Hepworth was born in Yorkshire and trained at Leeds School of Art (1920-21), where she met Henry Moore, with whom she was to retain a lifelong friendship, and at the Royal College of Art in London (1921-24). She travelled to Italy in 1924 with the sculptor John Skeaping, who was to become her first husband, and they lived and worked in Rome until 1926. On their return to England they became involved with the London Group and the 7 & 5 Society, and became key figures in the new direct carving movement.
In the early 1930s she met, and later married, Ben Nicholson, and the two pioneered a move towards abstraction in, respectively, sculpture and painting. They held influential joint exhibitions at Tooth’s Gallery (1932), and the Lefevre Gallery in 1933. The couple visited Paris and met Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Arp and Brancusi. In 1935 they joined Astraction-Création and were also members of Unit One. On the outbreak of World War Two they moved to St Ives in Cornwall, and during the war Hepworth was restricted to producing small sculptures and drawings, because of both domestic circumstances (she had given birth to triplets in 1934, and had a son from her first marriage) and war-time lack of materials. In St Ives she and Nicholson met Naum Gabo, who was to be a profound influence. Hepworth remained in St Ives for the rest of her life, and her home and studio there are now the Barbara Hepworth Museum.
In 1950 Hepworth participated in the Venice Biennale, and in 1951 contributed two sculptures to the Festival of Britain. She also had two retrospective exhibitions: at Wakefield in 1951, and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, in 1954. Her growing international reputation was confirmed at the 1959 Sao Paolo Bienal, where she won the Grand Prix. Further retrospectives were held: at the Whitechapel in 1962, and at the Tate Gallery in 1968. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1965.
Her many public sculptures include Monolith (Empyrean) (1953) at Kenwood House in Hampstead; Ascending Form (Gloria) (1958) at New Hall, Cambridge; Single Form (1961-64), the memorial to the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, at the United Nations building in New York; Winged Figure (1962), on the John Lewis building in Oxford Street; and Four-square walk-through (1966) at Churchill College, Cambridge.