“I just had a new phase the last year. It’s not so much new as a fulfilment on a big scale of an idea which has cropped up all my life, and that is a group of figures—and I call them [The Family of Man]” (interview with R. Sharpe, August 1971, quoted in S. Bowness, ed., op. cit., 2015, p. 243). So Barbara Hepworth described the conception of her great, career-defining work, The Family of Man, of 1970. Comprising nine monumental bronze abstract figures, this valedictory group was the culmination of Hepworth’s abiding exploration into the theme of human interaction by way of multi-form sculpture, and the realization of a life-long ambition to create a family grouping set within the landscape.
I try to make sculptures which will affirm and reaffirm the magic of the will of life and the miracle of rebirth and continuity in the Universe.”
Standing at over two meters high, Parent II is part of this group, each piece of which represents a stage of human life: Youth, Young Girl, Bridegroom, Bride, Parent I and II, Ancestor I and II, and finally Ultimate Form. Appearing as if a prehistoric relic, while at the same time inherently of its time, Parent II, with its mythic and autobiographical affinities, stands as the visual embodiment of Hepworth’s belief that sculpture should be, “an affirmative statement of our will to live.” “I was never so happy as when making these,” she recalled (quoted in E. Mullins, “Barbara Hepworth’s Family,” Daily Telegraph Magazine, London, 7 April 1972, in ibid.,p. 250).
In sculpture I am vertical. I always have been like that.”
Hepworth created The Family of Man as individual, free-standing figures that also interact as an outdoor ensemble. 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 figure and generational progression by vertically stacking component elements: she employed two pieces in Youth and Young Girl, three in The Bride and Parent II, and four in The Bridegroom, Ultimate Form, Parent I, Ancestor I and Ancestor II. Though entirely abstract in their construction, each sculpture is invested with visual equivalences to the stage of life they represent. Parent II and its partner, Parent I, are imbued with a sense of solidity, stability and monumentality; in the present work, the geometric bronze piece is ascendant and resolute, the more rounded ones softer and unthreatening, together creating a composition that is resoundingly whole and immutable.
Parent II and the rest of the Family of Man group were born out of Hepworth’s familiarity with and reverence for the untamed, dramatic, and windswept Cornish landscape. In August 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson left London and arrived in Cornwall with their young triplets. Both she and Nicholson were immediately inspired by their new home. It was not until 1943, however, that Hepworth began working again, having been hindered both by wartime supply shortages as well as by a lack of space in their first Cornish home. Moving to a new, larger house on Carbis Bay, Hepworth was finally able to carve once more, her knowledge of the Penwith peninsular now informing her work.
“It was during this time that I gradually discovered the remarkable pagan landscape which lies between St. Ives, Penzance and Land’s End,” she described, “a landscape which still has a very deep effect on me, developing all my ideas about the relationship of the human figure in landscape... I was the figure in the landscape and every sculpture contained to a greater or lesser degree the ever-changing forms and contours embodying my own response to a given position in that landscape... There is no landscape without the human figure…” (quoted in Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London, 1952, n.p.).
I cannot write anything about landscape without writing about the human figure and human spirit inhabiting the landscape. For me, the whole art of sculpture is the fusion of these two elements—the balance of sensation and evocation of man in this universe.”
At the end of 1950, Hepworth moved to Trewyn Studio in St. Ives, which was to serve as her home for the rest of her life. In the latter years of her career, she devoted herself to the standing form: her late oeuvre is defined by groups of monumental vertical, multi-partite works that are not only more complex than her prior work, but are imbued with a greater sense of mystery and magic. “It’s so natural to work large—it fits one’s body… I’ve always wanted to go to my arm’s length and walk round things, or climb up them. I kept on thinking of large works in a landscape: this has always been a dream in my mind” (quoted in P. Curtis and A.G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1994, p. 81).
The initial idea for The Family of Man was conceived in 1947. Hepworth wanted to create a sculpture consisting of individual figures as a single group. “When this group first took shape in her mind after the Second World War,” Edwin Mullins wrote, “she saw the figures, for reasons she cannot fully understand nor explain, rising out of the sea” (S. Bowness, ed., op. cit., 1972, p. 248). Given the impracticalities of staging the work in this environment, Hepworth decided instead to place the figures on a stretch of the Cornish countryside. Appearing like prehistoric rock formations or Stone Age megaliths or menhirs, these sculptures have an innate kinship with the natural world, and, by extension, man’s own relationship with the landscape. Embodying the eternal cycle of life and nature, Parent II and the Family of Man group stand as poignant and powerful reflections of the human experience as well as expressing Hepworth’s fundamental desire to “make sculptures which will affirm and reaffirm the magic of the will of life and the miracle of rebirth and continuity in the Universe” (quoted in op. cit., 2015, p. 222).
Of the 4 individual casts of Parent II, one is located at The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire. There are additionally 2 artist's proofs of The Family of Man group, including Parent II, which are at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and PepsiCo Sculpture Garden, Purchase, New York.
Lot Essay Header Image: Barbara Hepworth, from The Family of Man – Nine Bronzes and Recent Carvings, exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, London, 1972. Photograph by Foresees. © Bowness.