Summary of Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth distinguished herself as a world-recognized sculptor in a period where female artists were rare. She evolved her ideas and her work as an influential part of an ongoing conversation with many other important artists of her time, working crucially in areas of greater abstraction while creating three dimensional objects. Her development of sculptural vocabularies and ideas was complex and multi-faceted. This included the use of a wide range of physical materials for sculpting and an unprecedented sensitivity to the particular qualities of those materials in helping decide the ultimate results of her sculptures, the investigation of "absence" in sculpture as much as "presence," and deep considerations of the relationship of her sculptural forms to the larger spaces surrounding it. Though her forms in their larger outlines tended to possess the clean lines of modernist aesthetics, she complicated these with different textures, an effect described by one reviewer as "sensuous and tactile" that "quickened the pulse".
- She helped shift three dimensional art works into greater abstraction as she herself moved from creating work mingling figurative forms with abstraction in her earlier sculptures to almost entirely abstract, non-representational later works.
- Hepworth was a key figure among modern sculptors in responding to the physical characteristics of whichever material was chosen to work with in order to resolve appropriate forms for the finished works, rather than simply mold material to fit some pre-determined shape.
- Though she developed a long series of highly abstract pieces, the greater trajectory of her work was imbued with underlying aspects of nature, which she brought out more explicitly in the sculptures of her later career. "All my sculpture comes out of landscape," she wrote in 1943. "I'm sick of sculptures in galleries & photos with flat backgrounds... no sculpture really lives until it goes back to the landscape, the trees, air & clouds."
Important Art by Barbara Hepworth
One of Hepworth's earliest near-abstract works - moving far afield from the much more figurative modes of Brancusi's strong influence on her - was a piece destroyed in the German bombing of London in WWII, while Hepworth was living in Cornwall. It remains an important work nonetheless. Its dominant feature is a hole in the center of the sculpture. For the first time, Hepworth's work is concerned with a manifestation of absence rather than presence. The viewer becomes aware of the volume of empty space, and the powerful resonance this can create. The work makes manifest the fundamental underlying principle of carving; that form and volume are created by taking away material, not adding it, distinguishing it from almost every other art form.
Hepworth's idea of a pierced form was taken up immediately by Henry Moore, her friend and rival, and would inform the practice of both artists for years to come. Hepworth's first "piercing" of a figurative sculpture of her own came after apparently misunderstanding the description in a review of Moore's work. And the two artists developed this pursuit of sculptural absence in parallel to one another over many years. This motif was important in laying the groundwork for the particular aesthetic that would come to be associated with Moore and Hepworth. Hepworth said of this work, "I had been seeking a free assembly of certain formal elements including space and calligraphy as well as weight and texture, and in the Pierced Form I had felt the most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space; quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism."
Pink alabaster - Destroyed in WWII
Mother and Child
Hepworth made several mother and child sculptures in 1934, when she was pregnant with Ben Nicholson's child (it actually turned out that she had triplets). Made out of a single piece of alabaster, but with two separate sculptural elements, the work consists of a reclining "mother" and a "child" resting on her thighs. Although it has abstract elements, the form is biomorphic and the title points to a figurative interpretation.
Hepworth's contemporary and friend Henry Moore was also making mother and child pieces at this time, but while Moore's composition tended to be made as single form, Hepworth saw her mother and child as separate, but intimately involved, entities. She once stated that "there is an inside and an outside to every form, [and sometimes] they are in special accord, as for instance a nut in its shell or a child in the womb."
This sculpture represents the partnership after the child has been born, but ideas of a "special accord" and a formal link are still present. The 'child' sits high on the mother's leg, revealing a hollow at the mother's stomach and a characteristic hole, implying a correlation of the two forms. The effect, somewhat surprisingly, is one of completeness.
Cumberland Alabaster - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Although the form of Pelagos is emphatically abstract, it was inspired by a view of the coast at St Ives in Cornwall, where Hepworth lived from 1949. "Pelagos" means "sea" in Greek. Hepworth undertook a practice of Direct Carving, allowing the physical make-up of the wood to direct her chisel. The final shape recalls a wave or the curve of a headland. The inside is hollowed out and painted blue. The emphasis placed on the interior of the shape recalls Hepworth's experiments with holes and pierced forms, but here her ideas are taken a step further. The art historian A.M. Hammacher argues that the characteristic 'hole' of Hepworth's earlier work has taken control and "mastered the interior and even broken it open."
The form is also pierced with small holes and fretted with strings in a way that is reminiscent of a musical instrument. Hepworth said that these taut strings represented "the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills." Pelagos feels at once still and dynamic; it is presented both as a perfect harmonious form and as a coiled spring balancing precariously, waiting to unfurl. This sculptural tension, which Hepworth relates to her personal experience, makes the work simultaneously calming and unsettling for the viewer.
Elms and strings on oak base - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Concentration of Hands II
Although Hepworth is known primarily for her sculptural work, she was also skilled at draftsmanship and produced many sketches, drawings and mixed media works over the course of her career. Her daughter became ill in 1947 and while she spent time in hospital, Hepworth began to observe surgical procedures and to draw what she observed.
There is something almost religious about the way the hands and features of the surgeons are illuminated in Concentration of Hands II. Hepworth's sweeping pencil strokes obscure the blood and gore of surgery and instead exalt the work of the anonymous doctors. They contain visual references to various figures from art history, recalling Piero della Francesca's use of light and Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson.
Hepworth saw something pure and classical in the process of surgery. She stated: "From the very first moment I was entirely enthralled by the classic beauty of what I saw there; classic in the sense that architecture and function were perfectly blended and purity of idea and grace of execution were in complete harmony." She also saw clear parallels between the work of the surgeon and the work of a sculptor like herself.
Oil and graphite on paper - Private Collection
After her son Paul was killed in a Royal Air Force plane crash over Thailand in 1953, Hepworth's work was significantly interrupted. She was taken to Greece by a friend in an attempt to distract her while hopefully eventually inspiring her to be productive again. On her return to England, she started to sculpt again and produced a series of works named after places she had visited, including Corinthos, which is the first and largest of these.
The piece is carved from Nigerian guarea, a tropical hardwood that had been in short supply in England since the outbreak of WWII. It is a sculpture on a monumental scale, measuring over three feet in width, depth and height, and weighing over 900lbs, unusual for Hepworth's oeuvre up to this point, and for sculptural work in wood more generally.
Corinthos is arguably Hepworth's masterpiece in terms of her interest in the interaction between interior and exterior forms. The hollowed-out core, painted cream, offers a sharp contrast to the dark, shining and sensual wood exterior. The painted interior emphasizes the effect of light on the sculpture, as the light enters and emerges through various holes and openings.
The work defies a single ideal viewpoint, as different vistas in the sculpture open up, depending on the angle from which the viewer examines it. Hepworth was aware of this, and noted the consequent difficulty of photographing the work: "It is a very difficult one to [photograph] well, due to the relation of inside and outside carving, i.e. if you get all the outside, you hardly see the inside."
Guarea wood and paint - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Squares with two circles
Squares with two circles is one of Barbara Hepworth's most significant later works. She started working with metal in 1956, which allowed her to create larger pieces like this. The piece's title and initial aesthetic hint at a simple geometric composition, but the shapes are not rigidly accurate; the angles of the squares are not quite 90 degrees and the face of the sculpture is subtly convex. As Nan Rosenthal argues, "despite the sculpture's geometric syntax, a sense of the natural and vital is preserved." These nuanced irregularities give even this - her work most formally simple in terms of shape - distinguishing it from superficially similar geometric sculptural work by her contemporary David Smith.
The "circles" of the title are, characteristically of Hepworth, holes in the sculpture. As in one of her earliest works, Pierced Form (1932), she draws attention to the sculptural forms created by absence as well as presence. Many of her works, including Squares with two circles, are intended to be situated outside. She was preoccupied by sculpture's integration into the landscape, and she achieves this here by allowing the work's setting to be seen through the circular openings.
Referring to Squares with two circles, Hepworth wrote that she was "interested in the proportion of the sculpture in relation to the human figure, and the apertures are placed in relation to human vision." Despite its geometric composition, this work provides the viewer with an opportunity to consider the relationship between sculpture, the human body, and the landscape.
Bronze - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Curved Forms (Pavan)
The eye can trace the intertwining curvilinear spirals endlessly through their moebius strip flow in this sculpture. This tracing process generates not so much a static form as an elegant dynamic fluidity, as suggested by the reference to a classical form of dance in the piece's sub-title. A later work in her ouevre, her use of the humble material of plaster here was actually among her earliest resources for sculpting. Hepworth's uncle was a General Practitioner, and he provided her with plaster that he used as casts for broken bones dating back to the first decades of the century, including some of her first sculptures and then continuing on throughout her career for its utility for model-making as well as fully-formed sculptural works in themselves. The rough sheen of the work's surface holds out hints of natural formations, while the form itself allows particularly open glimpses through the sculpture to the setting beyond, combining Hepworth's continually development achievements of combining materials and absence to make forms that both speak of nature while distilling essences of underlying organic shapes.
Plaster - Hepworth Estate
Biography of Barbara Hepworth
Childhood and Education
Hepworth was the eldest child of Gertrude and Herbert Hepworth, a civil engineer. She would frequently accompany her father on car trips round the Yorkshire countryside, and she spent summer holidays at Robin Hood's Bay, also in Yorkshire. This early connection with rural settings was to influence much of her work. After attending the Wakefield Girls' High School, she won a scholarship to study at Leeds School of Art in 1920.
While studying at the school, she met the sculptor Henry Moore, who was a fellow student. They struck up a friendship and a friendly rivalry that would inform the practice of both artists throughout the mature part of their careers. Both Hepworth and Moore went on to study sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London, where they took occasional trips to Paris. Having graduated with a diploma in 1923, Hepworth stayed an extra year in order to compete for the Prix de Rome, which was eventually won by sculptor John Skeaping, her future husband.
She was awarded a West Riding Scholarship in 1924, which allowed her to spend a year traveling abroad. She spent several months in Florence, Italy, where she studied Romanesque architecture and early Italian Renaissance art. She also traveled to Rome and Siena. In Florence's Palazzo Vecchio in May 1925 she married Skeaping, who specialized in sculptures of animals. The couple moved to Rome, where Skeaping was a scholar of sculpture at the British School, and Hepworth learned to carve marble under the tutelage of Giovanni Ardini.
In November 1926, the couple returned to London due to Skeaping's poor health. Hepworth began to exhibit her work at her own studio, before being invited to show at some smaller London galleries, marking the start of her mature art career. Their son, Paul Skeaping, was born on August 3, 1929.
In 1931, Hepworth met abstract painter Ben Nicholson and began a relationship. Hepworth separated from her husband in the same year. The breakdown of their marriage, and the start of Hepworth's relationship with Nicholson (who was also married), was marked by a working holiday to the Norfolk coast organized by Hepworth and Henry Moore. The divorce from Skeaping was finalized in 1933.
Hepworth and Nicholson lived in Hampstead, in north London, near Henry Moore and several other significant artists. Art historian Herbert Read, Hepworth's contemporary and friend, described the area as "a nest of gentle artists." In 1934, Hepworth gave birth to triplets: Simon, Rachel and Sarah Hepworth-Nicholson. Hepworth said of the birth of her triplets, "it was a tremendously exciting event. We were only prepared for one child and the arrival of three babies by six o'clock in the morning meant considerable improvisation for the first few days."
Nicholson and Hepworth shared a studio, where they often worked collaboratively, frequently drawing and photographing each other at work. Hepworth said of their relationship, "as painter and sculptor each was the other's best critic." Nicholson's painting was characterized by a deep devotion to abstraction, and Hepworth was strongly influenced by this in her own sculpture. During this period, her work increasingly eschewed traditional forms. By the mid-1930s she had moved away from the human or figurative-based abstraction of artists such as Constantin Brancusi until she was creating sculptures that were wholly abstract.
Through this commitment to abstraction, Hepworth came into contact with some of the most important artists of the age, including Picasso, Arp, Miró and Mondrian (who Hepworth and Nicholson helped find an apartment when he moved to London). Hepworth and Nicholson were both part of the Paris-based exhibiting group "Abstraction-Creation" in 1933-34. She exhibited extensively with various abstractionist groups in this period, both in the UK and in Paris, and contributed to anti-fascist exhibitions and catalogs. In 1938, Hepworth and Nicholson married.
Just before the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson went to stay in St Ives, Cornwall, at the invitation of art critic Adrian Stokes. They stayed until the War was over, first at Stokes' own home and then at a small rented cottage nearby. The cramped conditions and demands of a young family meant that Hepworth had little time for sculpture. Instead, she focused her attention on drawing and studies. The small seaside town and Cornish countryside nevertheless made an impression on Hepworth, much as the Yorkshire landscape of her youth had. Her abstract work shifted to include influences of natural shapes and landscapes. In 1949 she bought a house and studio at St Ives, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Though she had often felt in Moore's shadow in terms of fame and recognition, Hepworth's public visibility increased when her work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Hepworth's marriage to Nicholson dissolved in the same year, although he remained in St Ives until 1958. Her work was considerably set back by her reaction to the death of her son Paul in a plane crash in 1953. After she had recovered, Hepworth began to work on a larger scale, taking inspiration from her travels on a restorative visit to Greece. In 1956 she began to work in bronze and other metals, allowing her to create work in small editions to keep up with the increasing demand.
Her work continued to be popular, and she was frequently dubbed the greatest living female sculptor. Hepworth's frequent use of cross-hatching strings, rods or even fishing line in her harder sculptural forms became such a well-known feature in her work that the satirical magazine Punch published a humorous cartoon in 1970 depicting the artist making her sculpture by hand-stitching. She was appointed a Dame in Britain (the female equivalent of being dubbed a knight), and made a Trustee of the Tate Gallery (until 1972), its first female trustee. She worked up until her death in 1975, which was caused by a fire in her studio at St Ives. Her obituary in The Guardian described her as "probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day," though many might differ. Nonetheless, it points to Hepworth's significant standing as a popular artist in her own day.
The Legacy of Barbara Hepworth
Along with her friend Henry Moore, Hepworth was fundamental in establishing a characteristic vocabulary of modern British sculpture. Through a shared interest in the ideal of "truth to materials", or to a sculptural form dictated in part by the inherent properties of the media used, Hepworth and Moore created an approach focused on process and materials that was highly influential for artists as diverse as Eduardo Paolozzi and Anthony Caro. Hepworth also remains a key figure in the history of women artists and has been cited as inspirational by many contemporary figures, including Tracey Emin and Charlotte Moth. One might also note her influence on Rachel Whiteread, whose own large-scale plaster sculptures have extended the pursuit of "absence" to greater reaches.
The critical reception of Hepworth has focused on her biography to an unusual degree. This is perhaps because of her dual roles as woman sculptor and mother, bringing up four young children whilst also nurturing her art; the link is particularly significant in relation to her "mother and child" sculptures. This biographical emphasis can also be explained by the fact that Hepworth was connected with so many of the key artistic figures of her day, including her close relationships with Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Barbara Hepworth
- Barbara HepworthBy Helena Bonnet, Lee Beard, Sophie Bowness, Dr. Penelope Curtis, and Chris Stephens
- Barbara Hepworth: Writings and ConversationsOur PickBy Sophie Bowness
- Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial AutobiographyOur PickBy Barbara Hepworth
- Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital DrawingsBy Nathaniel Hepburn