Biography for Barbara Hepworth (1903 - 1975)
Dame Barbara Hepworth was without doubt Britain's first greatest sculptress. She was a pioneer of her time and the first woman sculpture to achieve international prominence. Her diminutive frame belied her magnificent modernist sculptures. Her slender hands carving iconic pieces that grace the landscapes of Britain, America, Japan, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Barbara Hepworth's unrelenting exploration of shape and texture, light and shade and most crucially space, make her award winning pieces both expansive and intimate, their physical density and visual focus simultaneously evoking vistas natural, personal and social. Barbara Hepworth's notable works are still studied and marvelled at today as they continue to reside in every national museum around the world. Nobody puts it better than Will Gompertz in the Guardian when describing his admiration for this great woman "Her capacity to create something so beguiling, so intelligent, so mesmerizingly coherent, from the most basic materials. It is genuinely amazing: a sort of alchemy."
It was as a seven year old school girl growing up in Yorkshire that Barbara Hepworth was 'fired off' as a sculpture. From her year 3 class room at Wakefield High School she listened intently to a lecture on Egyptian sculpture and from that day on, Barbara Hepworth wrote in her biography "Everything was forms, shapes and textures." Seated in the passage seat of her father's motorcar as they crisscrossed the Yorkshire countryside, all she saw was sculpture, the car became her hands as she "felt and touched the contours of the hills." Barbara Hepworth's descriptions of nature take on a visionary clarity when she later cites "I, the sculptor, am the landscape."
Barbara Hepworth's talents were clearly evident and she won scholarships first to Leeds and then to the Royal College of Art, where Henry Moore; a fellow Yorkshire man, was a contemporary. She continued to be unremittingly hardworking and says she had at that time "An unreasonable and compelling urgency in me to carve."
On a further scholarship she was later to travel to Italy, a place she saw as "the wonderful realm of light - light which transforms and revels, which intensifies the subtleties of form and contours and colours, and in which darkness - the darkness of window, door or arch - is set s an altogether new and tangible object." It was in Florence during this year in Italy that she married her first husband, fellow sculpture John Skeaping.
It was on their return to England that Hepworth and Skeaping exhibited their first public show. Held in London in 1928, the exhibition included two doves huddled together, carved in Parian marble, the piece demonstrates the powerful calm one always finds in Barbara Hepworth's work.
In 1929 Barbara Hepworth bore a Son, Paul. But her marriage was not to last. In 1931 Hepworth met Ben Nicholson, an artist whose intellectual weight was more equal to hers and who saw Barbara's' drive and ambition as an attraction rather than a 'turn off' as described by Skeaping in his biography. Together they forged a path to pure abstraction. Travelling to France, visiting Braque, Picasso and Brancusi, and viewing Jean Arp's studio in Meudon, where Hepworth was impressed by Arp's success in fusing landscape with the human form.
Domestic and artistic bliss reigned in Hampstead as Hepworth and Nicholson set up home, even the arrival of triplets didn't deter Barbara from continuing to create ground breaking abstract artworks. Embracing motherhood, the theme of maternity became central to her sculptures at this time. Hepworth became fascinated by natural gestation forms: The nut in the shell, the child in the womb. Intellectually, she found virtues in a balance of creative work and domesticity that nearly nine decades later modern working mothers are still trying to emulate: "A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplets) - one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one's mind." Her tenacity to develop her work, expunging naturalism, evolving the series of strictly abstract white marble circles, segments and slabs became a symbol of 1930's Hampstead. A place alive with artists and philosophers. Abstraction had become an article of faith, a bastion of freedom in the face of European fascist censorship.
However, the pleasantly louche atmosphere of Hampstead disintegrated with the onset of war. The "gentle nest of artists" disappearing, mostly to the U.S. With a heavy heart, Hepworth and her husband bundled up the triplets, the cook and the nurse and headed for the rugged shores of the Cornish coast.
Immediately on arriving at this "barbaric and magical" countryside, with its lush valleys and rocky coastline; it was as inspirational to her as the Yorkshire dales of her childhood. St Ives became Barbara Hepworth's her new focal point.
From her studio and Gulf streamed tropical garden tucked away in the steep winding lanes of St Ives, Barbara Hepworth produced arguably some of her greatest works. "I the sculptor, am the landscape" was never truer than when Hepworth embraced the Cornish countryside, in her words "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……I used colour and strings in many of the carvings of this time. The colour in the concavities plunged me into the depth of water, caves, or shadows deeper than the carved concavities themselves. The strings were the tensions I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills." Pieces at this time are aptly named; 'Wave', 'Wood and Strings', Tides II' and 'Pendour'. And are described by Nigel Gosling in The Guardian (7th April 1968) 'The hollowed out egg is a favourite theme-and how well she renders the hard but delicate shell and the scoopable softness of the interior, with its labyrinth of potential chambers into which the light filters as though through a membrane, white and milky. 'Pelagos' 1946, presently residing in Tate Modern is a key piece with a curvature of extraordinary subtlety and refinement'.
In 1947 Barbara Hepworth began to show a temporary revival of interest in the direct representation of the human figure, as can be seen in a series of remarkable drawings taken directly from the operating theatre. These arose from her friendship with a surgeon who had just operated on one of her daughters and who invited her to watch an operation in progress. The sight of the white-clad surgeons and nurses at their work, with their patient, concentrated devotion and the skill and economy of their movements, led her to make a series of drawings on this theme.
At this time, Barbara Hepworth's moral imperatives were centred on justifying the place of the artist in society. Her sense of herself as part of a community made her all the more eager to take an active part in Britain's post-war reconstruction - by making public sculpture for new schools, civic centres, taking art out of the studio. In 1949 she received the commission for 'Contrapuntal Forms', the huge double figures in blue limestone, for the 1951 Festival of Britain. 'Hepworth herself….. Writes Fiona MacCarthy in the Guardian (May 2003)……might be seen as the spirit of the festival, heroically solemn in her political ideals.' Barbara Hepworth's official recognition was truly cemented when her work was s exhibited the following year in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. However, her true brilliance as a sculpture has always been somewhat overshadowed by the ever present Henry Moore, as a fellow Yorkshire man, student and sculpture at this time and one could argue because he was a man (this was 1950's Britain), he was heralded as the exportable face of modern art. But despite this conscious or unconscious show of sexism, the sad breakup of her marriage, and the tragic, untimely death of her eldest son, Barbara Hepworth continued, with lone determination to produce even more assertively spectacular pieces of work. As she wrote to Nicholson: "You never liked arrogant sculptures or fierce forms, but I do."
1954 saw her highly successful retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the general public, for the first time, were able to gasp at the sensuous beauty of her work, while internationally Barbara Hepworth's reputation was crowned by the award in 1959 of the 'Grand Prix' at the Sao Paulo Bienal.
Hepworth's works began to sell readily to museums and private collectors throughout the world, and she started to receive commissions for large sculptures to on public sites both in England and abroad.
One of Barbara Hepworth's most notable pieces was to grace the United Nations plaza in New York. The story behind its journey is best described by Will Gompertz in the Guardian (Jan 20090 'Single Form' was originally carved from sandal in 1937-38. It was greatly admired by her friend Dag Hammarskjold, who went on to become the much-respected second secretary general of the United Nations. In 1961 Barbara was in the process of carving a new version out of what she considered to be the most exquisite piece of walnut when she heard the news of Hammarskjold's tragic death in a plane crash (the same fate that her befallen her son while flying in the RAF). Grief-stricken, she added a subtitle to the walnut version, calling it Single Form (September), after the month Hammarskjold died. Hepworth also made a 10ft version in bronze as a way of coping with her loss, which can now be found in London Battersea Park.
Shortly after Hammarskjold's death, the United Nations decided to commission a sculpture in his memory. They wanted a symbol of unity. They asked Barbara Hepworth to undertake the commission; she chose to make a new version of Single Form. What wasn't expected was the scale. Hepworth delivered to the UN her largest ever sculpture, a staggering 21-foot bronze version. Except in this sculpture the top right-hand-side is a hole not a dimple, allowing people to look up and see through it - a spotlight on heaven.
Drawing, painting and printmaking were also part of Hepworth's oeuvre. As she wrote "The sculptor must search with passionate intensity for the underlying principle of the organisation of mass and tension - the meaning of gesture and the structure of rhythm.
In my search for these values I like to work both realistically and abstractly. In my drawing and painting I turn from one to the other as a necessity or impulse and not because of a preconceived design of action. When drawing what I see I am usually most conscience of the underlying principle of abstract form in human beings and their relationships one to the other. In making abstract drawings I am most often aware of those human values which dominate the structure and meaning of abstract forms.
Sculpture is the fusion of these two attitudes and I like to be free as to the degree of abstraction and realism in carving." Hepworth goes on to say "The dominate feeling will always be the love of humanity and nature; and the love of sculpture for itself."
It wasn't until the late sixties (although screen print 'Abstract Composition' was published in 1955, edition size unknown) that we were made aware of Barbara Hepworth's skills as a printmaker. The signed Lithograph print 'Three Forms' was published in 1969, an edition of 60, it is associated with her 1935 sculpture 'Three Forms', a carving from grey alabaster, influenced by the birth of her triplets, two boys and a girl. Barbara Hepworth said of her work at this time "I was absorbed in the relationships in space ... and in the tensions between the forms."
Further prints whose names and composition suggest they are closely associated with the sculptures of the same or similar name include; Screen print 'Two Opposing forms', signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth, published 1970. Screen print 'Three Forms', edition size 60, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth, published 1970. Lithograph print 'Sea Forms', edition size 60, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth, published 1969. Screen print 'Two Ancestral Figures', edition size 60, published 1970, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Composition', edition of 60, published 1970-71 signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'Forms in a Flurry', edition of 60, published 1970, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'Assembly Square Forms', edition size of 60, published 1969, signed bottom left Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Pastorale', edition of 30, published 1969, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'Orchid', edition of 60, published 1970, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth.
Other Barbara Hepworth lithographs from this period share the colours and titles that conjure up the Cornish coast. Crouched under a cliff face, sheltering from the elements Hepworth would sketch and create. These lithograph prints include; 'Squares and Circles', signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth, published 1969, edition size 60. 'Sun and Moon', signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth, published 1969, edition size 60. 'Porthmeor', signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth, published 1969, edition size 60. Lithograph print 'Penwith Portfolio Moon Landscape', edition of 90, published 1973, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Cool moon', edition size 60, published 1970-71, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'December Forms', edition of 60, published 1970, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'High Tide', edition of 60, published 1970, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'November Green', edition size of 60, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Autumn Shadow', edition size of 60, published 1969, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'Rangatira I', edition of 60, published 1970, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'Rangatira II', edition of 60, published 1970, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth.
To help come to terms with the tragic loss of her eldest son and the sudden death of her first husband, in 1954 Barbara Hepworth escaped to Greece and the Aegean and Cycladic Islands. In her biography Hepworth describes how she ran up the hills with a note book, in a state of wild exhilaration, to reach the ancient sites before the tourists arrived. There she would savour the solitude. Mycenae, the theatre of Epidauros and the theatre and temple of Apollo at Delphi; these and other such sites seemed to her the supreme embodiment of the sculptor's landscape which had fascinated her in Cornwall, Following her return to England she made a series of majestic wood carvings with Grecian titles, inspired by her experiences in Greece, by for example the sense of spatial enclosure, the distant curve of a horizon or the noble proportions of the architecture. These works, among her greatest wood carvings, were made from scented guarea. The U-shaped curve of 'Curved Forms (Delphi) and the spiralling hole of 'Corinthos' have an amplitude and grandeur which surpass all of Barbara Hepworth's works in this medium. The Lithographs she drew from this inspiring trip and relates to the sculptures carved at this time include; Lithograph print 'Delos', edition of 60, published 1970-71, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Argos', edition of 60, published 1969, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Mycenae' edition size 60, published 1969, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Mykonos' edition size 60, published 1969, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Itea' edition size 60, published 1970-71, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Sun and Marble' edition size 60, published 1970-71, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Sun and Marble' edition size 60, published 1970-71, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Sun and Water,' edition size 60, published 1970-71, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Lithograph print 'Sun and Setting' edition size 60, published 1970-71, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth.
Barbara Hepworth also worked on prints to sell for charity Fundraisers they include; Lithograph print 'Genesis', published 1969, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth. Screen print 'Landscape Sculpture', edition size 175, signed bottom left Barbara Hepworth. Published 1969. Lithograph print 'Oblique Forms', edition size 300, signed bottom right Barbara Hepworth, published 1969.
By the mid 1960's Barbara Hepworth's health was deteriorating. Cancer of the tongue was diagnosed. A fall resulted in a fractured hip. However, even with her hands gnarled with arthritis, she continued on, carving smaller works. And these final pieces, like the stoic artist herself maintained the same strength and gravitas, Tragically Barbara was to die in a house fire at her home in Cornwall. Her studio and unfinished works left untouched by the flames.