Dame Barbara Hepworth

Ball, Plane and Hole


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Teak on ?oak base
Object: 210 × 611 × 305 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

This simple structure is unusual for Hepworth. Two of the elements were made using a saw, and the parts are held together with screws. The natural warmth of the wood enhances the simplicity of the sculptural form. The title draws attention to the relationship between the solid material and the empty space around it. The sculpture has the playful qualities of a child’s toy. The placement of the wedge, ball and hole suggests movement. It looks as though the ball could run down the wedge and pass through the hole.

Gallery label, January 2020

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03399 Ball, Plane and Hole 1936

BH 81

Teak on ?oak base 210 x 611 x 305 (8 5/16 x 24 x 12); weight 4.7 kg.

Not inscribed

Purchased from Waddington Galleries (Grant-in-Aid) 1982

Acquired from the artist by Leslie and Sadie Martin (later Sir Leslie and Lady Martin), by whom sold Sotheby's, 'Important Impressionists and Modern Paintings and Sculpture', 31 March 1982 (105, repr. in col.) bt Waddington Galleries

1937 Exhibition: Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development, AIA, 41 Grosvenor Square, London, April-May 1937 (90, 91, 93 or 94)
Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Alex Reid and Lefevre, London, Oct. 1937 (4)
British Art and the Modern Movement, Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Oct.-Nov. 1962 (58, as 'Sculpture c.1935')
British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Part I: Image and Form 1901-1950, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Sept.-Nov. 1981 (168)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Dec. 1994, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Feb.-April 1995, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May-Aug. (23, repr. in col. p.54)
Home and Away, Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 24 Nov. 1995 - 20 April 1997 (no number)

J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.164, no.81
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.10, repr. p.24
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, p.197, repr.
Alan G. Wilkinson, 'The 1930s: "Constructive Forms and Poetic Structure"' in Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, p.56
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, London 1995, p.117
Penelope Curtis, 'Hepworth, Nicholson et Moore, 1934-1939: l'imagination picturale' in Un Siécle de Sculpture Anglaise, exh. cat., Galerie national du Jeu de Paume, Paris 1996, p.85, repr.

A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, London 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.71, pl.48

Ball, Plane and Hole was made during the period in the mid-1930s in which Barbara Hepworth came to be closely identified with Constructive art. Her contemporary wooden sculptures, such as the original of Discs in Echelon, 1935 (BH 73, version 1, MOMA, New York), retained a quality of craftsmanship in which geometry was mellowed by subtly carved surfaces and volumes. In this respect, Ball, Plane and Hole is rather unusual, as two of the four elements were sawn and all were simply held by screws. This momentarily introduced the simplest techniques of construction into Hepworth's repertoire, with a result which remained closer to the cage-like wooden structures of Eileen Holding than to the explorations of machined plastic and metal by Constructivists such as Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner.

The elements of Ball, Plane and Hole were simply assembled: a pair of brass screws secure each of the rectangular elements from under the base. The ball is held to the wedge by a concealed brass screw. Hepworth may have carved the ball from a cylinder (as there is a slight unevenness at its mid-point). It is not perfectly spherical, perhaps as a result of the expansion of the wood. The wedge was cut along its sides and ends; it has been damaged and repaired on its outermost corner. The pronounced curve along its length, so that each end is lifted from the base, may have been achieved by carving. Because of its thinness (16 mm, 5/8 in.) the base has an appreciable concave warp both across its width (by 7 mm, 9/32 in.) and along its length (by 10 mm, 3/8 in. at the left and 5.5 mm, 3/16 in. at the right) (Tate Gallery Conservation Records). There is an associated crack along the grain from the right end which re-opened after an old repair; a 'crack stopper' hole has been partially drilled from underneath at its furthest point 'to release any stress concentration' (ibid.). The hole was filled with wood flour mixed with epoxy adhesive. The wood was listed as teak in the catalogue of Hepworth's Lefevre show in 1937, but the architect Sir Leslie Martin - the sculpture's first owner - has noted that she referred to it as oak in a letter of 11 April 1959 (Sir Leslie Martin, letter to the Tate, 21 July 1986); only the base is now judged to be oak. The sculptor's letter identified three woods (lignum vitae, mahogany and oak) but referred to three different sculptures; this has been misread as referring to Ball, Plane and Hole alone.

For such a formally simple work, Ball, Plane and Hole has a multiplicity of associations. The title draws attention to the relationship of solid and void, and to the spatial qualities of the passage of the three-dimensional ball through a plane to leave a hole. The work evokes 'the playful quality of children's toys' as Alan Wilkinson (Wilkinson 1994, p.56) has observed and, as such, relates to Ben Nicholson's interest in games (Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1994, p.41). Its form also evokes the 'little wooden ball ... knocked up from a sloping platform' which constituted the Yorkshire game of 'knurr and spell' recalled by Henry Moore (Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore, 1987, p.26). However, Hepworth's teasing visual paradox of balancing the ball on the wedge also seems to reflect her interest in the work of Alberto Giacometti, whom she may have met in Paris in 1932 and whose sculptures both she and Nicholson continued to admire. In 1936, Nicholson reiterated this admiration in a letter to Herbert Read (24 Jan. [1936], Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.), at a time when Giacometti's Woman and Man, 1928-9 were included in the Abstract and Concrete exhibition in Oxford (Feb. 1936). Giacometti had also made a number of wooden 'board-game' sculptures, and especially comparable to Ball, Plane and Hole is his Circuit, 1931 (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, repr. Reinhold Hohl, Giacometti, Sculpture, Painting, Drawing, 1972, p.60), in which a ball is routed in a groove. Many of his works carried a sexual charge, and this has also been perceived in Hepworth's sculpture. Both Sally Festing (Festing 1995, p.117) and Alan Wilkinson have recognised in Ball, Plane and Hole a combination of 'constructive form, with the sexual imagery of the hole and ball' (Wilkinson 1994, p.56). It suggests a Constructive distillation of the eroticism of the earlier Two Forms, 1933 (Tate Gallery T07123).

Positions within contemporary artistic debates shifted during 1935-6, and as biomorphic abstraction became associated with the dream imagery of Surrealism (to which Giacometti had been allied), so the constructivists emphasised the social function of their own more geometric work. Definitions hardened following the popular success of the International Exhibition of Surrealism of June 1936 (New Burlington Galleries) to which the publication of Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art in 1937, under the editorship of Gabo, Nicholson and Martin, served as a response. There Hepworth herself characterised the artist's rebellion against 'the world as he finds it' as a choice, suggesting: 'he can give way to despair and wildly try to overthrow' the existing order 'or he can passionately affirm and re-affirm and demonstrate in his plastic medium his faith that this world of ideas does exist' ('Sculpture', Circle, 1937, p.116).

The refinement of Hepworth's points of reference during this period may be seen in a comparison of her two large stone works completed before and immediately after Ball, Plane and Hole. Although angular and abstract, the four feet high carving in blue Ancaster stone Two Forms (Two Figures), 1935 (BH 69, destroyed, repr. Hodin. pl.69) retained some echo of Giacometti's work in the sympathetic bending together of elements; it was bought by Roland Penrose, one of the co-ordinators of Surrealism in Britain. In the following year, all such associations were stripped away in the Constructive Monumental Stela, 1936 (BH 82, destroyed, repr. Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, pl.43, comparative illustration), made in the same stone but six feet high. The formal vocabulary was very similar to Ball, Plane and Hole, especially in the layered use of flat planes and the cylindrically pierced hole, and it was closely related to that of Nicholson's contemporary white reliefs. With its reference to the 'stelae' (tombstones) of ancient Greece, Monumental Stela was an assertion of the classical possibilities for Constructive carving on a scale unprecedented in Hepworth's work. Significantly, it was illustrated in Circle (sculpture section, pl.2). As both stone works were destroyed in the war, Ball, Plane and Hole is an important survival of Hepworth draining any tendencies towards Surrealism from her Constructive work.

Ball, Plane and Hole was exhibited at the AIA exhibition and at Lefevre in 1937, the year of Circle. It is visible in an installation photograph of the former exhibition (Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970, New ed. 1978, p.44, pl.120, mistakenly identified as 'New Movements in Art Exhibition at the London Museum'). Sir Leslie Martin has confirmed that he and his wife Sadie Speight bought it after these exhibitions as they always bought 'directly from the artists themselves who were, of course, our friends' (letter to the Tate, 21 July 1986); they had first sought out Hepworth and Nicholson following the Unit One exhibition three years earlier (Sir Leslie Martin, interview with the author, 27 Nov. 1996). In his preface to the Lefevre catalogue, another friend and contributor to Circle, the physicist J.D. Bernal grouped Ball, Plane and Hole with works which 'bring out the theme of complementary forms, each solid structure being contrasted sharply with a hollow smaller, or larger, than itself' ('Foreword', Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Alex. Reid & Lefevre, 1937). Through the exchanges between Hepworth and Bernal on qualities of form - as seen in the discussion of Three Forms, 1935 (Tate Gallery T00696) - and the Martins' support, Ball, Plane and Hole exemplified the converging sculptural, scientific and architectural interests which were central to Circle.

Matthew Gale
April 1997

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