It was a place where a young Barbara Hepworth lived for less than a year but the pretty basement flat in north London, with its billiards room converted into a studio, effectively launched her artistic career.
Hepworth is one of the 20th century’s greatest artists with a story often told through her birthplace in Wakefield and her later career in St Ives.
English Heritage will on Friday shine light on her less well known time in St John’s Wood when it reveals a blue plaque at 24 St Ann’s Terrace. It was here that Hepworth and her first husband, John Skeaping – also a sculptor and also honoured – lived in 1927.
The couple lived there only for a short time but the flat has a hugely important place in the Hepworth story, said her granddaughter Sophie Bowness.
“She carved her first mature work there and her first mother and child sculpture,” said Bowness. “She also held her first exhibition there, which she shared with John Skeaping. It was only a year but it was such a significant year … it was Barbara Hepworth properly establishing herself as an artist. You could say it launched her career.”
The flat was let to the couple by the writer and naturalist Leo Walmsley, who Hepworth first met as a child when he worked at a marine laboratory in Robin Hood’s Bay. He identified seaweeds that she collected.
Hepworth was 24 when she moved into the flat, fresh from three years as a student in Rome where she met and married Skeaping. The flat was wonderfully spacious with a billiards room which they converted into a studio. They could also work outside in the garden, where the couple built an aviary for birds they had brought back from Italy, including budgerigars, weavers, waxbills and Nyasa lovebirds.
It was also only a few minutes walk to London zoo, which gave Skeaping time to study the animals that became a staple of his output.
Bowness said her grandmother was young but her time at St Ann’s Terrace was remarkably accomplished and productive. She experimented with hard-to-carve materials, such as Italian marble, and made works that included Doves, in the Manchester Art Gallery collection, and Mother and Child, in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
She and Skeaping also held a joint exhibition in the flat, Hepworth’s first ever. There were, depressingly, no visitors for a fortnight until George Eumorfopoulos, an influential collector of Chinese art, turned up and snapped up two of Hepworth’s sculptures and introduced the couple to other collectors.
Another visitor was the poet Laurence Binyon, a British Museum curator and an important figure in the London art world. He was accompanied by his daughter Nicolete who, in 1936, organised the first abstract art exhibition in Britain.
In need of more space the couple soon moved to Mall Studios in Hampstead, where Hepworth remained after her marriage with Skeaping ended. That building still exists but can’t be seen from the street so is unsuitable for a plaque.
Bowness said it felt right to honour both Hepworth and Skeaping. She said: “A joint plaque represents a truer history and a richer one. I think Barbara would have been very honoured.”
The London plaque fills something of a gap in that Hepworth is commemorated in Wakefield, where the art gallery is named after her, and Cornwall, where her St Ives studio is now a museum. She lived and worked in London for more than a decade and while her contemporaries Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, her second husband, both have plaques, Hepworth has not had one until now.
It is also part of English Heritage’s commitment to honour more women, with more than 80% of the 950 blue plaques in London dedicated to men.
Howard Spencer, a senior historian at English Heritage, said there were very few plaques to female artists. “This is something we have been at pains to highlight, and we are now getting many more nominations for women from the public. The blue plaques’ scheme has under-celebrated women artists and, of course, there aren’t many more important than Hepworth.”
The plaque was unveiled in a socially distanced ceremony by Bowness and Nicholas Skeaping, John’s son, who thought his father would probably have told English Heritage not to bother. Nevertheless, “I think he would have had an inner glow that he and Barbara should be publicly acknowledged in this way.”