Alan Bowness: Life and work

Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1903 and studied at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. She learned to carve stone while in Rome in 1925-6, together with her first husband the sculptor John Skeaping. This was not part of the sculptor's normal training at that time, but considered the work of a stonemason. Hepworth thus aligned herself to the direct carving movement championed by modernist sculptors such as Brancusi, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska. After their return to London, Hepworth and Skeaping held their first important exhibition, showing mainly stone carvings of figures and animals, at the Beaux Arts Gallery in June 1928. A second joint exhibition followed at the gallery of Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, in October 1930.

Hepworth had by this stage built up a circle of influential admirers of her work, including George Hill and Laurence Binyon (who both worked at the British Museum), the great collector of Asian art George Eumorfopoulos, and the zoologist Solly Zuckerman. Hepworth's early carvings were well received and sold for substantial sums. Hepworth and Skeaping's relationship deteriorated, however, and the marriage was dissolved in 1933.


In 1931 Hepworth had met the painter Ben Nicholson  (1894-1982), and they began to work in very close association, living together at 7 The Mall, Parkhill Road, in Hampstead, from the spring of 1932 (Hepworth had lived in this studio home since 1928). The forms in Hepworth's sculptures became more and more simplified. In 1931-2 she had made a small, near-abstract sculpture, Pierced Form, in alabaster (destroyed in the Second World War), the dominant feature of which was a large hole in the centre. This idea was at once taken up by her friend Henry Moore, and together they enriched the language of sculpture by seeking a balance of concavities and convexities in their work. Pierced Form was shown under the title Abstraction in the exhibition at Tooth's gallery in November 1932 that Hepworth shared with Nicholson. Another joint exhibition followed in October 1933 at the Lefevre Gallery, where Hepworth showed her work regularly until 1952.

By the end of 1934 Hepworth was making totally abstract sculpture - not simplifications (or abstractions) of human or organic forms, as was the case with her contemporaries Brancusi and Arp. These works by Hepworth 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. In the next five years, up to 1939, Hepworth developed a repertory of very simple abstract shapes with titles such as 'Single Form', 'Two Forms', 'Pierced Hemisphere', 'Helicoids in Sphere', 'Conoid, Sphere and Hollow'.

The commitment to abstraction brought Hepworth to the forefront of modern art. Visits to Paris with Ben Nicholson in 1933-5 had put them in personal contact with an international avant-garde, in particular Braque, Picasso, Brancusi, Arp, Miró, and Mondrian. They were members of the Paris-based group 'Abstraction-Création' in 1933-4; in England, Hepworth was a member of the 'Seven and Five' exhibiting society from 1932 to 1935, and of 'Unit One' in 1933-4.

By the late 1930s Hepworth's studio in The Mall, shared with Ben Nicholson, had become the centre of the abstract art movement in Britain. Living nearby were Henry and Irina Moore; the poet and writer on art Herbert Read; the Russian-born constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo; and, from 1938, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. The circle of friends also included the painter and critic Adrian Stokes, the anthropologist Henri Frankfort, the scientist J. Desmond Bernal, and architects such as Serge Chermayeff, Walter Gropius, and Leslie Martin and his wife, Sadie. Hepworth made an important contribution to the exhibition 'Abstract and Concrete' arranged by Nicolete Gray in 1936, and to the publication on modern art and architecture Circle (1937) edited by Nicholson, Gabo, and Martin; she was active in anti-fascist exhibitions. Her sister Elizabeth (1910-1991) had in March 1938 married the architectural historian John Summerson.

On 17 November 1938 Hepworth was able to marry Ben Nicholson, following his divorce from his first wife, Winifred. Ben was the son of the painter Sir William Nicholson. In August 1939, with war in Europe imminent, the Nicholsons and their five-year-old triplet children, Simon, Rachel and Sarah, left London for St Ives, Cornwall, at the invitation of Adrian Stokes. This small Cornish fishing harbour, long a magnet for artists, was to become Hepworth's home until her death in 1975.

Hepworth's abstract sculpture had had little commercial success, and abandoning the Hampstead studio precipitately meant leaving behind work that did not survive the German bombing of London. Inadequate accommodation in St Ives, the demands of a young family, lack of materials all made sculpture almost impossible. What time she had was devoted to drawing, and from 1940 onwards she made many studies for abstract sculptures that show an affinity with the work of Gabo, who had also taken refuge in St Ives and stayed until 1946. Hepworth and Nicholson tried to persuade their friend Mondrian to join them but when bombs fell close to his London studio in September 1940 he preferred to flee to New York, where he died four years later.


In July 1942 the Hepworth-Nicholson family moved into a larger house, Chy-an-Kerris, Headland Road, in the Carbis Bay suburb of St Ives, and in 1943 Hepworth began making sculpture again. Her work had changed. The influence of the Cornish landscape immediately made itself felt. Her sculpture was no longer austerely abstract but now contained references to landscape forms and to the patterns of nature. The movement of tides, pebble and rock formations, and the Cornish moorland landscape all enriched her work. The ancient standing stones and quoits of west Cornwall provided an analogy for her own sculpture, which became increasingly a paradigm for the figure in a landscape and an expression in abstract terms of man's harmonious relationship to his fellows and to the world in which he lives. The inherent classicism of all Hepworth's work comes to the fore; her art always aspires to a timeless, universal concept of abstract beauty.

A first retrospective exhibition, in April-June 1943, with Paul Nash at Temple Newsam, Leeds, arranged by its director, Philip Hendy, was a stimulus to this new beginning, though the illness of Hepworth's daughter Sarah, her own suspected tuberculosis, and general debility as a result of war-time conditions held her back. Despite this the carving Wave (1943–4; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh), in which the concavities of the plane wood are painted white and strings are stretched across the aperture, is an unquestioned masterpiece, as is Pelagos (1946; Tate collection) – both inspired by her feeling for the curve of St Ives Bay, viewed from her house.

With the end of war in summer 1945 matters improved only marginally, particularly for abstract artists such as Hepworth and Nicholson, whose work remained very unpopular in a climate that preferred realist and neo-Romantic art. Hepworth began making figure drawings with colour in 1947, and through her friendship with the surgeon Norman Capener, who had operated on her daughter, she began a series of about sixty hospital scenes of surgeons operating or getting ready. These brought her some success when shown in London and New York in 1948 and 1949, and they remain the most accessible part of her work.

A figurative element also enters into Hepworth's sculpture of the later 1940s, resulting in such work as the blue marble Cosdon Head (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) of 1949. Hepworth's public profile rose when she was invited to enter the competition to design sculptures for the new Waterloo Bridge, London (never executed) in 1947, and to show at the Venice Biennale in 1950. This was immediately followed by two important commissions for the Festival of Britain in 1951: Contrapuntal Forms was commissioned by the Arts Council and consists of two over-life-size figures carved in blue Irish limestone, symbolizing the spirit of discovery; Turning Forms, in reinforced concrete, painted white, was a direct contract from the festival authorities. An abstract sculpture, it was placed by the Thames-side Restaurant, designed by another distinguished woman, Jane Drew, of the architectural firm Fry, Drew & Partners. In 1953 the Arts Council presented Contrapuntal Forms to the new town of Harlow, in Essex; Turning Forms is sited at Marlborough School, St Albans.

Contrapuntal Forms was much the largest sculpture that Hepworth had made to date. It was possible only because in 1949 she had purchased Trewyn Studio, in the centre of St Ives, where she lived permanently from 1950 until her death in 1975. She now had a garden in which to work and display her sculptures, as well as simple living and working accommodation on two floors. From the late 1950s three other major commissions followed in quick succession. Meridian was a large, organic abstract sculpture commissioned for the now demolished office block State House, in High Holborn, in 1958 and unveiled in 1960 (Meridian is now owned by the Pepsi Cola Corporation and sited in the sculpture garden of their headquarters at Purchase, New York State). Winged Figure (1961–2) was commissioned by the John Lewis Partnership for their flagship store in London's Oxford Street. It was an enlargement of a sculpture of 1957 and was made from sheet aluminium. Single Form (1961–4), an abstract bronze sculpture twenty feet high and Hepworth's largest work, stands in the United Nations Plaza in New York. Hepworth was a friend of the United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld, who admired and collected her work. On his tragic death in 1961 the sculpture was commissioned as his memorial.

Hepworth had begun to work in bronze and other metals in 1956. She had just completed a group of monumental carvings using a warm-coloured African wood, guarea: Corinthos (1954–5; Tate collection), Curved Form (Delphi) (1955; Ulster Museum, Belfast), and Oval Sculpture (Delos) (1955; National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff). Up to this date she had worked almost exclusively on wood and stone carvings, making unique pieces with no more than one or two assistants to help at certain times. The move to bronze was a liberating experience; it allowed her to invent a new vocabulary of sculptural forms, more open and transparent than hitherto. This new language was anticipated by a group of very free, abstract paintings and drawings made in 1957. Using bronze as a material allowed Hepworth to cast small editions of her work, with between three and nine copies of each sculpture. This helped her to meet the now considerable international demand for her work, particularly from the United States.

Though Hepworth's marriage to Ben Nicholson was dissolved in 1951 he remained in St Ives until 1958, and the mutually beneficial influence of painter and sculptor on each other's work persisted. They gradually regained their international reputation after the hiatus of the Second World War and its aftermath. Hepworth had important retrospective exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1954 and 1962, at the São Paulo bienal, Brazil, in 1959 (where she was awarded the grand prix), and at the Tate Gallery in 1968. She exhibited regularly in London, New York, and Zurich, and was shown throughout Europe and the United States, in Japan, and in Australia.

A lover of poetry, dance, theatre, and music, Hepworth made illustrations for Kathleen Raine's first book of poems, Stone and Flower, in 1943; sets and costumes for Michel Saint-Denis's production of Sophocles' Electra at the Old Vic in 1951 with Peggy Ashcroft; and sets and costumes for the first performance of Michael Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1955. She might have undertaken more work of this kind had she not lived in the relative isolation of St Ives, totally dedicated to sculpture and drawing. It was for this reason that she travelled little, and then mainly to attend the openings of her exhibitions in New York, Paris, Zurich, and Copenhagen. Her only true holidays were short trips to the Isles of Scilly, from which she drew much inspiration for the remainder of her life. She returned to Italy only for the Biennale in 1950. She retained a lively interest in scientific matters, and was a lifelong friend of Lord (Solly) Zuckerman and J. D. Bernal. Her political views were radical, and she supported the Labour Party and knew some of its leading members.

Later years

Hepworth won widespread public recognition in the last years of her life, when she was regarded as the world's greatest woman sculptor. In her obituary in The Guardian she was described as 'probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day'. No militant feminist herself, she asked simply to be treated as a sculptor (never a sculptress), irrespective of sex. She was appointed CBE in 1958 and DBE in 1965. Honorary degrees were awarded to her by the universities of Birmingham (1960), Leeds (1961), Exeter (1966), Oxford (1968), London (1970), and Manchester (1971), and by the Royal College of Art (1964), where she was also a senior fellow (1970). She was made a bard of Cornwall in 1968, and in 1973 an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1965 until 1972.

Hepworth was small and intense in appearance, deeply reserved in character. It was always surprising that an apparently frail woman could undertake such demanding physical work but she had great toughness and integrity. She remained proud of her Yorkshire roots, though devoted to St Ives and the west Cornish landscape that provided her with enduring inspiration. In the last years of her life she took no more commissions and preferred to follow her own path. She had long been interested in two-part sculptures, representing in abstract language the relationship of one person to another, and now was increasingly occupied with multi-part sculptures, in both bronze and marble. She could afford to make large bronze sculptures, such as the nine-part Family of Man (1970; a set is in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield) and the six-part Conversation with Magic Stones (1973; casts in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and the Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives). The marble carvings Assembly of Sea Forms (1972; Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, California), and her final artistic statement, Fallen Images (1973-5; Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives), offer a similar paradigm for man's role in society and relationship to nature - issues that concerned Hepworth throughout her career. Nor was she afraid to surprise her admirers; the Construction (Crucifixion) in bronze (1966; there is a cast in the close of Winchester Cathedral) signalled a wish for a more constructivist sculpture, as well as a return to the high-church Anglican faith of her childhood.

Barbara Hepworth died in a fire in her studio at St Ives on 20 May 1975 after suffering serious illness for some years. She was buried in Longstone cemetery in St Ives. As she herself had hoped Trewyn Studio was opened to the public by her family in 1976; it was presented to the nation by her family and executors in 1980, together with a representative collection of her work. It is now an outstation of the Tate, which also has a very considerable Hepworth collection. Hepworth's work is represented in more than a hundred public collections throughout the world, with particularly fine work in the Leeds and Wakefield city art galleries; in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh; in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, at Otterlo, in the Netherlands.