As many of us have been doing recently, I’ve been venturing out more and more after months of inactivity, but instead of tearing around the West End of London like I usually do; I’m trying to take more time and fully appreciate what is around me. Like those all so valuable green squares of Grosvenor and Cavendish, which I use for the occasional pit stop. As a result, I’ve also found myself taking a proper look at the sculptures and art in general on display around me.
For example, the six-metre high ‘Winged Figure’ by Barbara Hepworth from 1963, which is situated on the Holles Street side of the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street. I’ve seen it perhaps hundreds of times over the years, but I stood and looked, properly looked, at it for the first time only last week.
I knew the Hepworth name and can recognise some of her work, but only after watching a fine documentary on her recently, did I discover her full and fascinating story.
She was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903, eldest daughter of Gertrude and Hebert. Her father worked as a county surveyor. Both of her parents encouraged early signs of artistic talent in Barbara and a slide show at school on the Egyptian monuments awoke in her, a love of sculpture.
Attending Wakefield Girls high school, she also developed a love of nature in all of its shapes and forms, which later fed into her work. She decided to be a sculptor aged 15 and won a scholarship to the Leeds School of Art aged 17. There she met fellow Yorkshire sculptor Henry Moore, with whom she remained close, all her life.
Such was the prevailing attitude of the times, her next planned move, namely gaining entry to the Royal College of Art was very tough indeed for a young woman back then. However, Barbara was very determined and single minded and managed it in 1921. During her time there, she made fairly regular trips to Paris to soak up its art scene. Upon leaving the college with her diploma in 1924 she travelled to Europe on a West Riding travel scholarship landing in Florence, Sienna and Rome, where she learnt to carve in stone. Accompanying her was fellow sculptor John Skeaping, who she went on to marry in 1925.
Once back in London, they both exhibited their work in their flat in St John’s Wood. They also had a son, Paul, born in 1929. Hepworth then met the painter Ben Nicholson and an affair ensued. With both married, Hepworth filed for divorce in 1931.
Her work at this time began evolving into the abstraction idiom, very modern and surrealist in feeling. Further trips to Paris to visit Picasso & Braque had exposed her fully to abstract art and she went on to co-find the movement ‘Unit One’ with Ben and painter Paul Nash.
In 1934, she gave birth to triplets, Simon, Sarah and Rachel, and had to combine the role of a very busy mother and artist. Hepworth recalled later ‘It was a tremendously exciting event. We were only prepared for one child and the arrival of three babies by six o’clock in the morning meant considerable improvisation for the first few days. A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate) – one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one’s mind.’ To ease the inevitable lack of time to work, she and Ben eventually chose to have the children looked after in a nursery for three years.
Barbara’s art was getting noticed and The Museum of Modern Art purchased their first Hepworth in 1936. Divorced from Skeaping in 1933, her and Nicholson married in 1938, following his divorce that year from his wife Winifred and they set up home in Hampstead. However, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the family moved to Carpis Bay in Cornwall in the August of 1939, finally eventually settling in Trewyn Studios, St. Ives in 1949.
‘Finding Trewyn Studio was sort of magic. Here was a studio, a yard, and garden where I could work in open air and space.’
Her work was exhibited in the 1950 Venice Biennale and it was also on display at the 1951 Festival of Britain, in the shape of ‘Contrapuntal Forms’ and ‘Turning Forms.’ Hepworth was now working in bronze and clay as well as stone and wood.
That same year, her and Nicholson divorced. Her eldest son Paul died in 1953 whilst serving in the RAF. She took a break to absorb and cope with that news, and finally deal with the depression both events had left her in. She poured the heartache at the loss of Paul into the sculpture of Madonna & child, still in place today in St Ives Church.
Barbara began to make further inroads with her work in the USA and by 1955 she was being represented and exhibiting across the pond. She also designed the sets and costumes for the Malcom Tipett opera The Midsommer Marriage in the same year.
Perhaps the clearest sign of her growing worldwide reputation, was the commission of the work ‘Single Form’ which stands outside the United Nations building in New York. At 21 feet, it was her largest sculpture to date.
She became Dame Barbara Hepworth in 1965 and in 1968 The Tate hosted a Hepworth retrospective. Back in Cornwall, she had expanded her studio and was now taking on larger scale commissions. Several young assistants now helped her in the studio as her fame and demand for her work both increased. Despite a cancer scare and general ill health at that time, she was known to put in 8 hours shifts in the studio on a daily basis.
‘The strokes of the hammer on the chisel should be in time with your heartbeat. You breathe easily. The whole of your body is involved. You move around the sculpture, and the whole of you, from the toes up, is concentrated in your left hand, which dictates the creation…’
Sadly, Barbara Hepworth succumbed to a fire in her beloved Trewyn studios in the May of 1975. It is said she fell asleep whilst smoking. She was 72.
There are now two museums dedicated to her work. One in St Ives on the site of the Trewyn studio, now under the control of the Tate Museum and the other in her hometown of Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
One last story before I go and art lovers from The Deep South, should look away now. I couldn’t help but smile whilst researching this blog, when I read that thieves stole her 1969 sculpture ‘Two Forms’ from Dulwich Park, South London, which detectives believed was destined for a back-street scrap metal yard….
Barbara Hepworth’s Guardian obituary described her as, ‘probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day.’
Who am I to argue.
The Mumper of SE5
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