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.