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Barbara Hepworth

See also: Women Artists


Of the three major sculptors of the first half of the twentieth century who lived and worked in England Hepworth was the most limited, but her achievement was still remarkable, and in many ways complementary to that of Ben Nicholson to whom she was married for twenty years.

She was born in 1903, the eldest of four children and the daughter of a civil engineer who lived and worked in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Unlike many artists, she had a gift for mathematics, and her closeness to her father and his work familiarized her with technical drawings. At the age of sixteen she won a scholarship to the Leeds School of Art, where Henry Moore was studying. Instead of doing the compulsory two years at the School she fitted the course into a single year, and went to the Royal College of Art in 1921 on a senior scholarship. She spent three years there, and in 1924 was a finalist for the Prix de Rome and runner up to John Skeaping, her future husband. Despite her failure to win the prize, a grant from the West Riding enabled her to live and travel in Italy for a year. She and Skeaping travelled to Florence together, and married in the Palazzo Vecchio. Later they went to Siena and then to Rome. In Rome she received a thorough training in carving, which was not then taught at the Royal College since sculpture was considered to be mainly a matter of modelling.

Hepworth reported that Italy brought her two crucial insights. The first was 'the experience of light' (her italics) missing from her youth in the north; the second was brought into focus by a chance remark made by the Italian master carver Ardini, that marble changed colour under different people's hands. This, she said, made her 'decide immediately that it was not dominance which one had to obtain over material, but an understanding, almost a kind of persuasion, and above all a kind of coordination between head and hand.'

She returned to London in November 1926, and in December of the following year she and Skeaping held a joint exhibition in their own studio in St John's Wood. Their first major patron was George Eumorfopoulos, owner of a great collection of Chinese art. The studio show was followed by a second, held at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London in June 1928. In 1929 her son Paul was born. During this early period in London Hepworth was in frequent contact with Henry Moore, with whom she had been a student, both at Leeds and at the Royal College, and in 1930 and 1931 the two sculptors formed part of a group holidaying on the Norfolk coast. The second of these vacations brought Hepworth close to Ben Nicholson, who was also a member of the party, and in that year she went to live with him. They later married.

During the 1930s Hepworth and Nicholson lived in Hampstead and were at the centre of the small group of avant garde artists living and working in London. They travelled on the Continent, and made the acquaintance of leading artists in France, most notably Picasso, Brancusi, Braque and Mondrian. Hepworth's personal life was greatly changed by the birth of triplets - two daughters and a son - in November 1934. Her work, partly under Nicholson's influence, was shifting in the direction of greater formality and abstraction, but there were strong overtones of neolithic art, as the physicist J. D. Bernal noted in an introduction for a show of her sculpture held at the Reid & Lefevre Gallery in London in 1937.

The Nicholsons' financial position remained precarious throughout the 1930s, partly due to the heavy burdens imposed by a large family of young children. After 1938 in particular it was difficult for avant garde artists to make any kind of living in England. They decided to leave London, and five days before the declaration of war in 1939, set out for the Cornish fishing village of St Ives, where they had been lent a house by their friend, the critic Adrian Stokes. They were to remain in the area for more than a decade, and Hepworth was to settle there permanently.

For the first three years of the war she ran a nursery school and was not able to carve at all, though she drew at night, after the day's duties were over. This was a period of intense discussion with the Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo and other artists and writers who had settled in the same area. In 1942 the Nicholsons moved into a roomy house with its own garden, and conditions became a little easier. In 1949 Hepworth acquired a new studio in a sheltered position where she was able to carve out of doors nearly all the year round.

Like many of the 'advanced' artists of the 1930s Hepworth won increasing recognition in the decade that followed the Second World War - her work was shown in the Venice Biennale Of 1950, though its impact was somewhat muffled after Henry Moore's triumph there in 1948. But the early 1950s were also years of personal crisis. Hepworth's marriage to Ben Nicholson was dissolved in 1951, and in 1953 her first child, Paul Skeaping, who had become an aircraft designer and professional pilot, was killed in an air crash over Siam. In 1954 she made a journey to Greece in an attempt to reconcile herself to her son's death and, in her own opinion, succeeded. She wrote at this period: 'Sculpture to me is primitive, religious, passionate and magical - always affirmative.'

As was the case with Henry Moore, her sculpture increased in scale as greater and greater opportunities were offered to her. She began to turn away from carving and to make some works, especially the larger ones, in bronze. Gradually she was able to buy many of the properties surrounding the studio she had acquired in 1959, and create an environment where her output could be properly displayed. In the 1960s Hepworth's repertory of forms extended, from the strict geometry of her earlier work to the more composite structure and monumental scale of her later work. In 1962-63, a large bronze was commissioned to stand next to the United Nations Building in New York, in memory of Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Other monumental works in bronze were commissioned in the 1960s, a period which some consider to have yielded examples of her best work. However, cancer was diagnosed in 1964, and ill health increasingly limited her imaginative scope and energy.

Hepworth was made Commander of the British Empire in 1958. In 1965 she was appointed a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in London, and was created Dame Commander of the British Empire, which marked her acceptance by the British artistic establishment.

Hepworth's final years were beset by increasing ill health eventually she had to take to a wheelchair. Her living conditions continued, despite her success, to be very simple, even primitive. In 1975 she died as the result of a fire in her studio, perhaps caused by a cigarette setting light to the bedclothes. The studio itself was opened as a museum in 1976.

- From Edward Lucie-Smith, Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists

Barbara Hepworth Images

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1948 Pelagos
1954-55 Two Figures

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