Mother and Child 1934 is a small abstract stone sculpture by the British artist Barbara Hepworth, which is horizontal in configuration and has an undulating and biomorphic shape. The work’s title suggests that the sculpture is loosely figurative, with the larger shape that comprises most of the sculpture representing the reclining figure of the mother, and the smaller shape that rests on top of it a child held in her embrace. Although they are independent sculptural elements, both mother and child appear to have been carved from the same piece of Cumberland alabaster. Both parts are a warm brownish-grey colour and have black, grey, white and brown veining running across them. Each of the figures has a nodule-shaped head with a single white eye drilled into it, and there is a large opening in the centre of the work that denotes the space beneath the mother’s arm as it rests upon her leg. The work sits off-centre on a thin rectangular base made from white-grey marble.
Hepworth made this sculpture in 1934 in her studio at The Mall, Parkhill Road, in Hampstead, London. Both she and the British artist Henry Moore used Cumberland alabaster in their work during the period 1930–4 (see, for example, Moore’s Four-Piece Composition: Reclining Figure 1934, Tate T02054). Both artists were given the stone by fellow sculptor John Skeaping, who had purchased lumps of it that had been ploughed up by a Cumbrian farmer.
Mother and Child was produced using a sculptural practice known as direct carving. First introduced by the French artist Constantin Brancusi in 1906, the technique was further developed by Hepworth, Moore, Skeaping and the British painter and sculptor Ben Nicholson in the 1920s and 1930s. Direct carving is a process in which no models or sculptural maquettes are used to plan the work, but rather the final form of the sculpture emerges through the act of carving the material (see the discussion of Hepworth’s approach to direct carving in Curtis 1994, p.15). Through this technique, these artists emphasised the inherent properties of the materials, and the marble, stone and wood that they used was rubbed and polished in order to enhance its natural texture, colours and markings. They believed that direct carving, as well as the use of simple forms and organic compositions, brought them closer to a ‘primitive’ or non-Western approach to making art and encouraged a sensitive and instinctive relationship to the landscape. Hepworth and Moore were inspired by objects that they studied in the collections of the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Hepworth owned some ancient artefacts, including those from the Neolithic and Cycladic eras.
The motif of the mother and child recurs frequently in Hepworth’s work during the late 1920s and early 1930s (see, for example, Mother and Child 1927, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Infant 1929, Tate T03129; Pierced Form 1931, destroyed; and Mother and Child 1934, Wakefield Art Gallery, Wakefield). This may reflect changes that were occurring in Hepworth’s own life at the time: in 1929 she gave birth to her first son Paul Skeaping (son of John Skeaping) and in 1934, the same year this work was made, she became the mother of triplets with Ben Nicholson. Hepworth commented in 1943 that ‘There was a turbulent period 1933–4 … but I stand by [the works]. They mattered a lot emotionally and sculpturally’ (quoted in Gale and Stephens 1999, p.48). Describing this period of Hepworth’s practice in the Spectator in 1934, the painter and writer Adrian Stokes stated
So poignant are these shapes of stone, that in spite of the degree in which a more representational aim and treatment have been avoided, no one could mistake the underlying subject of the group … Miss Hepworth’s stone is a mother, her huge pebble its child.
(Quoted in Gale and Stephens 1999, p.47.)
Having acknowledged in 1931 that her work was ‘tending to become more abstract’ (quoted in Gale and Stephens 1999, p.45), in Mother and Child Hepworth employed two innovative approaches to abstraction. According to the curator Matthew Gale, Mother and Child was radical, at least in Britain, for the fact that it consisted of a multi-part composition as opposed to a ‘single integral sculpture mass’ (Gale and Stephens 1999, p.45). Equally significant, Gale has claimed, was Hepworth’s inclusion of a large hole at the centre of the composition, a technique that she first adopted in 1931 with Pierced Form. Gale has stated that ‘for Hepworth the piercing of Mother and Child went beyond a formal device. It carried a conceptual value, with the suggestion that the child had come from – and outgrown – the vacant space in the centre of the mother’s body’ (Gale and Stephens 1999, p.47). Furthermore, the art historian Anne Wagner has noted the psychoanalytic implications of Hepworth’s sculpture, discussing the work in relation to the anxieties, such as that of separation, that can exist within the mother-infant relationship (see Gale and Stephens 1999, p.48).
Penelope Curtis, ‘Barbara Hepworth and The Avant-Garde of the 1920s’, in Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 1994, pp.11–31, reproduced p.48.
Penelope Curtis, Barbara Hepworth (St. Ives Artists), London 1998.
Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Gallery Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St. Ives, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, reproduced p.47.
Supported by Christie’s.