Hepworth, Barbara (1903–1975)

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Hepworth, Barbara (1903–1975)

English sculptor, one of the leading artists of the 20th century, who accomplished her greatest works using the tools of abstract, geometric forms. Name variations: Dame Barbara Hepworth. Born Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield, Yorkshire, on January 10, 1903; died at her studio at St. Ives, Cornwall, of injuries sustained in a fire, on May 20, 1975; daughter of Herbert Raikes Hepworth (a surveyor and civil engineer) and Gertrude Allison (Johnson) Hepworth; attended Wakefield Girls' High School; Leeds School of Art, 1920–21; Royal College of Art, 1921–24; married John Skeaping, on May 13, 1925 (divorced 1933); married Ben Nicholson, in 1932, some sources cite 1936 (divorced 1951); children: (first marriage) Paul (d. 1953); (second marriage) triplets, Simon, Rachel, and Sarah.

Traveled to Italy (1924); gave first exhibition (1927); had first solo exhibition (1928); joined Abstraction-Creation group in Paris (1933); began to work exclusively with abstract forms (1934); moved to Cornwall (1939); moved to Trewyn studio (1949); represented Britain at Venice Biennale and received commissions for statues at Festival of Britain (1950); death of her son in RAF (1953); designed theatrical set for The Midsummer Marriage (1955); won grand prize at Sao Paolo competition (1959); United Nations building sculpture unveiled (1964); made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1965); elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters (1973).

Major works:

Pierced form (1931); Two heads (1932); Mother and child (1934); Forms in echelon (1938); Sculpture with color (deep blue and red) (1940); Sculpture with color (oval form) pale blue and red (1943); Pelagos (1946); Head (elegy) (1952); Winged figure (1962); Single form (1964); Squares with two circles (1967); The Family of Man (1970).

Barbara Hepworth was one of the most important and innovative sculptors of the 20th century. Producing over 600 pieces, she became famous for an abstract style that featured piercing the solid form to create new possibilities of light, air, and shadow. Starting in the early 1930s, she engaged in a friendly rivalry with her fellow sculptor Henry Moore. As it turned out, her work plunged even more deeply into the realm of abstraction than his did. A small and fragile woman, she nevertheless produced most of her works by the physically demanding technique of carving directly from wood or stone. Hepworth explained her work by noting: "It is difficult to describe in words the meaning of forms because it is precisely this emotion which is conveyed by sculpture alone."

The British artistic scene of the early part of the 20th century was relatively conservative. In contrast to the ferment in the visual arts centered in Paris, Britain lagged behind in producing figures of the first rank. In the decades following World War I, however, notable talents such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson emerged. They absorbed the leading trends of the Parisian art world including cubism and abstract art, implanting modern art in their home country.

Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, on January 10, 1903, the daughter of Herbert and Gertrude Hepworth . A surveyor and civil engineer, Herbert Hepworth rose to prominence in his profession, receiving the honor of becoming a Commander of the British Empire shortly after World War II. But the family lived in modest circumstances during Barbara's childhood. In a notable passage in her autobiography, she attributed her attraction to forms and shapes to the business trips she took with her father through the Yorkshire countryside, "moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks." She drew from these impressions a sense of unity with the shapes around her: "I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour." Her family vacation trips took her to locales such as Robin Hood's Bay on the northern coast of Yorkshire where professional painters worked. At school, the talented youngster distinguished herself in drawing and painting. Some of her youthful watercolor sketches that she gave to friends still survive.

Hepworth had the good fortune to encounter sympathetic teachers and school administrators who encouraged her to devote her energies to her interest in art. She wrote of an early encounter—at age seven—with a slide show on Egyptian culture. A decade later, she informed the head mistress (director) of her high school that she wanted to become a sculptor instead of pursuing the more conventional route of going on to a university. The sympathetic woman, Gertrude McCroben , moved quickly to help her gain a scholarship to study at the Leeds School of Art. According to most authorities, Hepworth began there in the fall of 1920, although, late in life, she recalled starting her art studies in 1919. Her biographer A.M. Hammacher has suggested that her early interest in mathematics and her encounters with her father's designs for buildings and roads stimulated an interest in abstract design even before she began her formal art studies.

In 1921, she and Henry Moore, a fellow student at Leeds, transferred to the Royal College of Art in London. Neither Leeds nor the Royal College provided an encouraging environment for innovative work in sculpture. Moore was stimulated by encounters with non-European works such as the sculpture of Africa, but it is less certain what precise impulses pushed Hepworth forward. Even the Royal College at this time offered no instruction in direct stone carving. The more conventional approach was to model first in clay, then to transfer the image to stone using a mechanical device. Starting at Leeds, Hepworth apparently learned carving on her own, using her free hours in the evening and her time on vacation.

Upon completing her studies in London, the gifted young artist was rewarded with a traveling fellowship in 1924 and used it to live in Italy. Settling near Florence, she met and married a fellow English sculptor, John Skeaping, on May 13,1925. Together, they went on to study in Siena and Rome. For Hepworth, the stay in Italy was the moment when she developed her true skill in carving marble. It was an ability she continued to use for decades to come.

The two returned to London in 1926 when Skeaping became ill with ulcers. Desperately poor, Hepworth painted portraits of wealthy members of her father's circle of friends. In addition, Herbert Hepworth kept the struggling couple afloat financially by offering them funds regularly from his own pocket. In reporting to the organization that had granted Hepworth her scholarship, she informed them that she had no completed works to show them. She had studied and assimilated the great works around her, and the products of her time abroad were contained in her head.

Hepworth and her husband held their first exhibition in late 1927, and she put on her first individual show in 1928. Most of the work she displayed consisted of carvings in marble, demonstrating her attraction to that form of sculpture rather than casting in bronze. According to Ronald Alley, her surviving carvings from 1927 and 1928 show an effort to capture the likenesses of her subjects, but in the next years she developed "a more stylized treatment."

Her first son was born in 1929, and the marriage collapsed soon after. Hepworth later noted how "suddenly we were out of orbit." Although Skeaping was a talented sculptor from a family of gifted artists, he took his work far less seriously than his single-minded wife did hers. His infidelity, and possibly hers, brought the marriage down. Having a child did not temper her devotion to work. In her autobiography, Hepworth emphatically expressed her determination to continue her career after motherhood. Despite the joys of family life, she wrote, "the dictates of work are as compelling for a woman as for a man. Not competitively, but as complementary." Thus, she noted, "a woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children … one is in fact nourished by this rich life." One needed only, she added, to work each day, "even only a single half hour."

As early as 1931, she produced a work in pink alabaster originally entitled Abstraction, but also known as Pierced form, which brought forth elements that were to characterize her later work. "I had felt the most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space," she noted. Although photographs of this important piece in her artistic evolution exist, the work itself did not survive World War II.

In the early 1930s, she established a close personal and professional relationship with Ben Nicholson. Most authorities indicate that they married sometime in 1932, although Hepworth's biographer Sally Festing maintains that Nicholson was unable to get a divorce from his wife and marry Barbara until 1936. If so, the birth of their triplets preceded their formal marital tie. Nicholson was a rising young English painter who shared Hepworth's interest in modernism. Ironically, like her first husband, Nicholson

also came from a family with a number of professional artists.

In 1932, Hepworth and Nicholson traveled together to join the art world of Paris. There they encountered the work of Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, and Mondrian. Imbued with the principles and possibilities of abstract art, they joined the French group Abstraction-Création in 1933. Upon returning home, the pair became an important link between the British art world and international currents in abstract art.

Between 1931 and 1934, Hepworth's sculptures grew increasingly abstract. Nonetheless, the human figure remained recognizable. Within these smooth and wavy forms, one could still make out the shape of a hand or face. Sometimes, as in her important work of 1932 entitled Two heads, she took the theme of two linked figures. Throughout her later career, she renewed her interest in creating sculptures with multiple, often linked figures.

From 1934 onward, she worked exclusively in what Wendy Slatkin describes as "a totally abstract, geometric vocabulary." A central feature of Hepworth's artistic technique involved creating holes in solid bodies, then painting the internal surfaces. This technique resulted in such striking later works as 1940's Sculpture with color (deep blue and red). She dated the definite turn in her work to the period after she and Nicholson had their triplets on October 3, 1934. Nothing in her life had changed except the children's appearance, but "my work seemed to have changed direction." She remarked how her departure from naturalism and her new concern with pure forms "initiated the exploration with which I have been preoccupied continuously since then."

The necessary equilibrium between the material I carve and the form I want to make will always dictate an abstract interpretation in my sculpture.

—Barbara Hepworth

Hepworth's reputation benefitted from her association with Herbert Read. One of Britain's leading art critics and an official at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Read promoted the general cause of modern art and, specifically, the plunge Hepworth was making into abstraction. Nonetheless, Hepworth's artistic progress was darkened by financial difficulties. In the 1930s, she and Nicholson often survived doing such commercial work as textile design. Sometimes they were able to sell one of her sculptures or his paintings. From the time their three children had arrived, money was even more of a concern than ever. Even in the mid-1940s, she could write a friend that the sale of three small paintings "completely saved our life—we were at bottom and could not pay school bills or grocer."

By the mid-1930s, the rising political storm in Europe was leading a number of abstract artists to settle in London. Many of them became her personal friends and formed an impressive artistic circle in Hepworth's neighborhood in the London suburb of Hampstead. But the threat of war on England's shores led many of them to leave for the United States.

In late August 1939, Hepworth and her family themselves left London. They relocated at St. Ives, on the coast of Cornwall. With the outbreak of war a few weeks later, this isolated place became a safe retreat. In time, it became Barbara Hepworth's permanent residence and place of work. During the wartime period, however, her days were filled with caring for the children, running a nursery school, and growing a garden for food. Consistent with her principles, she took time at night to continue her work as an artist. Through the help of friends, she and Nicholson were able to place their children in a local private school.

When Hepworth was able to resume her sculpture in 1943, her work was more than ever dominated by pure geometrical forms. A notable product of this period was her Sculpture with color (oval form) pale blue and red. A hollowed out oval with the interior painted pale blue, it has taut red and white strings stretched to form a cone within the oval's cavity.

Hepworth has written eloquently about why she made her career as an abstract sculptor. The sculptor, she has said, must translate what he or she feels about humans and nature into material form. And for her, "there are essential stone shapes and essential wood shapes which are impossible for me to disregard." She found years of living at St. Ives inspired her with its scenery: the sea, the lighthouse, the rock formation, and the tides. But the community also inspired her. She has noted how "people both move differently and stand differently in response to changed surroundings." In her view, people walk differently in response to different environs: from the Piazza San Marco in Venice to the small streets of St. Ives. The shapes around people affect them profoundly.

In the late 1940s, a renewed interest in the human form appeared in her work. For example, she drew nude studio models. But, in an imaginative departure from such conventional subjects, she accepted an invitation to watch a number of surgical operations, then recorded the events in a series of drawings. As an artist, she was intrigued by purposeful arrangement of the surgical team's human forms gathered around the operating table.

Several notable events at the start of the next decade turned her work in new directions. The British Council chose her to represent her country at the Venice Biennale in 1950. Soon afterward, the British government asked her to produce works for the Festival of Britain in 1951. These events helped give her an international reputation and a degree of financial security she had never had before. She now began to receive commissions for massive outdoor statues, although she continued to work on a smaller scale as well. The loss of her son Paul, a flyer in the Royal Air Force killed in Thailand in 1953, impelled her to travel to Greece to get away from her grief. The example of Greek art now began to enter her work. Finally, her longstanding tie to Ben Nicholson ended when they divorced in 1951. She continued to live in Cornwall and to draw inspiration from the Cornish landscape.

A further advance in her work took place in the mid-1950s when she began to cast works in bronze after creating the forms in plaster. Heretofore, she had relied upon the physically more demanding technique of carving directly from wood and stone. She also did stage sets, beginning with a production of Electra at the Old Vic. She soon followed with the sets for The Midsummer Marriage in 1954.

In her last decades as a productive artist, Hepworth created works of unprecedented size, becoming fascinated with the way in which moonlight or the rising sun would change the aspect of each sculpture. "Forms to lie down in, or forms to climb through" excited her imagination. Working happily in her studio at St. Ives, she filled her garden with massive statues. Raw materials awaited her attention. "I love my blocks of marble," she said, "always piling up in the yard like a flock of sheep."

By the 1960s, Hepworth's works were increasingly evident throughout Britain. Winged figure decorated the front of a prominent building in London's Bond Street, and Squares with two circles stood outside Churchill College at Cambridge University. Other works stood in prominent places throughout the world. One of her most famous pieces was the spectacular bronze entitled Single form, unveiled in New York on June 11, 1964. She produced it as a monument to her personal friend Dag Hammarskjöld, the late director of the United Nations. It was, as she stated at the dedication ceremony, "a symbol that would reflect the nobility of his life."

In a tribute to her recognition within the ranks of 20th-century artists, Hepworth was honored repeatedly in the 1960s. She became a trustee of London's Tate Gallery in 1965, and she had a major retrospective exhibition there in 1968. Three years earlier, she had been elevated to the rank of Dame Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II , the honor her father had earlier received for achievements as an engineer. Honorary degrees, such as a doctorate in letters from the University of Exeter and the University of Oxford, showed the respect in which she was held in the academic community. In 1968, Cornwall, where she had lived at St. Ives since 1939, recognized her by conferring the title of "Bard of Cornwall." Closer to home, the Borough of St. Ives named her "Honorary Freeman," the highest honor the locality could give. A notable moment of recognition from abroad came in 1973 when she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. By that time, she was confined to a wheelchair by arthritis, and she received the honor at the American Embassy in London.

The noted sculptor continued her work despite declining health. She filled the garden of her studio at St. Ives with a vast collection of works. She had a reunion with key figures in her life like Henry Moore and the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo in March 1970. On that occasion, the three presented works to the Tate Gallery in London in memory of Sir Herbert Read.

Barbara Hepworth died on May 20, 1975, and it was in her longtime workplace that she spent the last moments of her life. Ill with cancer and disabled from a fractured hip, she was caught in a fire that had broken out in her studio; she had apparently caused the fire by smoking in bed. Her former studio with the attached garden has now been transformed into The Barbara Hepworth Museum.

Most critics find Hepworth's greatest achievements in her smaller works rather than the massive public monuments she produced in her last decades. Nonetheless, her career as a whole has established her as a sculptor of the first rank. "She earned herself twenty-five years of international fame," writes Sally Festing. Her "sculpture inhabits countries throughout the world."


Barbara Hepworth: The Tate Gallery, 3 April–19 May 1968. Introduction by Ronald Alley. London: Tate Gallery, 1968.

Festing, Sally. Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms. NY: Viking, 1995.

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

Hammacher, A. M. The Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Hepworth, Barbara. Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography. Rev. ed. London: Tate Gallery, 1985.

Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

suggested reading:

Berthoud, Roger. The Life of Henry Moore. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Cheny, Sheldon. Sculpture of the World: A History. NY: Viking, 1968.

Lewison, Jeremy. Ben Nicholson. NY: Rizzoli, 1991.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Sculpture since 1945. London: Phaidon, 1987.

related media:

"Barbara Hepworth" (15 min.), directed by John Read, produced by BBC, 1961.

"Barbara Hepworth at the Tate" (15 min.), directed by Bruce Beresford, produced by Arts Council of Great Britain, 1968.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California