Barbara Hepworth in the Palais studio in 1963 with unfinished wood carving Hollow Form with White Interior
Barbara Hepworth in the Palais studio in 1963 with unfinished wood carving Hollow Form with White Interior

Who is she? 

Barbara Hepworth was a British sculptor, who was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903. She was a leading figure in the international art scene throughout a career spanning five decades.

Who were her peers?

Hepworth studied at Leeds school of Art from 1920–1921 alongside fellow Yorkshire-born artist Henry Moore. Both students continued their studies in sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. Both became leading practitioners of the avant-garde method of Direct Carving (working directly in to the chosen material) avoiding the more traditional process of making preparatory models and maquettes from which a craftsman would produce the finished work.

From 1924 Hepworth spent two years in Italy, and in 1925 married her first husband, the artist John Skeaping, in Florence; their marriage was to last until 1931. 

From 1932, she lived with the painter Ben Nicholson and, 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. They spent periods of time travelling throughout Europe, and it was here that Hepworth met Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian, and visited the studios of Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Jean Arp and Sophie Taueber-Arp. The experience was a hugely exciting one for Hepworth, for she not only found herself in the studios of some of Europe’s most influential artists, which helped her to approach her own career with renewed vigour and clarity, but also found there mutual respect. The School of Paris had a lasting effect on both Hepworth and Nicholson as they became key figures in an international network of abstract artists. 

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden
Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

 By now married and with triplets as well as a son from her first marriage, when war broke out in 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St Ives. Though she didn’t know it, the seaside town would remain her home for their rest of her life, and after the war she and Nicholson became a hub for a generation of younger emerging British artists such as Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Terry Frost – who was Hepworth’s studio assistant for a time. As she had found, the wild beauty of the surrounding terrain offered a counter to the disruption and destruction of the war. And, like her, those artists made paintings and sculptures inspired by the place and the forces and their experience of nature.

Though concerned with form and abstraction, Hepworth’s art was primarily about relationships: not merely between two forms presented side-by-side, but between the human figure and the landscape, colour and texture, and most importantly between people at an individual and social level. 

Barbara Hepworth Double exposure of Two Forms 1937
Barbara Hepworth Double exposure of Two Forms 1937

What’s her legacy?

Barbara Hepworth’s name is still intertwined with the history and culture of St Ives and her studio and sculpture Garden remain one of the town’s most popular destinations. In the town where Hepworth was born, as well as housing a rich archive of the artist’s work and serving as a platform for contemporary artists working today, The Hepworth Wakefield also pays lasting homage to an artist who spoke frequently of the effect her surroundings had on her formative years.

The whole of this Yorkshire background means more to me as the years have passed. I draw on these early experiences not only visually in texture and contour, but humanly. The importance of man in landscape was stressed by the seeming contradiction of the industrial town springing out of the inner beauty of the country.

In her lifetime, however, she was also a major international figure, showing her work in exhibitions around the globe. As a woman in a largely male-dominated art-world, Hepworth took an active role in the way her work was presented. She was particular about documentation of her works, and collaborated closely with others. She established innovative ways to push the boundaries of her technique and thematic investigations and sustained a career that saw her mount a retrospective at Kröller-Müller Museum in 1965, represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and won first prize at the São Paulo Bienal in 1959. She has influenced countless artists, designers, architects and performers such as Linder Sterling, Peter Jensen and Rebecca Warren citing her as an influential figure in their own creative practice. 

What are her key works?

Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Mother and Child' 1934
Dame Barbara Hepworth
Mother and Child 1934
Cumberland alabaster
object: 230 x 455 x 189 mm, 11.1 kg
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1993© Bowness, Hepworth Estate
Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Pelagos' 1946
Dame Barbara Hepworth
Pelagos 1946
© Bowness
Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Squares with Two Circles' 1963
Dame Barbara Hepworth
Squares with Two Circles 1963
object: 3061 x 1372 x 318 mm
Purchased 1964© Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Hepworth is known first and foremost as a sculptor, but she also worked in other mediums – and was very interested in documenting her own work through photography. The landscape around St Ives became part of the way her works were presented in the media; St Ives Bay, Godrevy Lighthouse and The Island all become compositional tools for those documenting her works, creating an additional dialogue between the forms and their surroundings.

 From 1947–1949, during an illness her daughter suffered, Hepworth produced a series of drawings and paintings based on her time observing doctors and surgeons at St Mary’s hospital in Exeter. Read about their creation in Tate Etc. magazine

Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Fenestration of the Ear (The Hammer)' 1948
Dame Barbara Hepworth
Fenestration of the Ear (The Hammer) 1948
Oil and pencil on board
support: 384 x 270 mm
Purchased 1976© Bowness, Hepworth Estate

What do the critics say?

No militant feminist herself, she asked simply to be treated as a sculptor (never a sculptress), irrespective of sex.
- Alan Bowness

Hepworth was an artist of extraordinary stature whose importance is still to some extent occluded. Over 50 years, from 1925 to her death in 1975, she made more than 600 works of sculpture remarkable in range and emotional force.
- Fiona McCarthy

 In these works this brave and indefatigable woman transcends the difficulties and ugliness of modern life and evokes a vision of radiant calm perfection.
- Herbert Read

Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Group I (Concourse) February 4 1951' 1951
Dame Barbara Hepworth
Group I (Concourse) February 4 1951 1951
Serravezza marble
object: 248 x 505 x 295 mm, 19 kg
Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977© Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Hepworth in Quotes…

The sculptor carves because he must. He needs the concrete form of stone and wood for the expression of his idea and experience, and when the idea forms the material is found at once.

From the Sculptors point of view one can either be the spectator of the object or the object itself. For a few years I became the object.

I think every sculpture must be touched, it’s part of the way you make it and it’s really our first sensibility, it is the sense of feeling, it is first one we have when we’re born. I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ram rod and stare at it, with as sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it and walk away from it.