I take the stairs down to the Weston Gallery to visit the Barbara Hepworth Exhibition: Artist in Society 1948 -1953. The dimly lit space exudes a sense of peace. I’m immediately drawn to Hepworth’s larger sculptures in the centre of the room and decide to view the exhibition starting in the middle.

Contemporary sculptures on plinths have been sensitively arranged around the gallery, giving each sculpture its own room to breathe. Polished ovals fill the space like huge naturally hollowed out pebble and fossil formations created over aeons. It truly is elemental sculpture celebrating the natural world and we can immediately see Hepworth’s fascination with geology, biomorphic forms, archaeology and indigenous cultures.

I feel that to fully appreciate the primeval elements of Hepworth’s work, I have to understand them intuitively. There is a sensuality to each piece, and I feel as if my inner child would enjoy exploring them by stroking my fingers all over them and engaging my sense of touch to gain a deeper appreciation.

Group III (Evocation) a marble collection of semi-abstract standing human figurines inspired by people watching in Piazza San Marco in Venice is a wonderful study of human form that is relational rather than simply a study of isolated figures. I gaze into it, taking my time to appreciate its rich complexity of mini concaves and convexes and it feels perfectly balanced.

This exhibition concentrates on a short yet significant post-war period when Hepworth moved to Cornwall in 1949; in this five-year period, Trewyn Studio in St Ives was to rise to international prominence. Hepworth lived there for 25 years in all, staying there for the rest of her life. Here she returned to depicting the human form via painting and sculpture after a decade dedicated to landscape; black and white photos show Hepworth with her mallet and chisel working outdoors; she clearly loved working in the open air and spacious surroundings.

My favourite piece is Eocene 1947-48. The word ‘Eocene’ means the dawning of a new era in ancient Greek and also refers to a Prehistoric epoch. I let its beautiful contours wash over me. It is a pale grey stone ovoid, smoothly curved like an egg or a shell with contrasting surfaces depicting the instinctive mother baby relationship with elegance and grace. It clearly expresses the close maternal unconscious attunement of mother and baby, depicting them as a single unit.

Psychoanalyst Winnicott’s developmental theories were prominent throughout the 20th century and it could be said that Eocene reflects that early “holding environment” that the mother creates for the baby, having no ego, the baby is at first entirely unconscious that they are separate beings.

Eocene permanently resides at St Albans Girls School and makes up part of Hepworth’s post-war Hertfordshire Schools Collection. Hertfordshire Education Authority bought it from her at a special price along with a few others as Hepworth felt it was important to place art in schools.

Hepworth’s sculptures were among the earliest abstract three-dimensional forms produced in England, and similarly to Henry Moore, her works carry that interior sense of dynamism often a feature within Modernism. For any sculptor, the interplay between solid spaces with rounded hollows makes the mass as crucial as the interior space.

As I leave, I watch a short video depicting Cornwall’s wild spaces and fresh air; it shows Hepworth hard at work, we see her ‘in the zone,’ meditatively chiseling away to create new sculptural forms and abstract shapes. I imagine how strong her hands must have become. I leave, not only content that one of the 20th century's artistic leading figures was a woman, but also feeling grateful for her generous donations to be enjoyed within our community.

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city.