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BARBARA HEPWORTH:

A MODERNIST REVISION OF NATURE'S FORMS

An acclaimed artist esteemed outside of the framework of gender, in an era of vast difference and challenges for women in the artistic field, Barbara Hepworth is the renowned British sculptor who once famously declared “my left hand is my thinking hand. My right hand is only a motor hand.” A pivotal figure of 20th century art, the quote has been relayed multiple times over and speaks to the fundamental components of Hepworth’s practice, distinguishing between the instrument and the genesis from which her distinctive forms took shape. 

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Barbara Hepworth, Winged Figure, 1961–2 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Photo: Jonty Wilde | Photo Jonty Wilde


 

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Hepworth working on the armature of Single Form in the Palais de Danse, St Ives, 1961 © Bowness | Photo: Rosemary Mathews

She was best known for her work Pierced Form (1932), which saw her introduce cavities to otherwise solid sculptures – a device that encouraged engagement between her work and its environment, and for the viewer, a way to absorb both in tandem – which at that point was a rare motif in the medium.
When she died aged 72, from a house fire started by the bedtime cigarette she concluded each day with, she left a mammoth oeuvre that continues to attract spectators today; a prominent advocate for democratizing art, much of it remains visible in public spaces. On London’s busy Oxford Street, one of Hepworth’s most famous pieces, Winged Figure (1963) is mounted on the side of the department store John Lewis; in New York, Single Form (1964) greets visitors to United Nations Plaza. At 21 ft tall, it is Hepworth’s largest work and was commissioned as a memorial to her friend and the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld. 

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Barbara Hepworth, Mother and Child, 1934. Pink Ancaster stone Purchased by Wakefield

Corporation in 1951 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate | Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones


 

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Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903 – the city boasts one of two museums honoring her career (The Hepworth Wakefield opened in 2011; the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in St Ives, Cornwall has been run by Tate since 1980) – Hepworth won a scholarship to Leeds School of Art in 1920, studying at the Royal College of Art from 1921. Upon graduating in 1924 she travelled to Florence where she learned to carve marble under Giovanni Ardini; while in Italy she married John Skeaping, a fellow sculptor and winner of the Prix-de-Rome (Hepworth had come second). They had a child five years later but were divorced in 1931 as Hepworth became involved with another artist, Ben Nicholson; the couple had triplets in 1934 and married in 1938.
Moving from London to St Ives at the outbreak of World War II, Hepworth and Nicholson became part of the St Ives School, later heading the colony of artists who found themselves in creative awe on the Cornish coast. It was here that Hepworth revisited the natural elements she’d enjoyed as a young girl, exploring the landscape with a renewed fascination that manifested itself in her work from this period onwards. In 1949 the couple moved to Trewyn Studios, where Hepworth lived until her death in 1975, and where the Tate’s Sculpture Garden remains (she and Nicholson divorced in 1951). Captured on film by Dudley Shaw Ashton in 1953, the short Figures in the Landscape beautifully underscores Hepworth’s preoccupation with the Cornish landscape, presenting a romanticized appraisal of her work amongst the scenery. Consistent in her desire that her work become a part of the terrain, and hence a form with which to interact, in 1972 Hepworth told an interviewer, “I think every sculpture must be touched…it’s our first, really our first sensibility, is the sense of feeling; the very first one we have when we’re born.”

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Barbara Hepworth, Totem, 1960 - 62 Wakefield Permanent Art Collection ©

Bowness, Hepworth Estate Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones


 

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Left: Barbara Hepworth, Cone and Sphere, 1973. White marble. Hepworth Estate, on long loan to

The Hepworth Wakefield (Wakefield Permanent Art Collection) © Bowness | Photo Mark Heathcote

Right: Barbara Hepworth at work on the plaster for Single Form, January 1962, at the Morris Singer

foundry. © Bowness, Hepworth Estate | Photo: Morgan-Wells

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Beyond her affinity for nature, Hepworth was also profusely engaged with politics. While in London she mixed with European artists fleeing the continent’s increasingly fascist rhetoric, elsewhere concerning herself with upholding art’s role in society, something she viewed as vital for a modern world. In 1952 she observed that art was “the only language that nations can speak together and they don’t quarrel. And yet in times of stress and war, the tiny grant which the state provides to maintain the visual arts is the first to go.” Later, in 1956, she was responsible for drafting a letter to the Sunday Times, signed by 59 artists, making clear her displeasure with the controversial Hydrogen bomb: “there can be no true culture while we make stock-piles of nuclear weapons,” she wrote.
That Hepworth’s name reached such prominence in an era of widely accepted executive misogyny – she represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1950, winning first prize at the São Paulo Bienal in 1959 and becoming a Dame in 1965 – remains noteworthy. Not explicit in aligning herself with feminism, she cared more for basic equality, declaring art to be anonymous and stating that, “at no point do I wish to be in conflict with any man or masculine thought.” As a mother to four children however, she had additional concerns of perceived imbalances, and to that end noted, “A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate) – 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.”

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Barbara Hepworth with the Gift plaster of Figure for Landscape and a bronze cast of Figure (Archaean) November 1964.

© Bowness | Photo: Lucien Meyer


 

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Barbara Hepworth, Genesis III, 1966 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate | Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones


 

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Barbara Hepworth, Kneeling Figure, 1932 Rosewood. Purchased with aid from the Wakefield Permanent Art Fund (Friends of Wakefield Art Galleries and Museums),

V&A Purchase Grant Fund and Wakefield Girls’ High School, 1944 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones


 

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Barbara Hepworth, Pierced Hemisphere, 1937. White marble. The Hepworth Wakefield (Wakefield Permanent Art Collection) © Bowness | Photo Norman Taylor

Text: Zoe Whitfield

Images: ©️ Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

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