Barbara Hepworth photographed with Forms in Movement (Pavan) (1967) at her retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1968. Keystone Pictures USAREXShutterstock. Artwork © Bowness

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 London and New York in November 2018

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 Four-Square (Four Circles) (below), which is being offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 12 November in New York, highlight the artist’s interest in circular space.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Four-Square (Four Circles), conceived and cast in 1966. Height 23⅝  in (59.9  cm). Estimate $300,000-500,000. This lot is offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 12 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Four-Square (Four Circles), conceived and cast in 1966. Height: 23⅝ in (59.9 cm). Estimate: $300,000-500,000. This lot is offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 12 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

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 1964 work, Three Small Forms  (below), which is being sold in the Modern British Art Evening Sale  in London on 19 November, represents a high point in her monochromatic, abstract exploration of size, shape, texture and space.

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Three Small Forms. 11⅝  in wide (29.5  cm), including the original sycamore base. Estimate £300,000-500,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Three Small Forms. 11⅝ in wide (29.5 cm), including the original sycamore base. Estimate: £300,000-500,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

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 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.’

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Menhirs. 48  in (121.9  cm) high, including wood base. Estimate £800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Menhirs. 48 in (121.9 cm) high, including wood base. Estimate: £800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Evening Sale on 19 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

The ovoid, she declared, offered ‘sufficient field for exploration to last a lifetime’. Her ongoing quest is apparent in the 1946 work Sculpture with Colour (Eos), which sold at Christie’s in New York in 2016 for $5,429,000; in Menhirs  (1964), which is being offered in London on 19 November in the Modern British Art Evening Sale  (above); as well as Three Hemispheres  (below), a polished bronze sculpture from 1967 which features in the Modern British Art Day Sale  on 20 November.

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Three Hemispheres. 15  in (38.1  cm) wide. Estimate £70,000-100,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Day Sale on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Three Hemispheres. 15 in (38.1 cm) wide. Estimate: £70,000-100,000. This lot is offered in Modern British Art Day Sale on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in London

Hepworth, Unit One and the Penwith Society of Arts

After visiting the studios of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncusi 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. Vertical Form (St Ives)  (below), which is being sold at Christie’s in New York on 12 November, is testament to the impact of the landscape on her work.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Vertical Form (St Ives), conceived and cast in 1969. Height 18½  in (47  cm). Estimate $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 12 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Vertical Form (St Ives), conceived and cast in 1969. Height: 18½ in (47 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 12 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

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.

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Radial. Signed and dated ‘Barbara Hepworth 81247’. 12¼ x 15⅜  in (31 x 39  cm). Sold for £308,750 on 19 June 2018 at Christie’s in London © Bowness

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Radial. Signed and dated ‘Barbara Hepworth 8/12/47’. 12¼ x 15⅜ in (31 x 39 cm). Sold for £308,750 on 19 June 2018 at Christie’s in London © Bowness

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 Meridian, a commission for State House in central London (demolished in 1990), 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.

Barbara Hepworth with the plaster cast of Single Form 1961-4 at the Morris Singer foundry, London, May 1963. Hepworth Photograph Collection, photograph by Morgan-Wells, courtesy Morris Singer Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Artwork © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth with the plaster cast of Single Form 1961-4 at the Morris Singer foundry, London, May 1963. Hepworth Photograph Collection, photograph by Morgan-Wells, courtesy Morris Singer/ Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Artwork: © Bowness

In 1960 she also made Figure for Landscape (below), a work inspired by the Neolithic stones of Cornwall and a lone Orthodox priest she once saw standing in a courtyard in Patmos, Greece.

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Figure for Landscape. Bronze with a greenbrown patina. Conceived in 1959-60. 102⅜  in (260  cm) high. Sold for £4,170,500 on 25 June 2014 at Christie’s in London © Bowness

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Figure for Landscape. Bronze with a green/brown patina. Conceived in 1959-60. 102⅜ in (260 cm) high. Sold for £4,170,500 on 25 June 2014 at Christie’s in London © Bowness

The large work, regarded as one of Hepworth’s most alluring interplays between solid and hollow space, sold at Christie’s in London in 2014 for £4,170,500 — a figure that remains the artist’s auction world record.

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 Graham Sutherland, Jacob Epstein, Walter Sickert, Nash and Nicholson. The museum awards an annual sculpture prize of £30,000.

Barbara Hepworth’s stone workshop in Cornwall © Bowness. Photo © Tate. Marcus Leith & Andrew Dunkley

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

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 in 2015.

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.