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Three Personages, 1965

Barbara Hepworth was one of the foremost 20th century abstract sculptors and exponents of direct carving in Britain. Born in Yorkshire, in 1939 she was forced to move to St Ives by the outbreak of World War II. The Cornish town had been an artist colony since the end of the 19th century and Hepworth, who soon realised how well its charm and climate suited her, settled there for the rest of her life. Cornwall also provided a rich source of inspiration: many of the works she created there were inspired by the pre-historic quoits and standing stones of the Penwith peninsula, and showed a preoccupation with the relationship between landscape, human figure and sculpture.

By 1964 Hepworth had begun to work with repetition, using more or less identical forms and playing with their arrangement. Three Personages belongs to a substantial series of sculptures in which slate forms are composed on rectangular wooden bases. The three vertical figures and their composition were probably inspired by the Cornish circles and standing stones. Hepworth, however, always balanced the impact of her interest in the land and seasonal patterns with the abstract form of the sculptures. Here, for instance, the polish of the slate and the base give the forms a ‘clean’ distance from weathered standing stones. They remain consciously crafted works, deliberately reserved and ‘unnatural’.

The asymmetry of the composition and the tilting of the figures convey a strong sense of dynamism: the three personages may well be actors or dancers on a stage. Hepworth was very interested in the dynamics and rhythms of people interacting and dancing: this was the subject of two series of drawings of operating theatres and dancers she made in the 1940s. As she explained in 1952, the artist was greatly interested in “the unconscious grouping of people when they are working together, producing a spatial movement which approximates to the structure of spirals in shells or rhythms in crystal structures; the meaning of the spaces between forms, or the shape of the displacement of forms in space, which in themselves have a most precise significance.”

Hepworth knew Jim Ede well and was very eager to let him have one of her works for Kettle’s Yard. In 1968 she wrote to him: “nobody was more aware than I of your generosity & love & inspiration in face of lack of money & yet with the exquisite presentation of real beauty for all to share … In my heart I longed to have a work of mine in your house & in the lovely company of paintings by BN, Winifred, Kit, Wallis & so on.”

Provenance: purchased by H.S. Ede from the artist, 1969.

Sculpture [BH 2]


Slate on wooden base (painted in black)

397 x 355 x 278 mm

About the artist

Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire. In the early 1920s she was a fellow student of Henry Moore at Leeds School of Art and the Royal College of Art. In 1931 she met Ben Nicholson, who was to become her second husband seven years later. She took part in various group exhibitions in the 1930s, including those of Abstraction-Creation, the Seven & Five Society and Unit One. She contributed to Circle in 1937. Hepworth lived in Cornwall from 1939 until her death, caused by a fire in her studio.