Sophie Bowness: The late marble carvings of Barbara Hepworth

Catalogue introduction to PaceWildenstein exhibition 'Barbara Hepworth. Stone Sculpture', New York, 2001

"... I love marble specially because of its radiance in the light, its hardness, precision and response to the sun", Barbara Hepworth told her friend the critic J. P. Hodin in 1964. "Marble is indeed a noble material, it has a most exceptional sensitivity and delicacy as well as a tremendous strength."[1] She had acquired her love of marble while a student in Italy in her early twenties, and carving was at the heart of her work throughout her life. In the six years before her death in 1975 – the focus of this exhibition – Hepworth gave special emphasis to works in marble: she made over fifty in this period, including major multipart sculptures such as Fallen Images.

Hepworth liked to carve out of doors and in the mild Cornish climate this was possible for much of the year. "Light and space", she observed, "are the sculptor's materials as much as wood or stone ... I feel that I can relate my work more easily, in the open air, to the climate and the landscape".[2] She had moved to Cornwall from London just before the outbreak of war in 1939 with her husband the painter Ben Nicholson and their children. In September 1949 she acquired Trewyn Studio in the centre of St Ives which soon became her permanent home as well as her workplace, and remained so for the rest of her life. (It is now open to the public as an outpost of the Tate.) The brilliant, clear, Mediterranean quality of the light of the Penwith peninsular where St Ives is situated, its remarkable sculptural coastline and prehistoric standing stones, stone circles and quoits, had a deep impact on Hepworth (the sculpture New Penwith refers to this extreme south-western tip of England).[3] At Trewyn she found an ideal environment in which to work. In its semitropical garden, which was largely her own creation, she could place her sculptures to great effect. She had workshops, including one for stone-carving, and an adjacent carving yard. Here the new blocks of marble would accumulate: Hepworth affectionately referred to them as her flock of sheep, each of which she knew individually. Before she began a carving she would have a clear idea of the form it would take. She loved the rhythmical action of carving, in time with the heartbeat or pulse. She observed: "My left hand is my thinking hand. The right is only a motor hand. This holds the hammer. The left hand, the thinking hand, must be relaxed, sensitive. The rhythms of thought pass through the fingers and grip of this hand into the stone. It is also a listening hand. It listens for basic weaknesses or flaws in the stone; for the possibility or imminence of fractures."[4] In general she preferred not to use mechanical tools which lacked the individual accent, and she relied on her assistants to carry out much of the lengthy labour involved in carving by hand, while overseeing each stage of their work. This was especially the case towards the end of her life when she was increasingly frail.

The primacy of carving for Hepworth is indicated in her approach to working in bronze. When in 1956 she began to make bronzes for the first time since the early years of her career, it was as a form of carving. Instead of casting from a clay model, she would create an aluminium mesh armature, cover it with plaster, which she would carve when it had hardened; the completed work would then be cast in bronze. She hated modelling and, as she wrote to Ben Nicholson in 1966: "I only learned to love bronze when I found that it was gentle and I could file it and carve it and chisel it."[5] Bronze enabled her to develop her formal language, to meet the demand for her sculpture, and to work on a larger scale – greatly facilitated by the purchase in 1961 of the former Palais de Danse opposite Trewyn Studio. The monumental bronze Single Form (1961–4; unveiled in1964) which she made for the United Nations building, New York, as a memorial to the Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, sealed her international reputation. In the 1970s, alongside the late marbles, she created two major group sculptures in bronze, The Family of Man (1970), and Conversation with Magic Stones (1973).

Although Hepworth had carved a little while a student at the Royal College of Art in London, she really learned to carve marble in Italy, where she travelled in 1924 to continue her studies.[6] She and her first husband John Skeaping (who was already an experienced carver) were taught in Rome by a master-carver (marmista), Giovanni Ardini. Ardini's remark that "marble changes colour under different people's hands" revealed to Hepworth that dominance over the material and physical strength were not what carving was about.[7] He "opened up a new vista for me of the quality of form, light, and colour contained in the Mediterranean conception of carving."[8] Hepworth also visited the marble quarries of Carrara at this time. She had a special affinity for fine white marbles – which are well represented in this exhibition – such as those from Carrara and Serravezza. The material of classical sculpture par excellence, Hepworth associated white marble with the light of the Mediterranean. Her perceptions were renewed and confirmed when she visited Greece in the summer of 1954.

On their return from Rome in 1926, Hepworth and Skeaping rapidly established themselves as leading sculptors committed to direct carving and 'truth to materials'. The practice of direct carving had been pioneered in Britain before 1914 by Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It reasserted the vital connection between the sculptor and his material, rejecting the academic modelling tradition by which the sculptor's clay or plaster model would be translated into marble by a professional stone-cutter. At the outset of their careers, Hepworth and Skeaping explored a great variety of stones, including rarities, and gained a reputation for their use. One reviewer of their shared exhibition at Tooth's gallery in London in 1930 commented that from the catalogue "it sounds at first like a geological and forestry exhibition."[9] In the last decade of her life, in addition to her favourite white marbles, Hepworth returned to carving sensuous, coloured marbles, especially green and black Irish marbles. Two works on show here illustrate her revived interest in colour, Two Forms (Black and White) (BH 508) which combines white marble with a coloured (probably Irish) marble, and Spring Form in Portuguese pink marble (BH 502).

Hepworth's late works are characterised by a retrospective quality, with their echoes of the geometric abstraction of the 1930s in particular. The formal purity of her white marble abstract carvings of that period (for example Three Forms, 1935, Tate collection) is recalled in the simple, refined, geometric forms of late sculptures such as Two Spheres in Orbit, 1973 (BH 562). In one important instance Hepworth re-used a specific form from the 1930s: the three horizontal forms or 'stones' of the multipart bronze Conversation with Magic Stones (1973) are all based on the polyhedron in Two Forms of 1934 (BH 65, alabaster, private collection). (The three standing 'figures' of Conversation relate to an alabaster group sculpture of the 1950s.)[10] Hepworth declared in 1970: "I don't think anyone realizes how much the last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth ... Going back also opens the door to brand new ideas." [11] The 1960s began "with a feeling of tremendous liberation, because I at last had space and money and time to work on a much bigger scale."[12] Work on her first large-scale projects (such as Monumental Stela, 1936, BH 83, blue ancaster stone, destroyed) had been interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939: after 1960 she was finally able to fulfil long-held ambitions.

Hepworth's willingness to pursue new ideas in her late work was complemented by her continued exploration of forms which had had special significance for her since her early years – the single standing form, equivalent to the figure in the landscape (such as Pierced Monolith with Colour, BH 388), and the two forms, representing for her "the tender relationship of one living thing beside another".[13] She made many variations on the theme of the interaction of a pair of forms which dates from the 1930s. In the two-part carving Child with Mother (BH 544), Hepworth returned to the mother and child theme which had preoccupied her in 1932–4. In Sheltered Form (BH 556), a dependant form is set within an enfolding, protective form, and white marble juxtaposed with black slate – a conjunction of contrasting materials which she employed on a number of occasions in her late works. A harmonious dialogue between two analogous forms is found in carvings such as Two Spheres in Orbit and New Penwith. In Two Faces (BH 498) Hepworth combines smooth and rough surfaces on each of the two pieces - a single face on each bears distinctive markings which were by-products of the splitting of the marble, as she described in an interview: "The marks on the side of Two faces are the remains of feathering. We did that here in the studio. I usually obliterate all the marks, but this time it looked so natural, I stood the pieces of marble outside, side by side, and kept looking at the marks. To do it again deliberately might be most uninspiring and boring. I wouldn't like it."[14]

Three-part groupings, such as Three Forms in Echelon (BH 516), had first been made by Hepworth in 1935, following the birth of her triplets. The central standing form of this carving has a kinship with Neolithic menhirs, and the configuration of the whole is reminiscent of the famous Men-an-tol between St Ives and Land's End, with its central holed stone flanked by two standing stones. In Small One, Two, Three (Vertical) (BH 579), her last catalogued work, the three parts are superimposed rather than juxtaposed. The setting of form on form – seen also in sculptures such as Cone and Sphere (BH 571) and Three Forms Vertical (Offering) (BH 452), a major marble of 1967 – owes something to Brancusi, as several commentators have observed.[15] Hepworth had visited Brancusi's studio in Paris in 1933 and his work made a profound impression on her. The nine bronze standing figures of The Family of Man (1970) are the prime examples of superimposed forms in Hepworth's sculpture, each of the totemic figures comprising two, three or four stacked elements.

Multipart sculptures in both bronze and marble were a particular concern of Hepworth's late work. She made two large-scale marble compositions, the Assembly of Sea Forms (1972, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena) and Fallen Images, her last major work (1974–5, Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives). Hepworth described the late sculptures as "objects which rise out of the land or the sea, mysteriously", and sought in them a finish which resembled "a surface eroded by sea and rain or polished by the wind." [16] They fulfil the idea of sculpture which she had articulated in the 1950s: "Sculpture, to me, is primitive, religious, passionate, and magical".[17] Fallen Images represents a synthesis of the simple geometric forms characteristic of the preceding years, several of which can be seen in this exhibition. There is the hemispherical element of Three Forms in Echelon; the hollowed-out horizontal oval form (without its slit) of Child with Mother; and, (as separate elements not superimposed ones), the truncated cone and the sphere incised with circles of Cone and Sphere.

At the time of Hepworth's death in May 1975, two multipart marbles were in progress in the stone-carving workshop. A two-part sculpture had been roughly worked. A three-part work made up of three smoothly finished spheres, which were to be incised with circles and mounted one above the other, was nearing completion, and on the turntable in the yard outside four marble blocks for a new group carving stood ready. Hepworth's special association with marble, a material for which she had a deep reverence and sensitivity, was sustained in a remarkable way over half a century.



[1] Hodin, 'Barbara Hepworth and the Mediterranean Spirit', Marmo, Rivista internazionale d'arte e architettura, Milan, no. 3, December 1964, pp. 59 and 62.

[2] Interview in Edouard Roditi, Dialogues on Art, London, 1960, pp. 91–2.

[3] BH 576. BH numbers refer to the catalogue raisonné of Hepworth's sculpture, two volumes of which were published in her lifetime - works up to 1959 appeared in 1961, and works of 1960-69 in 1971. A complete revised catalogue of the sculpture, which will publish the 80 works of 1970–75 for the first time, is currently in preparation.

[4] Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, Bath, 1970, p. 79 (extended edition published 1978 and subsequently reprinted in 1985 and 1993).

[5] Letter of 2 October 1966, Tate Archive.

[6] She told J.P. Hodin: "one of my earliest efforts, when a student in Chelsea, was to carve marble. The work got lost when I went abroad." (Marmo, op. cit., p. 59.)

[7] Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, with an introduction by Herbert Read, London, 1952, section 1.

[8] Hepworth, 'Approach to Sculpture', The Studio, London, October 1946, vol. CXXXII, no. 643, p. 97

[9] Unidentified cutting 'Two Sculptors', October 1930, Hepworth archive.

[10] Conversation with Magic Stones is analysed in detail by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Gallery Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives, London, 1999, pp. 266–70.

[11] Interview with Alan Bowness, published in Bowness (ed.), The complete sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960–69, London, 1971, p. 14.

[12] Ibid., p. 7.

[13] Statement by the artist in the catalogue of her retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April–June 1954, p. 10; also cited in the Pictorial Autobiography, p. 53.

[14] Interview with Alan Bowness, 1970, op. cit., p. 15. 'Feathers' are rods of soft iron or steel used in pairs with a wedge-shaped plug, which is hammered in order to split stone.

[15] Hepworth said she had been interested in the superimposition of forms since her period in Rome. The lost five-part Project (Monument to the Spanish War) of 1938–9 (BH 111, plane wood), in which a holed form is balanced on a cone, was a precedent in her mind for Three Forms Vertical (Offering) and The Family of Man (Interview with Alan Bowness, 1970, op. cit., p. 13; Cindy Nemser, 'Conversation with Barbara Hepworth', The Feminist Art Journal, Brooklyn, vol. 2, no. 2, Spring 1973, p. 6). There is also an affinity between the Project and Cone and Sphere and Fallen Images.

[16] Interview with Alan Bowness, 1970, op. cit., p. 14; Susan Bradwell, 'Barbara Hepworth', Arts Review, London, vol. 27, no. 11, 30 May 1975, p. 308.

[17] Letter from Hepworth to A.M. Hammacher, February 1955, cited in Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, (first published 1968), revised edition, London, 1987, p. 117.