Barbara Hepworth began to incorporate ‘string’ into her sculpture in 1939, with works carved in plaster, and then wood, that was often painted. The first of these was Sculpture with Colour (White, Blue, and Red Strings), 1939.
This was followed by a series of works all of which feature a bright painted blue interior and red coloured strings, such as the Tate’sSculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) from 1940. One of this sequence features in an interesting collage in the Tate Library and Archive, in which Hepworth places the work against a cloud background, a move that emphasises the quality of light and air around the piece. The collage will be on display in Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World and, interestingly, it was also the image she chose to illustrate the work in her own records.
At this time Hepworth was interested in Constructivist ideas in art. Seeking to bring together modern science and modern art she and her Hampstead neighbour Naum Gabo, produced sculptures influenced by the forms of mathematical models, using string to express tension or the relationship between different parts of a sculpture. Hepworth’s works on paper from this time also express this interest.
Moving to St. Ives in 1939, Hepworth continued to use string in a series of works in wood, for example Pelagos, and the art historian A.M. Hammacher associates these sculptures less with mathematics and more with her experience of the landscape, especially when paired with a coloured interior. Hepworth herself explained in 1952, ‘The colour in the concavities plunged me into the depth of water, caves, of shadows deeper than the carved concavities themselves. The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills…’ (Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, unpaginated.)
One of Hepworth’s largest works in the hardwood, guarea, also features strings, which link the upward reaching part of the sculpture with its interior.
In 1956, Hepworth began to work in bronze and produced a number of maquettes for a work titled Orpheus (Theme on Electronics)which was a commission for the firm Mullard Ltd. (later Philips). In these works, such as Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II) in the Tate’s collection, the ‘strings’ are in fact fishing line, which was threaded through holes drilled into the metal, holding the form in tension before it set. The final version of Orpheus had a motor so that the sculpture rotated, and is an instance of Hepworth’s embrace of technology which has traditionally been overlooked in a consideration of her work.
At a larger scale, the ‘strings’ in Hepworth’s work become steel rods as, for instance in the work located on the exterior of John Lewis’s department store in Oxford Street, London.
This summer’s exhibition at Tate Britain, Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World will feature a number of ‘stringed’ works, and string became such a well-known feature in Hepworth’s work that the satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon by the illustrator Quentin Blake, affectionately showing the artist ‘stitching’ one of her sculptures. Hepworth was to include the image inBarbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, published in 1970.