TOAST Magazine

Barbara Hepworth | A Line of Inquiry

ARTS & CULTURE

The art critic Corinne Julius meets the curator Rachel Rose Smith to discuss Barbara Hepworth's use of line.


Two rounded, pierced forms of huge size sit in the landscape, carving out not only their shape in the surrounding countryside, but also the space between both elements. The sculpture, titled ‘Two Forms (Divided Circle)’, is the work of Barbara Hepworth, one of the most important international artists of the 20th century, whose career spanned five decades. Hepworth was preoccupied by the landscape, not just for its own sake, but in relation to the place of the human body within it. She said “I rarely draw what I see – I draw what I feel in my body” and she strove to convey that sensation to the viewers, whom she wanted to bring into the landscape and her works.

“Hepworth was completely obsessed with the very fundamental fact of human experience, of being a vertical person on a horizontal earth,” says Rachel Rose Smith, Hepworth scholar and curator of Divided Circle, an exhibition of Hepworth’s work at the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge. “It’s interesting to think about line in relation to that – The horizontal and the vertical feature broadly throughout Hepworth’s career. It’s a big history to trace, because it impacts on everything she does.” Hepworth however, is rarely discussed in terms of her use of line, yet she used it in so many ways. 

Hepworth was born in 1903 in Wakefield. Yorkshire’s countryside was to be a permanent influence on her work, as later was that of Cornwall, her final home. Her father, a civil engineer, taught her to look and observe, and from 1920 -1921 she attended Leeds School of Art. A contemporary of Henry Moore, they both went on to study at the Royal College of Art. Her practice, like Moore’s, was to use direct carving – carving directly into the chosen material, without resorting to initial sketches or maquettes.


Awarded a travelling scholarship in 1924, Hepworth decamped to Italy, marrying fellow artist John Skeaping in 1925. Returning to London they lived in St John’s Wood and then Hampstead. Their son Paul was born in 1929, but the marriage was not to last. Hepworth met the painter Ben Nicholson in 1931, with whom she lived and subsequently married in 1938. For a number of years, the two artists made work in close proximity to each other, developing a way of working that was almost like a collaboration. Hepworth’s first holed sculpture ‘Pierced Form’ was shown in 1932.

The pair travelled frequently to France meeting the artistic luminaries of the day, such as Brancusi, Mondrian, Gabo and Kandinsky, with whom they both subsequently exhibited. Mondrian exerted an influence on some prints in Hepworth's series The Aegean Suite, made forty years later. One of these prints, 'Cool Moon’, has a strong linear grid. “It is a Mondrian type grid, with echoes of his work and that of Nicholson,” says Smith.


In 1934 Hepworth gave birth to triplets, but that didn’t impede her career, she became increasingly interested in making large scale works; her first, ‘Monumental Stele’, was produced in 1936. Just before war broke out Hepworth and her family moved to St Ives, eventually living in a house in Carbis Bay. The enclosing arms of the bay “was later to greatly influence her sculptures, particularly her string sculptures, where lines of thread pull parts of her sculpture together,” says Smith. “She first described her use of string as a pull she felt in her body towards a landscape, so there’s a very physical sense of being held somewhere. String has this toughness and tension. The way she criss- crosses the lines and weaves them creates a sense of holding.”

The wild Cornish beauty, a welcome distraction from the disruption of war, entranced Hepworth. She was inspired not only by the landscape, but also importantly by her experience of it. “I cannot write anything about landscape without writing about the human figure and human spirit inhabiting the landscape. For me, the whole art of sculpture is the fusion of these two elements.” With little time and living in cramped conditions, Hepworth concentrated on drawing and plaster sculptures. Many of the works in her London studio were destroyed in a bombing raid and it wasn’t until 1943 that she began to create on a larger scale again.

In 1949 Hepworth bought Trewyn Studio in St Ives, where she lived until her death in 1975. (It subsequently became her museum and since 1980 has been an outpost of the Tate.) At Trewyn she was able to sculpt both in her studio, but also in the garden. Outdoor works became of increasing interest to her. Her marriage to Ben Nicholson was dissolved, but her reputation snowballed with international exhibitions and acquisitions by galleries such as the Tate. She created two large works for the Festival of Britain. 'Turning Forms', now outside Marlborough Science Academy in St Albans, like 'Forms in Movement (Galliard)', is composed of curves and planes made by a moving, spiraling line.

In 1953 she carved ‘Monolith (Empyrean) as a memorial to her son Paul and his navigator, killed in an air crash. Previously sited outside the Festival Hall, it was acquired by the London County Council in 1959 and sited at Kenwood House two years later. This was followed by ‘Madonna and Child,’ for St Ives Parish Church, also made in memory of Paul. There were numerous exhibitions in the mid to late 1950s, including a major retrospective at the Whitechapel, and travelling exhibitions across the USA and South America.



In 1963 John Lewis unveiled her ‘Winged Figure,’ on their Oxford Street store, followed the next year by ‘Single Form’ at the United Nations Secretariat in New York, commissioned in memory of her friend Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations. Although Hepworth didn't originally intend to keep incised lines on her bronze 'Single Form', they reflected the sculpture's construction on a metal armature grid, fleshed out with plaster. They also recall incised lines on one of Hepworth's smallest sculptures, 'Small Hieroglyph', which "are used deliberately," says Smith, "to make you want to touch and to hold, to run your fingers over them. They also explicitly refer to the proportions and form of the human body." In 1965 Hepworth was made a Dame, followed in 1968 by a major retrospective at the Tate. She died in an accidental fire at Trewyn Studio in 1975, aged 72.


Hepworth’s approaches to the use of line varied across her career. In her large abstracted forms, the line is the form itself, carving out a space in the landscape; in others, as in her ‘Divided Circle’ series, “The lines quite starkly delineate the gap between the forms, which is the key to the whole piece. It is not just a circle, it is two forms coming together,” says Smith. In her sculptures with holes, “She was consciously using a spiralling line when making the holes, a line that moves and delineates a 3D form.”

Hepworth used line strikingly in her designs in the 1950s: steel rod for ‘Apollo’, in a production of Sophocles’s Electra directed by Michel St Denis and then string for the set and costumes of Michael Tippett’s 1955 opera The Midsummer Marriage staged at the Royal Opera House. She used string again the following year to suggest the vibrating surfaces of wings in her brass sculpture ‘Stringed Figure (Curlew)’.



For Hepworth string was a symbol of interconnectivity expressing the bond between the figure and the landscape; it expressed the ‘pull’ she experienced when standing in the landscape. It also suggested physical strength and tension. Hepworth’s strings deliberately often create patterns on which the eye can never rest. “For example, in ‘Disc with Strings (Moon)’, the string,” says Rachel Rose Smith, “is used to represent a kind of tension and to describe a space. The criss-cross lines create a dazzling perceptual effect, that I think she was interested in and give a mystical quality. It’s like watching a moon pass in and out of the clouds. It brings a sense of animation.”

Barbara Hepworth’s legacy is permanently on view in her studio and garden at Trewyn and also at The Hepworth Wakefield. She was a phenomenal artist in a largely male-dominated art world influencing numerous artists, architects and designers.  


Words by Corinne Julius.

All works by Barbara Hepworth © Bowness. Archive images printed by permission of Sophie Bowness. All other images photographed by Kendal Noctor at the exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Divided Circle, Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge - please note, this exhibition is now closed.

1. Divided Circle in situe at Heong Gallery. 2. Minature Divided Circle, 1971. Bronze. 3. Two Rocks, 1971. Irish black marble. 4. The plaster studio, Trewyn Studio, St Ives, 1975. © Bowness 5-6. Two Forms (Divided Circle), 1969. Bronze. 7. Forms in Movement (Galliard), 1956. 8. Disc with Strings (Moon), 1969. Aluminium and string. 9. Moon Form, 1968. White marble. 10. Heong Gallery. 11. Cool Moon, 1971. Lithograph on paper. 12. Maquette, These and Variations, 1970. Silver on walnut wood. 18. Sleeping Form, 1971. White marble. 19. Final stage of Meridian with Hepworth: the steamed timber armature has been plastered, Feb 1959. 20. Hepworth with the plaster of Curved Forms (Bryher II) in the Palais de Danse, 1961. © Bowness.

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