Painted steel rod 1540 x 1050 x 860 (60 5/8 x 42 1/2 x 33 7/8) set in concrete base 175 x 385 x 355 (6 7/8 x 15 1/8 x 14)
On loan from the Barbara Hepworth Estate
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, 1961, p.167, no.167
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, 1995, pp.201-2
Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970, New ed. 1978, pp.61-2, pls.169, 171
Displayed in the artist's garden, Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives
In 1951, at the invitation of the theatre producer Michel St Denis, Hepworth designed a production of Sophocles's Electra at the Old Vic theatre, London. The play ran from March until April 1951 and starred Peggy Ashcroft in the title-role. Hepworth would return to theatrical design four years later when she worked on Michael Tippett's opera, The Midsummer Marriage at Covent Garden. For Electra, as well as a pure white set and costumes in primary colours, the artist produced this sculpture from bent steel. Its title suggests that the work served as a representation of the god Apollo, who does not actually appear in the drama, but whose presence is a recurrent theme. In particular, in the penultimate scene, when Orestes and Pylades go to murder Clytemnestra, Electra beseeches the god to aid their venture. It seems likely that it is Ashcroft's portrayal of this entreaty that is recorded in two of the published photographs (repr. Pictorial Autobiography, 1970, p.61, pl.169; Retrospective, 1994-5, exh. cat., p.95). Others show the sculpture located stage left, at the front, sitting on a larger base than now, so that it was considerably higher than head height (repr. Barbara Hepworth, A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970, p.62, pl.172). The original base appears to have been oblong in plan with the corners scooped out, so slightly reminiscent of the fluting of a classical column.
Apollo was made by Denis Mitchell from Hepworth's bent-wire maquette (Tommy Rowe, interview with the author, 16 Oct. 1996), using two mild steel rods, which define a volume whilst also appearing as a drawing in space. The work's combination of three-dimensionality and the linearity of its components make photographs especially deceptive. Nevertheless, one may see the rods as describing a form which, though entirely abstract, is reminiscent of the incised profiles in such earlier carvings as Sculpture with Profiles, 1932 (Tate Gallery T06520). This graphic element seems to have derived from Picasso's appropriately classical paintings and drawings; the material of Apollo also recalls his wire sculptures, such as the Design for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, 1928 (Mus?e Picasso, Paris, repr. Werner Spies, Picasso Sculpture with a Complete Catalogue, 1972, p.78), but these tended to be in a rectilinear form that is in contrast to the marked gestural quality of Apollo. The freedom of form most closely resembles the images which Picasso produced by drawing in the air with a torch in front of a camera. The resultant photographs had been taken by Gjon Mili for Life magazine in 1949. Hepworth later developed a graphic conception of sculpture with the works associated with Meridian, such as Garden Sculpture (Model for Meridian), 1958 (Tate Gallery T03139), which relate to her gestural paintings and interest in Tachisme.
The use of steel was unprecedented in Hepworth's oeuvre and reflects her response to the latest sculptural forms and practices. In the early 1950s a number of British sculptors, influenced by Giacometti's post-war figures, produced spiky metal sculptures. In particular, Reg Butler, who had worked as a blacksmith, had made such works from welded and forged iron since 1948. Though these methods might be related to constructivist techniques, the resultant sculptures are very far from the sinuous elegance of Hepworth's work. She knew and admired him: 'I like Reg Butler's work a lot. We've had some good talks here in the garden', she told Herbert Read in 1952 (letter, 13 May 1952, Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.). She distinguished his work from that of younger artists whom she saw as his followers: 'His figures have a nervous energy which is sculpturally valid. Many of the younger people are just quite simply neurotic in their approach and create a nervous disintegration' (ibid.). The sculptures which Read characterised with his phrase 'the geometry of fear' (Herbert Read, 'New Aspects of British Sculpture', Works by Sutherland, Wadsworth, Adams, Armitage, Butler, Chadwick, Clark, Meadows, Moore, Paolozzi, Turnbull, exh. cat., British pavilion, XXVI Venice Biennale, 1952), certainly appear a long way from Hepworth's persistent belief in art's affirmative function.
The ends of the rods of Apollo are gathered into a small steel support; though visible in earlier photographs, this is now covered by the coarse sand aggregate concrete into which the sculpture has been cast. The two rods are welded together where they pass over each other at the top. They were painted with red primer, followed by a dull silver top coat. They have probably been repainted several times, and in 1980 Tate Gallery conservators noted extensive blistering and losses of paint, especially towards the base. In 1989 and again in 1997, the flaking paint was stripped and the metal was repainted with two coats of primer and three of silver paint (Tate Gallery conservation files).
Though Hepworth later produced many works from sheet metal, only Form in Tension, 1951-2 repeated the use of steel rods and they were later removed and the work retitled Poised Form (Tate Gallery T03134). She did make a second version of Apollo which, despite the apparent improvisatory nature of its manufacture, is almost indistinguishable in reproduction. Originally in the collection of Elizabeth MacDonald and in New York for a time, that version was exhibited in London in 1988 (Barbara Hepworth: Ten Sculptures 1951-73, New Art Centre, Nov. 1987 - Jan. 1988, no.3, repr.). According to Tommy Rowe it was repaired, restored and given a new base by Denis Mitchell after Hepworth's death (interview with the author, 16 Oct. 1996).