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The rich and resilient life of Barbara Hepworth

Posted on 11 May 2022

In one of her final interviews, Barbara Hepworth wished for ‘ten lifetimes to express the variations and subtleties which one lifetime can give.’ The one that she did live was far from ordinary, shaped in turn by artistic triumph, personal tragedy, and an ‘intrinsic will to life’.

Barbara Hepworth in the studio, 1966. The Hepworth Photograph Collection. Courtesy Bowness.

In 1959, as the threat of nuclear war loomed, Barbara Hepworth sounded a note of resilience. “Life,” she told an interviewer, “will always insist on begetting life [. . .] This continuity contains a tremendous and impelling force. In autumn all the dynamics are laid for spring.”

Hepworth exemplified this kind of vital energy. Through more than 50 years at the forefront of British modernism, she was not only prolific, producing more than 600 works of sculpture, but also committed to the synergy of art and life. An environmentalist, socialist, anti-nuclear campaigner, and champion of the “feminine point of view”, she connected deeply to the organic relation between human beings and their surroundings.

Born in West Riding in Yorkshire in 1903, Hepworth rooted her aesthetic and political sensibilities in the county of her childhood, with its steep hills, dramatic dales, and prominent mining and cotton mill communities. Early on, she developed a keen concern for human dignity and a tactile relationship to her environment. “All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures,” she recalled. “Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form.”

Barbara Hepworth (centre) studying on a Yorkshire Senior County Art Scholarship, with fellow students at the Royal College of Art, London, c.1921–23. The Hepworth Photograph Collection. Courtesy Bowness.

Following her studies at the Leeds School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, Hepworth won a scholarship to travel to Italy. In what was her “most formative year by far”, she spent time in Florence, Siena, and Rome, and also met up with fellow sculptor, John Skeaping. After a brief love affair, they married and went on to study together under Italian carver, Giovanni Ardini.

One of Ardini’s remarks – “marble changes colour under different people’s hands” – persuaded Hepworth that “it was not dominance which one had to attain over material, but an understanding, almost a kind of persuasion.” This sense of exchange would become a central tenet of her practice.

Barbara Hepworth with John Skeaping at the British School in Rome, c. 1925-26. The Hepworth Photograph Collection. Courtesy Bowness.

On their return to London, Hepworth gradually built up a circle of supporters and collectors. As her recognition grew, so did her confidence. She would later recall that The Head, carved in 1930, expressed a new period of creative autonomy: “I wanted to break down the accepted order and rebuild and make my own order.”

That order would orientate around three categories of form in which Hepworth found “special meaning”: the single vertical form, which she correlated with a human being standing in a landscape; two forms, which she equated with the “tender relationship of one living thing beside another”; and the “closed form” of an oval, spherical, or pierced form which she associated with “the feeling of the embrace of living things”, including the closeness of mother and child.

Hepworth first became a mother in 1929, with the birth of her and Skeaping’s son, Paul. Two years later, their marriage broke down and Hepworth began a relationship with fellow artist, Ben Nicholson. In 1934, Hepworth and Nicholson had triplets. Motherhood inspired her creativity – she would return to embryonic forms and the Mother and Child motif ­– but parenting four small children, with an often-absent Nicholson, also made intense demands on her time, focus, and finances.

Often, Hepworth found integration between art and childcare. She excelled at schedule management and found she was able to “carry the creative mood” through “the chores & drudgery”. At other times, particularly as the Second World War compounded strains on the family, she expressed creative frustration: “If I didn’t have to cook, wash up, nurse children ad infinitum I should carve, carve & carve.”

Parenting sharpened Hepworth’s awareness of sexism. From her earliest success, she’d come up against gender bias, with even enthusiastic critics confounded by the idea of a woman wielding heavy tools and sharp ideas. Variously referred to as Mrs. Skeaping, Mrs. Nicholson, Ms. Hepworth, or a “sculptress”, Hepworth felt “constantly plagued by this little-woman attitude”. At the same time, she believed “the woman’s approach” and “feminine experience” provided a distinct range of formal perception.

From 1939, Hepworth was based in Cornwall and moved into Trewyn Studio in St. Ives – now the Barbara Hepworth Museum – 10 years later. She remained there until her death, forging a deep connection with the local community and landscape. From the 1940s onwards, several works – among them Landscape Sculpture (1944) and Pelagos (1946) – were inspired by the Cornish coast. Away from the city, Hepworth also expanded her palette, experimenting with coloured string, painted surfaces, and different hues of wood.

In the aftermath of the war, Hepworth grappled with art’s place in society. Already in 1944, she wrote of a “hopeless sort of tiredness” and horror at technologized warfare. As the fullness of Nazi atrocities became known, her dread of the “cold power of a machine age” only deepened. She became increasingly drawn to abstraction as an expression of purity, healing and “a consolidation of faith in living values.”

In 1947, Hepworth embarked on a series of depictions of surgery, absorbed by “the extraordinary beauty of purpose and coordination between human beings dedicated to the saving of life.” Around the same period, she also oriented towards a more democratic and physical experience of sculpture, with an emphasis on public art.

Barbara Hepworth carving outside Chy-an-Kerris, Carbis Bay, Cornwall, 1948. The Hepworth Photograph Collection. Courtesy Bowness.

In 1950, the British Council selected Hepworth to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. The following year, Contrapuntal Forms was unveiled on the South Bank as part of the Festival of Britain. The commissions elevated Hepworth’s international standing but caused friction with Nicholson, who suggested she give up work, while also seeking her blessing to pursue a relationship with another woman. The couple separated in 1951.

Two years later, Hepworth’s son Paul was killed in a plane crash. In the “unspeakable anguish” that followed, Hepworth found solace in her local church, her friendships, and in the writings of Rilke. In 1954, in an attempt to assuage her grief, political activist Margaret Gardiner took Hepworth to Greece. The journey made a huge impression, inspiring a sketchbook of drawings and poetic writings; a series of sculptures, and the lithograph set The Aegean Suite.

Barbara Hepworth with the plaster Single Form at the Morris Singer Foundry, May 1963. The Hepworth Photograph Collection. Courtesy Bowness. Photograph: Morgan Wells.

In 1961, Hepworth embarked on her most prestigious public sculpture to-date, a memorial to UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Situated outside the UN Secretariat in New York, Single Form was not only Hepworth’s crowning achievement in monumental sculpture – “the most arduous & exacting work of my life” –  but also symbolic of her faith in higher ideals and human cooperation. At the work’s unveiling, she remarked that she had tried to perfect a symbol that would “reflect the nobility” of Hammarskjöld’s life and “at the same time give us a motive and symbol of both continuity and solidarity for the future.”

At the time, Hepworth had another 10 years to live – a decade beleaguered by cancer and a broken leg, but still rich with art and ideas. Even as her health deteriorated, she continued to make sculpture, expanding her sphere of reference to the new discoveries of space exploration, while consistently returning to the formal categories – the single form, the closed form, the two forms – that characterized her oeuvre.

Until the end, Hepworth held on – in a deep sense – to the “intrinsic will to life”. In one of her final interviews, she wished for “10 lifetimes to express the variations and subtleties which one lifetime can give.” She died in an accidental fire in her studio in 1975.

Barbara Hepworth at Goonhilly Satellite Station, near Helston, Cornwall, c.1966. Courtesy Bowness. Photograph: Ander Gunn.

Words by Eliza Apperly