High Street, Oxford’ (1810) acquired by the Ashmolean in 2015 and described as “the greatest painting of the city ever made”, to artists who live and work here today.

The Oxfordshire artist John Piper (1903-1992) is considered to be one of the most significant British artists of the 20th century. For most of his life he lived in Fawley Bottom near Henley, where he built his own studio and loved the natural beauty he found in the surrounding countryside. His work was extraordinarily diverse – although a prolific painter and printmaker, his artistic career also included tapestry designs, theatre scenery, ceramics, and stained glass. The style of his paintings was also wide ranging, encompassing both a series of work as an official war artist during World War II and modernist abstraction, as well as the distinctive landscape paintings for which he is best known.

Marie Boyle Morning Table


The Henley River and Rowing Museum’s Piper Gallery includes 75 pieces of his work from 1933-1989 and showcases the breadth of his practice; its centrepiece is a vast panoramic mural ‘Landscape of the Two Seasons’ which Piper painted in 1959 for the P&O liner SS Oriana (and is on loan from P&O). The SS Oriana was built to take passengers to Australia and in this monumental abstract, the two continents and the ocean between are clearly represented.

John Piper belonged to the Seven and Five Society, a group of seven painters and five sculptors working collaboratively in abstraction, very much influenced by the key British modernist painter and member Ben Nicholson. British modernism was an art movement characterised by a selfconscious break with traditional order and Nicholson’s abstract drawings and paintings were inspired by the earlier cubist painters’ use of geometric shapes and forms to suggest objects, landscapes and people. Nicolson encapsulated what he saw in the real world using only the simplest shapes – squares, circles and rectangles. This progressive approach towards non-representational work proved to be a major influence on British art and the first exhibition of entirely abstract art in Britain was held in 1935.

The Seven and Five Society also included sculptors Henry Moore, best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures and Barbara Hepworth (to whom Nicholson was married), two of the country’s most renowned sculptors who together revived the practice of stone carving and wood carving which had fallen out of favour in the 17th century. Excitingly, this month (until 3 June) you can see a series of Hepworth’s sculpture created from the 1930s to the 1960s at the River and Rowing Museum. The exhibition ‘Barbara Hepworth: Finding Form’ shows her lifelong preoccupation with three-dimensional shapes and traces the changes in her work over three decades.

The earlier pieces are figurative, based upon the human body; over time Hepworth’s sculptures became increasingly abstract. On the walls alongside, a number of lesser known oil-on-board paintings give an insight into how Hepworth experimented with geometric shapes and colour during the 1940s.

Having moved to the Cornish fishing town of St Ives at the outbreak of World War II, Hepworth’s abstract sculptures and drawings were inspired by the landscape and nature around her and have the smooth organic shapes of pebbles found on a beach, and almost could have been formed within the landscape itself. And 40 years after her death, the St Ives studio, home and garden of Barbara Hepworth still draw nearly 50,000 visitors a year.

With holes in her sculptures to look through, Hepworth’s sculptures frame the landscape and give the viewer a new perspective on the world, and these sculptures, of wood, stone and bronze are smooth and organic, with a serenity that calms the viewer.

During the 1940s to the 1960s St Ives became a hub for artists with a modern and abstract artistic leaning, collectively they are known as the St Ives School. In the Zuleika Gallery’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ exhibition in the Sewell Centre Gallery, Radley College (until 9 February), an exploration of both literary and visual responses to St Ives and West Penwith, you can see another Barbara Hepworth piece. Hepworth’s screenprint ‘High Tide’ dating from 1970, which you can carry home with you if you have £5,500 to spare or invest, is one of a range of works from the St Ives artists, which also includes a 1946 oil painting by Patrick Heron, as well as art from the present day.

A current associate member of the Penwith Society of Arts in St Ives which was founded by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson is Artweeks artist Marie Boyle.

Marie is interested in shapes, colours and texture, in her high ceilinged studio with light pouring in through a triangular window, she draws her abstracted still life paintings from memory mostly rather than observation. “Most of the time,” she says, “when I’m really pleased with a painting, I saw the picture before I started. I paint very slowly. I’m careful about edges, the delicacy of an edge or the delicacy of a texture. Technique is part of one’s style.

“The subjects vary, and I enjoy playing with the compositional and material elements of a painting until they resolve themselves in ways that are difficult to predict,” she continues. “I like the Japanese ‘wabi-sabi’ philosophy: the beauty in imperfection. The layers, the rhythm, the accident and the suggestion, all have their place. Each picture should become a visual poem.”

Marie’s father was a passionate archaeologist and so, having grown up in a house full of ancient artefacts, she loves primitive art for its “simple eloquence”, and it’s an assured eloquence she brings to the stylised and simple shapes on her canvases in Oxfordshire today.

Barbara Hepworth: Finding Form runs from 9 February-3 June 2018 at River and Rowing Museum.


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