'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 and eyes’ (B. Hepworth, A Pictorial Autobiography, London, 1985, p. 53).
In the summer of 1942 Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson signed a seven year lease and moved into Chy-an-Kerris, a house in Carbis Bay, just along the coast from St Ives, where they had been living for the previous three years. Hepworth wrote of her delight, ‘A new era seemed to begin for me when we moved into a larger house high on the cliff overlooking the grand sweep of the whole of St Ives Bay from the island to Godrevy lighthouse. There was a sudden release from what had seemed to be an almost unbearable diminution of space and now I had a studio workroom looking straight towards the horizon of the sea and enfolded (but with always the escape for the eye straight out to the Atlantic) by the arms of land to the left and right of me’. By 1943 she was carving again and she commented, ‘It was during this time that I gradually discovered the remarkable pagan landscape which lies between St Ives, Penzance and Land’s End; a landscape which still has a very deep effect on me, developing all my ideas about the relationship of the human figure in landscape – sculpture in landscape and the essential quality of light in relation to sculpture which induced a new way of piercing the forms to contain colour’ (B. Hepworth, quoted in H. Read (intro.), Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, n.p.). Towards the end of her life in her Pictorial Autobiography, first published in 1970, the artist reflected, ‘At Carbis Bay, during the mid-forties, I did some of my best work. I had only a limited space: a back yard, a room only eight feet high, and endless complaints about my hammering! The sound of a mallet or hammer is music to my ears, when either is used rhythmically, and I can tell by sound alone what is going on; but I could understand how exasperating this could be to neighbours and indeed to the family’ (B. Hepworth, A Pictorial Autobiography, London, 1985, p. 49).
Oval Sculpture, carved originally in plane wood at Chy-an-Kerris in 1943, exemplifies the third shape which had had special significance for Hepworth. ‘The forms that have had special significance for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in 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 (sometime incorporating colours) 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 and eyes’ (B. Hepworth, A Pictorial Autobiography, London, 1985, p. 53). In spite of better working conditions, access to seasoned timber proved hard during the Second World War.
Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens explain, ‘In September 1943 she asked [Ben] Nicholson, then in London, to call a timber merchant as she had ‘a permit for English hardwood’, but soon lamented: ‘the outlook for my wood looks bad. I can get the wood but seasoned wood is extinct. Newly felled timber will split like hell.’ [TGA 87220.127.116.117 & 288] (M. Gale and C. Stephens, loc. cit.). In October 1946, she discusses her work, ‘The carving and piercing of such a form seems to open up 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’ (‘Approach to Sculpture’, Studio, vol. 132, no. 643, October 1946, p. 98).
Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens discuss the genesis of Oval Sculpture, ‘Following her first original bronzes two years previously, in 1958 Hepworth elected to make casts of selected earlier carvings as a means of increasing her output and, presumably, of further disseminating her work. She chose the first work to be cast – her 1943 Oval Sculpture [The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness] in plane wood with painted interior, which belonged to her friend Margaret Gardiner – because it had begun to split and she was anxious to preserve it. Brian Wall, an assistant of Hepworth’s at that time, has recalled her borrowing the sculpture from Gardiner and bringing the renowned plaster caster ‘Mac’ - Mancici from the Mancini-Tozer foundry in Wimbledon, to St Ives for the purpose. Mancini, according to Wall, was horrified when he saw the complexity of the piece to be cast and insisted it would be too difficult. Nevertheless, he made a cast of it – along with a number of other carvings – in Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio using a forty piece mould. Two casts [in plaster] were made: one belongs to the Tate Gallery and the other remains in the artist’s estate and is on display in the Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives. A polished bronze version was cast in the following year at the Susse Frères foundry in Paris and issued in an edition of four as Oval Sculpture [the present lot] […] In its employment of an archetypal organic form to express a natural, passive process of growth, Oval Sculpture may be seen to establish the tenor of Hepworth’s work for the subsequent few years’ (M. Gale and C. Stephens, op. cit., pp. 84, 88).
In 1967 Hepworth reflected on the form and genesis of this form, ‘This Oval Sculpture, which I carved in 1943, is, I think, one of my most religious sculptures and people may wonder why I feel this. It was made at a time of very deep despair and trouble when one of my children was gravely ill and I thought and thought what I could do which is helpful or useful and decided the only thing I could do would be to make as affirmative a sculpture as I could and as perfect as possible as a gift no matter what happened, but it did help me enormously because I realised that eventually I would find a way of speaking within these terms in my own work about my own particular feeling and religion. Artists are not gods – they are the servants of God (B. Hepworth, Viewpoint, BBC 1, 13 September 1967, quoted in Radio Times, London, 7 September 1967).
BH 121 C is the bronze version of BH 121 A, Oval Sculpture, 1943, carved in plane wood with concavities painted white; there is also a plaster version, BH 121 B, Oval Sculpture 1943, cast 1958, of which 2 casts are in the collection of the Tate and Estate. Cast 1 of the bronze edition is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; on permanent loan to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
We are very grateful to Dr Sophie Bowness for her assistance with the cataloguing apparatus for this work. Dr Sophie Bowness is preparing the revised catalogue raisonné of Hepworth’s sculpture.