Carved in 1962, Upright Form (Gwithian), is part of a series of small, intimate sculptures that Barbara Hepworth carved in the early 1960s. From the beginning of her career she had been attracted by the ever-changing appearance of alabaster; sometimes warm and translucent and at other times cold and opaque, this unique stone manifests itself in many guises under different atmospheric conditions. It was alabaster that she first experimented with when opening up the form by piercing the surface: ‘In 1931, I began to experiment in a kind of organic abstraction, reducing the forms of the natural world to abstractions. Then, in 1934, I created my first entirely non-figurative works. But it was in 1931 that I began to burrow into the mass of sculpted form, to pierce it and make it hollow so as to let light and air into forms and figures’ (B. Hepworth, in an interview with E. Roditi, Dialogues on Art, London, 1960).
The 1920s saw artists move away from the classical method of modelling their subjects in clay in order to cast in bronze. Young sculptors such as Henry Moore, John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth explored the ancient discipline of directly carving the sculpture from the stone or wooden block. Inspired by the work of Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brancusi, they embraced the qualities of the material that they carved, synthesising the physical matter with the willful hand of the sculptor. In the early 1930s these very three dimensional concerns were combined with a cleaner, purer Modernism. Born out of Cubism and of neo-plasticism, with a knowledge of artists such as Naum Gabo and Maholy-Nagy, Hepworth embraced this new language and artistic movements from Paris and the Continent.
The outbreak of Second World War in 1939 forced Hepworth and her husband, Ben Nicholson to leave London and relocate to St Ives in Cornwall. The wild and unspoilt landscape with its mysterious Stone Age monuments and the craggy coves with golden sands and powerful Atlantic squalls, moved Hepworth and inspired her to take these physical experiences of the Cornish landscape and express it within the framework of early 20th Century Modernism.
The title of the present work refers to the village of Gwithian which lies east across the bay from St Ives and is named after the patron Saint of good fortune on the sea. In Upright Form (Gwithian) Hepworth has created a beautifully tactile, timeless sculpture that simultaneously feels ancient in conception yet modern in appearance. It directly references her geographical surroundings yet symbolises something far more collective and international. From this small corner of England, Hepworth has created a sculpture of universal beauty that speaks as much about ancient Egypt, Italy or China as it does about England. Indeed, David Lewis, a studio assistant and lifelong friend of Hepworth, remembers that ‘She sometimes spoke of herself as being landscape. She saw life as the seasons, as birth, motherhood, maturity and death; in her studio she listened to Bach; in the dales of Yorkshire and the moors and seascapes of the Penwith peninsula of Cornwall, she perceived the repetitive rhythms of nature and in winds, sea surges and the stars at night she saw rhythms of eternity’.
We are very 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.