Trio (Tendon Transplant) is one of a series of compositions Hepworth executed in the late 1940s that have come to be known as the 'Hospital Drawings’. In 1943 Hepworth’s daughter Sarah underwent surgery and her orthopaedic surgeon Norman Capener, an amateur sculptor, invited Hepworth to observe an operation. In 1947, Hepworth witnessed her first surgery, a hip replacement, and for three years after this outing she was permitted to work in operating theatres in London and in the West Country, sketching in a small notepad and later transferring her observations into larger scale drawings.
Observing these operations had a profound effect on Hepworth. She compared the movement and harmony of surgeons to that of an orchestra, ballet dancers and Olympians. She explained 'I expected I should dislike it; but from the moment when I entered the operating theatre I became completely absorbed by two things: first, the extraordinary beauty of purpose and co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life, and the way that unity of idea and purpose dictated a perfection of concentration, movement and gesture; and secondly by the way this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work' (Hepworth quoted in H. Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London, 1952, opp. pl. 92).
In Trio (Tendon Transplant) this perception of beauty and purpose is clearly portrayed. The shoulders of the surgeons and their heavily worked eyes surround and call attention to the highly modelled yet delicate hands, each positioned slightly differently to its neighbour. Although the tendon transplant is at the centre of the composition, the graphic imagery of the invasive surgery is far outweighed by the harmonious composition of the attending surgeons and assistants and the bold blue hues framing them. Their hands and the synchronised action of each is clearly the main intrigue of the scene.
As Hepworth states above there is a clear comparison in the movement and space that she witnessed in the theatre and that of her own portrayal of abstract forms. It is interesting to see the comparisons between Trio (Tendon Transplant) and Oval form no. 2, 1942 (see lot 20). In each drawing the composition revolves around fluid concentric circles within an a larger elliptical shape, marked by the hands and shoulders in one and the oval in the other, and strong lines that intersect this main shape, seen in the instruments and tray. Even the dramatic use of tone, as on the heavily worked eye, is reflected in the dark shapes of this abstract drawing from five years earlier.
J.P. Hodin observes, 'It is of interest to note the tension between these representational drawings and the abstract sculptures produced at the same time. We feel that here is the key to the understanding of her working method, which is that of a constant interchange of outward observation and inner reflection' (J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel, 1961, p. 21).
When looking at this series of drawings it is clear that Hepworth identifies with the role of the orthopaedic surgeon; their tools are similar to those used to work with stone and one could even compare the careful and precise suturing seen here to the precision and balance seen in Hepworth’s own string pieces. She said, of observing operations in a lecture to surgeons in Exeter circa 1953, 'It ratified, moreover, my previous ideas as a sculptor, of the basic principles of abstract composition, rhythm, poise, and equilibrium which is inherent in human activity when the mind wholly governs the body for the fulfilment of an unselfish end' (quoted in S. Bowness (ed.), Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, London, 2015, p. 85).
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.