The present sculpture was made in Hepworth's St Ives studio in 1956-57, using sheet brass and cotton fisherman's string, acquired locally at a time when the artist was experimenting with copper and brass sheeting. Penelope Curtis explains that the strung pieces of this period acted as a 'bridge' between Hepworth's carved works and the significant incursion of bronze into her work in the late 1950s, 'In 1956 Hepworth suddenly found an entirely new way of 'opening up'; indeed these new pieces were so open that they rather described a line in space, like a drawing, for they had no material interiority ... These seven works were given the names of dances - Pavan, Galliard - and then of song - Orpheus and Curlew. ... Orpheus and Curlew deployed the stringing effect to much greater effect, for the strings seemed to pull this thin tensile material into shape' (see P. Curtis, Barbara Hepworth, London, 1998, p. 39). By the late 1950s, bronze had become Hepworth's primary medium, though she continued, to a lesser extent to carve in wood and stone.
Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens explain that 'The [Stringed Figure (Curlew)] sculptures were made in the same way as the Orpheus group. A cardboard template determined the shape of the brass sheet; for Curlew this was a right-angled triangle with the acute corners forming the enclosing wings. Two cuts in into the left side of the triangle allowed a section to be turned inwards and facilitated a tighter curling of the form. Hepworth's assistant Brian Wall has described how the curvature was achieved by 'cold rolling' the brass, which was roughly patinated green on the inner surface. The fact that each sculpture was handmade accounts for the differences in effect ... The scheme of the stringing with red-brown fishing line was more straightforward than that for Orpheus, as the two webs on Curlew simply closed off the openings. The one at the back was threaded around on the whole of the side, forming the characteristic parabolic profile ... The stringing on the front only occupied the central section of the wings and was interrupted by the turned-in strip' (see M. Gale and C. Stephens, Barbara Hepworth Works in the Tate Gallery Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives, London, 1999, p. 164). Sheet metal gave Hepworth freedom in expressing space, and the combination of 'cold rolling' and hand-stringing allowed an element of individuality between pieces within the edition.
The parabola had been a constructional device seen in the work of fellow St Ives sculptor, Naum Gabo, who lived in England between 1936 and 1946. Hepworth's drawings of the 1940s also demonstrate the convergence and divergence of drawn lines pre-empting the stringed sculptures of the late 1950s. Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens point out that in 'An Exchange of Letters between Naum Gabo and Herbert Read' in Horizon, Vol. 10, no. 53, 'Gabo had identified sources for his Constructive art in nature, and it may be in a similar context that Hepworth's reference to a wading bird in her subtitle, Curlew, may be seen. They continue, 'This suggests a comparison with John Wells's Sea Bird Forms [Tate] 1951, at that time in the collection of their mutual friend Ethel Hodgkins. The play of abstract forms in Wells's painting is dominated by a swooping asymmetric curve opening to points which closely resemble the effect achieved by Hepworth in sheet metal' (see M. Gale and C. Stephens, op. cit., p. 165).
The present sculpture, Stringed Figure (Curlew) (Maquette) belongs to a series of stringed works of this period which included Curlew in three different sizes. The present size (BH 224) was created in an edition of nine and so was the larger Stringed Figure Curlew (Maquette II) (BH 225A). Although both are dated to 1956 and 'placed in ascending size in the artist's album, the records of her dealers, Gimpel Fils, indicate that the smaller work was made in 1957, perhaps as a result of the popularity of the earlier edition' (see M. Gale and C. Stephens, op. cit., p. 164). A larger version, Stringed Figure (Curlew) (Version II), (BH 225B), was made in an edition of three; one example of this work (1/3) is in the collection of Tate, London while another (3/3) is in the collection of The Louisiana Museum of Art, Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Curlew idea for the present Stringed Figure would have appealed to the artist, who would have instantly recognised the downcurved bill, long legs and beautiful and evocative cry of the native British bird (Numenius Arquata) on the coast in Cornwall.
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.