The sensuous, modern forms of Barbara Hepworth
Inspired by the rugged landscape of the southwest of England, the British artist revolutionised sculpture by exploring the possibilities of the neutral space. Illustrated with works offered in October
In 1946 the British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) wrote to
her friend Phillip James, Director of Art at the UK’s Art Council. ‘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-Great 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 tensions — between light and darkness,
solidity and weightlessness — and she is celebrated for having
revolutionised the possibilities of carving.
Hepworth, traditional carving techniques, and Carrara marble
In 1924 Hepworth travelled to Italy to learn traditional marble
carving from a master carver named Giovanni Ardini. Her trip also included visits to the Carrara marble quarries and the
study of Romanesque and Renaissance sculpture.
While in Italy, Hepworth was awarded second place in the Prix
de Rome art scholarship programme, losing out to the British sculptor John Skeaping.
Hepworth and Skeaping married the following year in Florence
before moving to Rome.
How Barbara Hepworth introduced ‘the hole’ to British sculpture
In 1931, two 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. Works such as Six Forms on a Circle (below), which is being offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 20 October in London, highlight the artist’s interest in circular space.
Hepworth’s abstract 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. Her 1935 work, Three Forms (below),
also offered in
the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale, represents a high point
in her stark, abstract exploration of size, shape,
texture and space.
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.
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
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.’
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
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 held
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. Involute 1968 (below), which
is being sold in the 20 October London auction,
is testament to the impact of the coastal landscape on her work.
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 watch him
operate in London and Exeter.
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 (below), from 1947, which shows
six medical staff around a table delicately operating, achieved £308,750 at Christie’s in London.
Also in June 2018, Christie’s sold
Turning form (Atlantic), from 1961, a work 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, from her studio in Trewyn in Cornwall, she produced a
series of monumental works. They included Winged Figure, 1963, a commission for the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street in central London,
and the five-tonne work
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.
In 1970 she made Parent II (below), part of her career-defining group of bronze figures representing the stages of life, The Family of Man. Each work is independent and unique in its own right, an effect that stems from Hepworth’s decision to suggest the complexity of the human form and generational progression by vertically stacking component elements.
Measuring more than 2 metres tall, Parent II echoes the Neolithic stones of Cornwall in its monumentality and austere abstraction. It was sold at Christie’s New York in 2021 for $7,110,000 — a world record for the artist at auction.
Two museums named after Barbara Hepworth
Hepworth grew up in Wakefield, 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
Walter Sickert, Nash and Nicholson. The museum awards an
annual sculpture prize of £30,000.
The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in St Ives, Cornwall, preserves Trewyn studio (above), which was
purchased by Hepworth in 1949. The artist 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, before
ownership was passed to Tate in 1980.
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 her first
solo show at Wakefield City Art Gallery, then a decade later
held an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
In 1968 she had her first retrospective at Tate Gallery in
London, followed by a
posthumous retrospective at Tate Britain
She also exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and
won the Grand Prix at the São Paulo Biennial in 1959. Barbara Hepworth was made a CBE in 1958, then a DBE in 1965, for her contributions
to art. Within her lifetime, she became the most celebrated
British woman working in the male-dominated world of sculpture.