Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth studied at Leeds School of Art, then from 1921 at the Royal College of Art, from 1924-5 living in Italy as the result of a West Riding Travelling Scholarship. Married the sculptor John Skeaping in 1924, marriage dissolved 1933, and exhibited with him. In the early 1930s her interest in abstract sculpture developed, encouraged by several developments. She had met the painter Ben Nicholson in 1931 – marrying him shortly afterwards, marriage dissolved 1951 – and with him visited the studios of Arp, Brancusi, Braque, Picasso and Gabo.
Hepworth in the 1930s became a member of several forward-looking groups, such as 7 & 5 Society, Unit One and Abstraction-Creation. In 1939 Hepworth moved to St Ives, Cornwall, where she became an influential member of the artistic community, being a founder-member of the Penwith Society in 1949.
In 1947-8 she had made her notable series of drawings of operating theatre, and in 1949 a first one-man show of drawings at Durlacher Bros, in New York, extended her growing reputation. Two works were commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and she won second prize in The Unknown Political Prisoner competition two years later.
Although in the 1950s she was to design décor for productions at the Old Vic theatre and for Covent Garden opera house, she was to concentrate on consolidating her position as Britain’s premier female sculptor, being given several retrospective exhibitions, including Tate Liverpool and Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, 1994-5, Robert Sandelson, 2001, and centenary shows at New Art Centre at East Winterslow, Yorkshire Sculpture Park at West Bretton, Wakefield Art Gallery and Tate St. Ives, all 2003, and having work purchased by major international galleries. She became Dame Barbara Hepworth in 1965. She died in 1975 in a fire in her studio in St Ives, where the Barbara Hepworth Museum was opened in 1976.