I know this sculpture well. It’s an old friend. Hand Sculpture (Turning Form) lived in my sitting room in St Ives for a month when Barbara first carved it in 1953. In those days I was a member of the gang of four assistants who worked for Barbara in her Trewyn studio. The others were the sculptor Denis Mitchell and the painters, John Wells and Terry Frost. Barbara would let me borrow a sculpture from time to time; and I would borrow small paintings and drawings from Ben Nicholson too, so that I could live with them and experience them at first hand. What a privilege!
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Unlike paintings, the messages of sculptures are not just visual. They are physical. This one was called a ‘hand sculpture’ by Barbara with good reason. It wasn’t fixed to a stand in those days. You could pick it up and run your hands over its surfaces and hollows, which were smooth and warm as satin. Barbara had a way of feeling forms, not with her fingers, but with the palms of her hands.
As you looked at Hand Sculpture (Turning Form), light and shadow bathed its the surfaces and were alive in its cavities. Although it was only about a foot and a half long it seemed that the rhythms and proportions of human scale and movement were articulated and resolved in its hollows and its penetrations.
‘Barbara had a way of feeling forms, not with her fingers, but with the palms of her hands’
The early 1950s was a period still raw after the war. Images of Belsen and Hiroshima, and of bombed cities in Britain and Europe, and the deaths and suffering of millions of men and women, haunted our minds as we hoped for new peace and human equity.
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Working for Barbara I was privileged to share conversations with the composers Michael Tippett and Priaulx Rainier, the poet-philosopher Herbert Read, the novelist Elias Canetti, and the scientists Solly Zuckerman and J.D. Bernal, friends who came to St Ives and Trewyn to share parallel experiences in art.
Barbara liked to say, ‘I am the landscape’, and her sculptures and figure drawings always remind me now, as they did then, of the flow of hills and valleys, and of soft shadows inside seashells washed up by the surf. In her childhood she experienced the hills and valleys of West Riding in Yorkshire where her father was a land surveyor, and in Cornwall she found a parallel relation of hills and valleys to the perennial rhythms of wind and the surrounding ocean.
Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Hand Sculpture (Turning Form), 1953. Sandalwood, unique. 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm.) long. Estimate: £250,000-450,000. This work is offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 25 November at Christie’s in London
The rhythms of these very different landscapes had a deep effect on her. It seemed that the outcroppings of granite in the Penwith peninsula were like the bones of the land thrusting against Atlantic gales and driving rain, while sheltering the rhythms of smooth interior valleys. She recalled how centuries of seasonal cycles and human husbandry had also shaped the Dales. In both landscapes periods of storm were followed by days of sunlit calm.
In her hospital drawings of surgeons at work in the early 1950s we can see the fluency and caress of similar rhythms; and we can easily understand why she was so drawn to Piero della Francesca as well as to the paintings of Mondrian and the sculptures of Brancusi.
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1953, the year that Hand Sculpture (Turning Form) was carved, was difficult for Barbara. Her marriage to Ben Nicholson had broken up, and in that February her son Paul was killed, flying in the RAF over Thailand. She continued to work; it seemed as though she developed a deep inner silence, a grief that was a physical as well as an emotional cavity. And slowly that cavity of emptiness within her became real in the hollows and tunnels of her sculptures, a way of expressing — as a woman and a sculptor — an emotional and spiritual inwardness within outer form.
Hand Sculpture (Turning Form) was one of a series of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth to resolve, in the light and shadows of inward cavities, the rhythms and power of inward experience — not only physical but emotional and spiritual: sculptures now acknowledged as among the most potent and yet serene of the 20th century.
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