Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)
Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)

Three Small Forms

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)
Three Small Forms
slate, unique
11 5/8 in. wide (29.5 cm.), including the original sycamore base
Carved in 1964.
This work is recorded as BH 358.
Marcus Brumwell, Cornwall, and by descent.
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 29 November 1989, lot 202.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 9 December 1998, lot 696, where purchased by the present owner.
A. Bowness (ed.), The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-69, London, 1971, p. 38, no. 358, pl. 86.
J. Brumwell, Bright Ties, Bold Ideas, Truro, 2010, p. 94, illustrated.
London, Gimpel Fils, Barbara Hepworth, June 1964, no. 43.

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Lot Essay

Mature in technique and delicate in composition, Three Small Forms is a key example of Dame Barbara Hepworth’s mastery in hand-carved sculpture, and her enduring passion for the craft. In her early practice, Hepworth was a key proponent of ‘Direct Carving’, a method in which the artist works directly with the final material rather than models or maquettes for a craftsman. This enables the artist to work with the natural properties of the material. Explaining the importance of this connection, she stated: ‘I do not like using mechanical devices or automatic tools. Even if the work was done ten times more easily I should miss the physical pleasure of direct contact with every part of the form from the beginning to the end’ (B. Hepworth, interviewed in ‘Approach to Sculpture’ in Studio, London, October 1946, quoted in op. cit., p. 34). In her later years, Hepworth went on to create larger monumental pieces cast in bronze, yet her devotion to the practice of carving evidently endured in the smaller works she created during this time. Three Small Forms is one of these such pieces, carved by hand and attended to in all its detail. This work belongs to a substantial series of slate carvings made in the 1960s in which Hepworth brought together multiple standing forms, dynamic in composition.

As early as the 1920s and 1930s, Hepworth collected delicate beach stones, eroded naturally by the environment into unpredictable shapes. The soft, silky texture of these stones inspired Hepworth to seek a finish in her sculptures that resembled ‘a surface eroded by sea and rain or polished by the wind’ (B. Hepworth, quoted in S. Bradwell, ‘Barbara Hepworth,’ Arts Review, 27 May 1975, p. 308).

The spatial relationships between forms has always held strong meaning for the artist, who carefully constructs the shapes to be in conversation with one another. Pairing two forms has been a consistent thread running through her oeuvre. Combining three, in this work and others from the time, adds a further layer of complexity and another set of relationships to the composition. In bringing together three forms repeatedly during this time, Hepworth perhaps draws from her personal history in observing the dynamics and relationships of her children: triplets born in 1934. In this work, the three masses differ in character and shape: one carved into a tall upright shape, the other two more balanced between height and width, but all united in the physical properties of the polished slate and common triangular shape. United by these common features, each form emits similar reflection of light on the black surfaces, their shapes causing similar shadows to form on the wooden base. With smooth dark surfaces and rounded edges, each figure regards its fellow from multiple faces: they look both inward to one another, and outward to regard the surrounding environment. The organic material causes bands to pattern the surface of each form, showing the natural properties and textures that were found within the slate.

During the 1960s Hepworth became fascinated with a wide variety of coloured stones, as she had been at the beginning of her career. Alongside the white marble for which she had a special love, she carved, for example, black, grey and green marble from Ireland, pink marble from Portugal and green marble from Sweden. Her use of slate is an aspect of this heightened interest in colour. In the 1960s and 1970s Hepworth devoted much of her time to the series of intimate slate carvings that this work is from: making smaller groupings of interrelated forms. Carved from the top of a slate billiard table, the very first of these was Carving (Mylor), created in 1962-63. Slate became a recurrent medium for Hepworth during this period, during which she developed a love of the purity and variance of the material: by directly carving, she could see it transform. St Ives architect Henry Gilbert became Hepworth’s contact for obtaining local slate. She expressed to the art critic Alan Bowness the ease she had in obtaining the material after this point: ‘I found out that if they quarried very deeply in the slate quarry here at Delabole (in Cornwall) they could get a reasonable thickness for me, and a very fine quality - much finer than the top layers which are used industrially. So every time they come across what they consider a sculptor's piece, they telephone me. The slates from these deep beds are very beautiful’ (B. Hepworth, in conversation with Alan Bowness, in A. Bowness (ed.), The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-69, London, 1971, p. 8).

Three Small Forms was completed in 1964, which was a very important year for the artist. Not only did her commission for the United Nations sculpture see a trip to New York, but domestically her reputation as a key sculptor in the British canon was cemented with a series of important museum acquisitions. Seven sculptural works and two drawings were acquired in that year by the Tate Gallery; their collection had previously only held five of her works, all from a much earlier period of her oeuvre. A number of the slate pieces are now in public collections, for example Two Forms (Menhirs), 1964, in the Tate collection, Three Personages, 1965, in Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, and other examples at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington.

Marcus Brumwell was an important friend, supporter and patron of Barbara Hepworth who had also owned Three Forms (1935; Tate) and Pierced Hemisphere II (Tate).

We are 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.

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