'I have always been interested in oval or ovoid shapes. The first carvings were simple realistic oval forms of the human head or of a bird. Gradually my interest grew in more abstract values - the weight, poise, and curvature of the ovoid as a basic form. 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. Here is sufficient field for exploration to last a lifetime'.
(Barbara Hepworth, 'Approach to Sculpture', Studio, vol. 132, no. 643, October 1946)
On the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War in August 1939, Hepworth, Nicholson and their family moved to Carbis Bay in Cornwall, later deciding to stay after war had been declared. Nicholson knew the area somewhat but it was a new location for Hepworth which she viewed with trepidation. However, this change of scene would completely dominate the way that both artists approached their work and for Hepworth it would become her life-long home. Alan Wilkinson (op. cit., p. 79) remarks of Cornwall and its influence on Barbara's work, 'With its spectacular cliffs, headlands and caves, its rock formations rising out of the sea, its massive boulders, deposited on hill tops, Cornwall is as sculptural a landscape as exists in England. The horizon is dominated by the silhouettes of abandoned tin mines, whose chimneys seem to relate, as do the prehistoric standing stones, to the vertical forms of Hepworth's sculpture, and ultimately to her obsession with the standing figure in the landscape'.
Hepworth found drawing to be her main creative outlet during the early war years as materials were in short supply and her daylight hours were taken up with looking after the children, subsistence gardening and running a nursery school. However, after a move to the larger property of Chy-an-Kerris on the cliffs overlooking St Ives Bay, she was able to create a studio workroom with a sufficiently dramatic view to open up the possibilities of carving again. She began to develop her sculptural vocabulary and became inspired by, 'the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) 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 embrace of living things, either in nature or the human spirit'. However, as Alan Wilkinson (loc. cit.) comments, 'During the 1940s, Hepworth continued to create abstract sculptures that are closely related to her carvings of the 1930s, particularly to the twisting, spiralling forms found in the 1938 Heloids in Sphere (BH 109). In carvings such as Involute I 1946 (BH 135), Sculpture with Colour (Eos) 1946 (BH 141) and Helikon 1948 (BH 148), the curvilinear forms are more organic and less rigidly geometrical than the cones, hemispheres and polyhedrons of the mid-to-late 1930s. This is reflected in the titles themselves: Convolute 1944 (BH 126) [the present work] coiled laterally upon itself, and Involute I 1946, rolled or curled up spirally. It was as if the forces of nature - the wind and the rain, the erosion by the sea of boulders and cliffs - had a hand in shaping these forms'. Hepworth herself commented that this part of Cornwall was 'a landscape which still has a very deep effect on me, developing all my ideas about the relationship of the human figure to the landscape - sculpture in a landscape and the essential quality of light in relation to the sculpture which induced a new way of piercing the form to contain colour ... 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' (H. Read, op. cit., 1952, n.p.).
The previous owners of Convolute were the art historians and writers, Margot Eates and her life partner, E.H. Ramsden. The couple visited Hepworth in Carbis Bay, St Ives, in 1944, and there were probably subsequent visits as E.H. Ramsden and Hepworth were good friends during the 1940s. Indeed it was to Ramsden that Hepworth confessed in an undated letter in 1946 that she had fallen out with her friend and fellow artist, Naum Gabo, and that the row started '3 yrs. ago when he accused me of stealing the OVAL! and since that time I havn't seen any of his work' (see M. Gale and C. Stephens, exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth Works in the Tate Gallery Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives, London, Tate, 1999, p. 87). Ramsden published two articles on Hepworth during this period, the first for Horizon, in 1943: 'Barbara Hepworth: Sculptor', and the second for Polemic: A Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology and Aesthetics, in the same year: 'The Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth'. After its publication, Hepworth wrote to Ramsden praising her article on 'Oval Sculpture'. Ramsden had stated that sculpture 'evolved in accordance with laws analogous to those of Nature and owe their being to a like necessity ... It is not by the interpretations of the material, the convergence and recession of the planes, the dissolving curves of the interior and exterior surfaces, the stringing and the inner tensions of the configured whole that a sense of the cosmic rhythm of life ... is evoked' (see M. Gale and C. Stephens, loc. cit.). It was in correspondence between Ramsden and the artist that titles for her sculpture were often discussed. Hepworth's method was to create sculpture without titles and then look for inspiration afterwards; it is testament to the strength of their relationship that Ramsden was able to suggest titles to Hepworth that could be considered for her work.
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.