Barbara Hepworth’s sensuous, modern forms

Inspired by the rugged landscape of the southwest of England, the British artist revolutionised sculpture by exploring the possibilities of neutral space – illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Barbara Hepworth photographed with Forms in Movement (Pavan), 1956-59, cast 1967, at her retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1968. Keystone Pictures USA/ REX/Shutterstock. Artwork: © Bowness

In 1946 the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) wrote to her friend Philip James, Director of Art at the Arts Council of Great Britain. ‘Many have spoken of the sensuality contained in my sculptures despite the outward classical and disciplined exterior,’ she noted. ‘All want to touch, and that is as it should be.’

For the previous two decades, the international modernist had pursued a singular vision — to create harmony out of the post-First World War rubble. Taking her inspiration from the landscape around her, first in Hampstead in north London and then in Cornwall in the southwest of England, she carved smooth, undulating forms that echoed the natural world.

Today, her polished sculptures with their complex interiors are highly prized for their tension — between light and darkness, solidity and weightlessness — and she is celebrated for having revolutionised the possibilities of carving.

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Forms in Movement (Pavan). Conceived in concrete in 1956-59 and cast in bronze in 1967. Bronze with a green brown patina. 42½ in (108 cm) wide. Sold for £378,000 on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Bowness

Hepworth, traditional carving techniques, and Carrara marble

While studying in London at the Royal College of Art, Hepworth was shortlisted for the 1924 Prix de Rome art scholarship programme, which was won that year by British sculptor John Skeaping. Instead she went to Florence on a West Riding Travel Scholarship, where she and Skeaping married the following year before moving to Rome.

While in Italy she studied Romanesque and Renaissance art and architecture, learned traditional carving techniques from the master marble-carver Giovanni Ardini and visited the marble quarries in Carrara.

How Barbara Hepworth introduced ‘the hole’ to British sculpture

In 1932, three years after she and Skeaping had their first child, Hepworth pierced her first carving, thus introducing the ‘hole’ to British sculpture. The negative space — which Hepworth used to explore balance in forms — became a hallmark of her career, and is considered her most important contribution to abstract art.

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Three Obliques (Walk In). Conceived in 1968 and cast in 1969. Bronze with a green, brown and golden patina. 113¾ x 183½ x 130 in (288.9 x 466.1 x 330 cm). Sold for £5,830,000 on 18 October 2023 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Bowness

Hepworth’s exploration of size, shape, texture and space

From 1934 onwards, Hepworth’s figurative sculptures gave way to pure abstract forms, as she reduced her works to increasingly simple shapes. Works such as Coré, conceived in marble in the 1950s and later cast in bronze, emerged during a key period of transition in her career as she revisited existing artworks and familiar forms through alternative materials.

To create her abstract shapes, Hepworth employed a technique known as direct carving — in which the initial carving produces the final form — rather than creating preparatory maquettes and models. Her contemporary Henry Moore was another advocate of the technique; the pair studied together at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, and shared a long, friendly rivalry.

Hepworth’s ovoid forms

Hepworth’s abstract carvings tended to be simple, realistic oval forms based on the shape of the human head, or a bird. ‘Gradually,’ she explained, ‘my interest grew in more abstract values — the weight, poise and curvature of the ovoid as a basic form.’

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Oval sculpture. Conceived in 1943 and cast in 1959. Polished bronze, on a wooden base. 15¾ in (40 cm) wide. Sold for £1,451,250 on 17 June 2019 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Bowness

The carving and piercing of these forms opened up what she described as ‘an infinite variety of continuous curves in the third dimension, changing in accordance with the contours of the original ovoid and with the degree of penetration of the material’.

The ovoid, she declared, offered ‘sufficient field for exploration to last a lifetime’.

Hepworth, Unit One and the Penwith Society of Arts

After visiting the studios of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp in 1933, Hepworth, along with fellow artists Ben Nicholson (her second husband) and Paul Nash, the architect Wells Coates, and the critic Herbert Read, founded Unit One, an art movement dedicated to uniting abstraction and Surrealism in British art.

The group announced its creation in a letter to the The Times and held meetings at Mayor Gallery in London. Unit One staged just one exhibition, which toured from Mayor Gallery for two years before closing in Belfast in 1935, the same year that the group disbanded.

Hepworth moved to Cornwall following the outbreak of the Second World War, where she co-founded the Penwith Society of Arts at the local inn. Originally comprising 19 artists, including Peter Lanyon and Bernard Leach, the group converted old fishing lofts along Porthmeor beach into studios. The society still operates from a local gallery established in Penwith in 1961.

The Cornish light, sea air, open spaces and sometimes wild weather all helped, Hepworth said, to fire her imagination. In 1942, she and Nicholson moved into a house high on the clifftop of Carbis Bay near St Ives, and her work increasingly echoed a growing engagement with landscape.

Hepworth’s paintings, and her series on surgeons

In 1944 Hepworth’s daughter Sarah — one of triplets, along with Rachel and Simon, who were born in 1934 — underwent treatment for a bone condition. While at the local hospital, Hepworth befriended a surgeon named Norman Capener, who invited her to observe his operations in Exeter (she also watched other surgeons at work in London).

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Preparation, 1949. Oil and pencil on gesso-prepared board. 14½ x 20½ in (36.8 x 52.1 cm). Sold for £151,200 on 18 October 2023 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Bowness

Afterwards, Hepworth reflected on the ‘close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors’. She went on to produce around 80 works about surgery over the following two years. In June 2018, the painting Radial, from 1947, which shows six medical staff at an operating table, achieved £308,750 at Christie’s in London.

Also in June 2018, Christie’s sold Turning form (Atlantic), a work from 1961 that saw Hepworth return to the rugged coastline of Cornwall for inspiration. The swirling form evokes the swell of the ocean, while the rubbing away of pigment echoes both the erosion of the Cornish coastline and her sculptural practice.

Hepworth’s monumental work for the United Nations

One of the artist’s most coveted periods is from around 1960, when she produced a series of monumental works from her studio in St Ives. They included Winged Figure (1963), a commission for the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street in London, and the five-tonne Single Form (below) for the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The latter commemorated the death of her friend and patron Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the UN, who was killed in 1961 en route to ceasefire negotiations in Zambia.

Barbara Hepworth with the prototype for Single Form, 1961-64, at the Morris Singer foundry, London, in May 1963

Barbara Hepworth with the prototype for Single Form (1961-64) at the Morris Singer foundry, London, in May 1963. Hepworth Photograph Collection, photograph by Morgan-Wells, courtesy Morris Singer/ Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Artwork: © Bowness

Two museums named after Barbara Hepworth

Hepworth grew up in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in the north of England. In 2011, the city opened a 17,000-square-foot museum designed by the British architect David Chipperfield to house 44 of the artist’s works, donated by her family as well as her peers Graham Sutherland, Jacob Epstein, Walter Sickert, Nash and Nicholson.

Barbara Hepworth's stone workshop in Cornwall

Barbara Hepworth’s stone workshop in Cornwall. Photo: © Tate (Marcus Leith & Andrew Dunkley) 2011. Artwork: © Bowness

The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in St Ives, Cornwall, preserves Trewyn studio (above), which was purchased by Hepworth in 1949. She lived there for 26 years. The house, garden and studio remain as Hepworth left them, complete with her furniture, downed tools and unfinished works. The museum was opened by her family in 1976, and ownership was passed to Tate in 1980.

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Hepworth the inspiration for women artists

Barbara Hepworth was given her first solo show in 1937 at Alex Reid and Lefevre gallery in London. In 1944 she held a solo show at Wakefield City Art Gallery, followed a decade later by an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. In 1968 she had her first retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London, and a posthumous retrospective was held at Tate Britain in 2015.

The artist also exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and won the Grand Prix at the São Paulo Biennial in 1959. Hepworth was made a CBE in 1958, then a DBE in 1965, for her contributions to art. In her lifetime, she became the most celebrated British woman working in the male-dominated world of sculpture.

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