In a statement by the artist, written for the 1962 Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, Hepworth comments ‘It is difficult to describe in words the meaning of forms because it is precisely this emotion which is conveyed by sculpture alone. Our sense of touch is a fundamental sensibility which comes into action at birth – our stereognostic sense – the ability to feel weight and form and assess its significance. The forms which have had special meaning for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in a landscape); the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) which translates for me the association and meaning of gesture in landscape; in the repose of say a mother and child, or the feeling of the embrace of living things, either in nature or in the human spirit. In all these shapes, the translation of what one feels about man and nature must be conveyed by the sculptor in terms of mass, inner tension and rhythm, scale in relation to our human size and the quality of surface which speaks through our hands as well as eyes’ (see exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth an exhibition of sculpture from 1952-1962, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, n.p.).
A decade earlier, in 1954, Hepworth travelled extensively throughout Greece with her great friend, Margaret Gardiner. The trip followed the death of her eldest son Paul, who had died in a plane crash in Thailand, whilst serving in the R.A.F., early in 1953: it was also to fulfill a life-long ambition of hers to visit the country. Hepworth describes her thrill of experiencing ancient architecture in the stunning wild scenery on the Aegean coast, 'In Greece the inspiration was fantastic. I ran up the hills like a hare, with my notebook, to get there first and have the total impact of solitude. I made many drawings for new sculptures called Delphi, Delos, Mycenae, Epidauros, and Santorin. These forms were my experience there. After my solitude I waited for the 199 people I had left behind and watched their movements and responses on entering the architecture in the superb location of mountain, hill and plain. This was very anti-social, I admit; but I had waited thirty years to get to Greece. To get up early and be the first to climb up to Santorin, to find my place at the top of the theatre of Epidauros, surrounded by the sighing wind above, and warmed by the worn marble - with the heavenly sound of the human voice coming from below and the whole vast and glorious shape below me - was the embodiment of the sculptor’s landscape. Timeless and in space, pure in conception and like a rock to hold on to these forms in Greece have been a constant source of inspiration - Patmos in particular, where the curve of the horizon was omnipotent and the islands rose up from the water like flowers in the sun. A sculptor's landscape embraces all things that grow and live and are articulate in principle: the shape of the buds already formed in winter, the thrust and fury of spring growth, the adjustment of trees and rocks and human beings to the fierceness of winter- all these belong to the sculptor's world as well as the supreme perception of man, woman and child in this expanding universe’ (see A. Bowness (intro.), Barbara Hepworth, drawings from a sculptor’s landscape, London, 1966, p. 12). When Hepworth returned to St Ives from Greece in August 1954, she found that Gardiner had sent her a large shipment of 17 tons of Nigerian Guarea hardwood. Between 1954 and 1956 Hepworth sculpted six pieces out of Guarea wood, many of which were inspired by her trip to Greece, such as Corinthos from 1954 and Curved Form (Delphi), from 1955.
The impressive ruins of Temple of Poseidon, built circa 440 BC, which stand on a cliff top at the southern tip of Cape Sounion (or Sunion), overlooking the Aegean Sea in three directions, were the inspiration for the present sculpture. It would have been here, in ancient times, that mariners would worship Poseidon prior to setting sail. Only some of the columns remain standing of the former hexastyle temple today. It is possible that the circular form near the top of the sculpture may represent the sun since on the longest day of the year, the sun sets exactly in the middle of the caldera of the island of Patroklos, the extinct volcano that lies a few miles due west of the Temple of Poseidon, suggesting both an astrological significance for the siting of the temple and for the symbolism in Hepworth’s carving in the present work.
The Temple has lured many important visitors through its recent history. Lord Byron (1788-1824), whose name is carved into the base of one of the columns, is known to have visited Sounion twice in 1810-11 and he mentions Sounion in his poem ‘Isles of Greece’,
Place me on Sunion’s marbled steep
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep
More recently, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) visited Greece in 1962, as described in his book, Sojourns. He refers to ‘these few standing columns were the strings of an invisible lyre, the song of which the far-seeing Delian god let resonate over the Cycladic world of islands […] the way that this single gesture of the land suggests the invisible nearness of the divine and dedicates to it every growth and every human work […] The people of this country knew how to inhabit and demarcate the world against the barbarous in honour of the seat of the gods […] they knew how to praise what is great and by acknowledging it, to bring themselves in front of the sublime, founding, in this way, a world’.
Elm, the native British hardwood which was a much loved component of the British landscape for centuries, famously immortalised in watercolour by Paul Nash in the first decades of the 20th century, was almost entirely eradicated from the Britain by Dutch elm disease. Its broad grain and warm colour was highly regarded by Hepworth who used the wood on various occasions. Figure (Nyanga) from 1959-60 (Tate) stands at 33 inches high, whilst Hollow Form with White from 1965 (Tate) stands at 53 inches high.
Sunion has remained in the family of the original purchaser, who had acquired it at its very first exhibition, Barbara Hepworth, at the Charles Lienhard Galerie in Zurich. The exhibition was a key one-man exhibition - for which Hepworth attended the opening – and it has re-appeared for many of the artist’s major exhibitions thereafter, including the 1968 retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London and the one-man exhibition at the Institute d’ Arte Modern, Valencia in 2004.
We are very grateful to Dr Sophie Bowness for her providing information in preparing this catalogue entry. Dr Sophie Bowness is preparing the revised catalogue raisonné of Hepworth's sculpture.