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Barbara Hepworth (1903 − 1975)

Venice Biennale participation

Group show
Other exhibitions
1936 1964

Britain’s 1950 Biennale aimed to recreate 1948's prize-winning combination of modern and nineteenth-century art: Barbara Hepworth and Matthew Smith with John Constable. Neither Smith nor Hepworth did well out of it, and a British Council report later that year reflected 'she would have had fairer treatment had she not followed so closely upon [Henry Moore's] heels'. Although she left with what Penelope Curtis called a 'feeling of injustice', the show ultimately raised her public profile, and observing its crowds had a 'lasting influence on her growing interest in the relationship between man and the landscape.'

This interest started in her Yorkshire childhood; she wrote in 1970 that the 'lonely hills' bred in her

the feeling of the magic of man in a landscape, whether it be a pastoral image or a miner squatting in the rectangle of his door, or the ‘Single form' of a millgirl moving against the wind, with her shawl wrapped around her head and body.

In this passage, she looks back over a cafreer that had featured a number of simple, abstract Single Forms, culminating in the 1964 work she unveiled in New York's United Nations Plaza, a 20-foot bronze memorial to her friend, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld.  
'I love working on a large scale so the whole body of the spectator becomes involved', and the work – the largest of her career – involved 'everything my father had taught me about stress and strain and gravity and windforce'; Herbert R. Hepworth, C.B.E., was 'throughout his life, gentle, kind and very intelligent and a fine engineer.'

He sent her to Wakefield Girls' High, and, in 1920, she moved on to Leeds College of Art, where she befriended Moore, Raymond Coxon and Edna Ginesi, and moved down with them to the Royal College of Art in London. At only 20, she was awarded the College's Diploma of Associateship, and, in her postgraduate year, was nominated for the Prix de Rome in sculpture. She narrowly missed out, but, on a travel scholarship to Rome in 1924, she met the winner, John Skeaping, and married him in 1925. After a year at the British School in Rome, the couple moved back to London, and co-exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1928, and, in 1930, at Arthur Tooth & Son. Hepworth remembered this as 'a wonderfully happy time', and their son, Paul, was born in 1929.

The marriage was dissolved in 1933 – 'there was no ill-feeling – we fell apart' – and 1931 opens a new chapter of her Pictorial Autobiography (1970), ‘Years with Ben Nicholson', which opens 'this was a period of real maturity […] each was the other's best critic.'

She moved with Nicholson to what Herbert Read, later the Commissioner for the British Pavilion, famously described as 'the nest of gentle artists' in 1930s Hampstead. She remembered 'Sir Herbert was gentle, and I think we all were because we were free and totally and individually dedicated. They were hard times but so happy.'

These times produced Pierced Form (1931-2). Whether or not Judith Collins is right that the idea came from Skeaping, or Alan Bowness that it gave Henry Moore the idea for his own piercings, as Anne Middleton Wagner notes, it was 'one of the earliest twentieth-century sculptures to include an 'arbitrary hole'.' It was shown at Abstraction, a joint show with Nicholson at Tooth's in November 1932, but destroyed during the war. Bowness argues Hepworth's works around this period 'can be regarded as the first completely abstract sculptures made anywhere in the world, the equivalent of the carved White Reliefs that Ben Nicholson was making simultaneously.'

Their friend Paul Nash noticed a 'dual interest in making things which in themselves shall sum up a conception of beauty', and both joined his Unit One 1933. In the collective's inaugural publication, she wrote 'there is freedom to work out ideas and today seems alive with a sense of imminent new discovery.'

The couple travelled on the continent, visiting Picasso, and narrowly missing Jean Arp, whose fusion of 'landscape with the human form' she found 'extraordinary'.  In 1934, she gave birth to triplets; Simon, Rachel and Sarah. On re-starting carving, she found 'the work was more formal, and all traces of naturalism had disappeared' and that her aim was now 'to discover some absolute essence in sculptural terms, giving the quality of human relationships.'

Nicholson and Hepworth married in 1938, shortly before being forced from their glass-roofed London studio by the Blitz. 'Arriving [in St. Ives, Cornwall] in August at midnight with very weary children, in pouring rain', Hepworth's

spirits were at zero. Next morning I appreciated the beauty and sense of community, and realised that it would be possible to find some manual work and raise the children, and take part in community life, which has nourished me ever since.

By 1942, the family had found a larger house in Carbis Bay, where Hepworth could carve in the garden; in 1943 her illustrations for Kathleen Raine's Stone and Flower Poems appeared, and a retrospective was held at Temple Newsam, Leeds. By 1949, after a shaky start – she 'went pale green and fainted' at the auction – she had found Trewyn Studios, the St Ives property that would be her home for the rest of her life, and the Barbara Hepworth Museum at the end of it. This was 'a sort of magic'; it had

space, air, sun and a real proper workshop. The children had their own quarters just opposite and Ben his own big studio, and we all began to expand and grow.

In 1947, Hepworth was invited to watch an operation in Exeter Orthopaedic Hospital, an experience that produced the series of Operating Theatre Drawings that was shown at Venice. Here, 'the extraordinary beauty of purpose between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life' amazed her, and 'this special grace (grace of mind and body)' appeared like 'an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work.' In addition to eleven abstract and fifteen figure drawings, the series hung alongside a retrospective collection of sculptures ranging from 1927's The Doves to Pelagos (1946) and Bicentric Form (1949), which was displayed at the entrance to the Pavilion.

Penelope Curtis notes that 'the 1950 Biennale had received only half the visitors of the 1948 one, partly because the latter was after the war, and partly because of the political situation.' Hepworth was dissatisfied with the committee's selection of works; she felt she had got something ''discreet' and 'ladylike'' where she had wanted strong juxtapositions […] something dynamic.' Circumstance had it that Hepworth was unfairly overshadowed by both Constable and Moore; a Council report sums up that her work was seen as 'cold and imitative' by some.

In a book sponsored by the Henry Moore Foundation, Penelope Curtis wrote 'she was very upset not to be included in the selection for the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale, which showed the younger sculptors inside and Henry Moore outside on the terrace.' Herbert Read, who had perceived a spiky Cold War 'geometry of fear' amongst the exhibited (male) artists, told her 'if you had had a large metal sculpture to balance Henry's that would be the ideal solution.' As Curtis continues this is 'an almost overt suggestion […] that if she had used bronze she could have been alongside both Moore and the next generation in Venice.' Something of a reconciliation between artist and Council came about when Hepworth became the first British artist to win the Grand Prix at the São Paolo Biennale in 1959.

By 1951, Hepworth and Nicholson's marriage had been dissolved, and her son Paul was killed in the RAF over Thailand 13th February 1953. But Trewyn Studios proved a constant base, and over the next twenty-four years she exhibited internationally, and produced a variety of public commissions, from her UN memorial to Hammerskjöld, to the 19-foot Winged Figure (1962) for the Oxford Street John Lewis scaled up from the British Council's Maquette for Winged Figure (1959). A string of honorary degrees throughout the sixties and seventies shows the growth of her reputation as ''a compulsive burrower' who produces exquisite surfaces, a renewer of British sculpture.' [Oxford D.Litt citation] All of these honours delighted her, and provided her with an opportunity to revel in community life, but in 1968, she was especially touched to be appointed Bard of Cornwall, and be awarded the freedom of the Borough of St Ives alongside the potter Bernard Leach.

In 1975, J. P. Hodin wrote for Studio International 'she was found, too late to be rescued, on the 20th of May in her burning smoke-filled studio in St. Ives'; she'd been smoking in bed, and arthritis and a mending broken hip stopped her escaping. The Guardian described her as 'probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day', but, as Alan Bowness points out, 'she asked simply to be treated as a sculptor (never a sculptress), irrespective of sex.'

After twenty-five years of life and work in St Ives, she had found her own place in its landscape, writing 'both sun and moon rise and set over the water with a great radiance and this fact sets up a remarkable tension in my everyday life.' So, bored on one of her last planes back home from America, she asked to draw the sunrise from the cockpit. The crew's 'utter ease of movement' 'in such incredibly restricted space' brought back the unexpected delight of her hospital drawings, and her realisation in Venice that 'each of our bodies is a potential sculpture and a special means of expression.'

The pilot 'personally, was tired of sun-rises', but Hepworth, sketching out 'super-natural colours and shapes', remembered this as 'one of the great experiences' of her life.

Tom Overton, 2009.


Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography (Somerset: Adams and Dart, 1970).

Penelope Curtis, 'Hepworth, Barbara', Grove Art Online; Oxford Art Online, accessed 10th November 2008.

Matthew Gale & Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Gallery Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St. Ives (London: Tate Gallery, 1990).

Margaret Gardiner, Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir (Edinburgh: The Salamander Press, 1982).

A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, revised edn., tr. James Brockway & Mary Charles (London: Thames & Hudson, 1987).

J. P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth (London: Lund Humphries, 1961).

J.P. Hodin, 'Obituaries: Barbara Hepworth', Studio International, July-August 1975.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculptures from the Estate, with an essay by Alan G. Wilkinson (New York: Wildenstein & Company, 1996).

Anne Middleton Wagner, Mother Stone: The Vitality of Modern Sculpture (New Haven & London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2005).

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