Dame Barbara Hepworth

Conversation with Magic Stones


In Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Object: 2692 × 635 × 457 mm
object: 2743 × 584 × 470 mm
object: 2820 × 482 × 533 mm
object: 800 × 1308 × 914 mm
object: 863 × 1066 × 1219 mm
object: 927 × 1219 × 609 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1984

Catalogue entry

This page comprises two separate full catalogue texts.

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03851 Conversation with Magic Stones 1973

BH 567; cast 2/2

Six bronze forms on bronze bases, approx. 4800 x 4100 (189 x 162) overall

Figure 1: 2692 x 635 x 457 (106 x 25 x 18); Figure 2: 2743 x 584 x 470 (108 x 23 x 18); Figure 3: 2820 x 482 x 533 (111 x 19 x 21) each on a bronze base 762 x 610 x 102 (30 x 24 x 4); weight 430 kg each
Magic stone 1: 800 x 1308 x 914 (31 1/2 x 51 1/2 x 36); Magic stone 2: 863 x 1066 x 1219 (34 x 42 x 48); Magic stone 3: 927 x 1219 x 609 (36 1/2 x 48 x 24) each on a bronze base 610 x 610 x 102 (24 x 24 x 4); weight 320 kg each

All but the figure on the left as viewed from the garden (Figure 3): cast foundry mark on side of base 'Morris | Singer | FOUNDERS | LONDON' l. and cast inscription 'Barbara Hepworth 2/2' r.
Left hand figure: cast inscription over another on side of base '['Barbara Hepworth' deleted] Barbara Hepworth 2/2' t.r.

Accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue in lieu of tax and allocated 1984

Trustees of Dame Barbara Hepworth

Exhibited (ý = unidentified cast, ü = other cast):
Barbara Hepworth: 'Conversations', Marlborough Gallery, New York, March-April 1974 (3ü, repr. in col. and black and white)
Twentieth Century Monumental Sculpture, Marlborough Gallery, New York, Oct.-Nov. 1974 (7ü)
Barbara Hepworth: Late Works, Edinburgh Festival Society, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Aug.-Sept. 1976 (13ý, repr. in col.)
A Silver Jubilee Exhibition of Contemporary British Sculpture, GLC, Battersea Park, June-Sept. 1977 (22)
Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Bronzes, Marlborough Gallery and Marlborough Gallery, New York, May-June 1979 (152-5ý, 'figures 1 & 2, 'stones' 1 & 2 only, repr. pp.52-3, not NY)
Barbara Hepworth, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, July-Oct. 1980 (28ý, four parts only, repr. p.32)

A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.203, repr. p.2, pl.1
Dore Ashton, Barbara Hepworth: 'Conversations', exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, New York, 1974, pp.5-6
Malcolm Quantrill, 'London Letter', Art International, vol.21, no.4, July-Aug. 1977, p.72, repr. p.71
Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 2nd edition, 1978, p.129
'Perspective: Birk's Special', Building Design, no.379, 20 Jan. 1978, p.11, repr.
Barbara Hepworth: A Sculptor's Landscape 1934-79, exh. cat., Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea, 1982, [p.7]
W.J. Strachan, Open Air Sculpture in Britain: A Comprehensive Guide, 1984, p.228, no.535, repr. p.229
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-86, 1988, pp.167-9, repr.
Alan G. Wilkinson, 'Cornwall and the Sculpture of Landscape: 1939-1975' in Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, p.113
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, 1995, p.303

David Lewis, 'Barbara Hepworth: 1903-1975', Carnegie Magazine, vol.49, no.9, Nov. 1975, pp.402-3
H.H. Arnason, A History of Modern Art, 2nd ed., 1977, p.600, pl.1058
Barbara Hepworth, exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, Zürich, Aug.-Oct. 1975, p.9
Mary Keen, 'Bronzes among the viburnums', Independent on Sunday, 27 Nov. 1994, p.84 (in col.)
Richard Cork, 'On Growth and Form', Tate: The Art Magazine, no.4, winter 1994, p.43 (in col.)

Displayed in the artist's garden, Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives

Conversation with Magic Stones was the culmination of Hepworth's recurrent treatment of the theme of human interaction by means of multi-part sculpture. It consists of six discrete elements: three vertical, which the artist described as 'figures', and three horizontal called 'stones'. With The Family of Man, 1971 (BH 513, on loan to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, repr. Curtis and Wilkinson, p.115), it is one of two such large bronze groups intended for display in the landscape from Hepworth's last years. The Tate's cast in the Barbara Hepworth Museum was arranged by the artist. Brian Smith, her secretary, told the gallery that George Wilkinson, who assisted in the siting of the work, recalled the figures being positioned first and the stones arranged between them. They 'required a number of moves before Barbara was happy with the results'. He added that, 'although in poor health', Hepworth 'was able to get out into the garden, and the final results were as she wanted them' (letter, 22 Sept. 1987, Tate Gallery catalogue files). Another cast, in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, is deployed in the same configuration.

The three vertical 'figures' combine curving and rectilinear profiles in irregular forms. That on the right, as viewed from the garden (identified as Figure 1), presents a flat face with three horizontal recesses and is a curved triangle in plan, the top of which slopes down towards the back. The 'figure' at the rear (Figure 2) has a face similarly divided into sections, but its back is also flat, with a single recessed horizontal section and the whole tapers towards the top. While these two appear to face the same way, the left hand figure (Figure 3) does not have an obvious front; its slightly convex sides define a stepped form, in which one of the recessed sections is curved and two protruding steps are triangulated. The 'magic stones' are three identical irregular eight-sided polyhedrons, with distinct surface decoration. Each of the faces of the solid is a different shape; two are parallel and, of the other six, four have a single right angled corner. Each 'stone' is orientated so that it sits on a different face, making it difficult to recognise them as the same form. The stone on the left as seen from the garden (Magic stone 3) has five sides which are marked by a highly textured recessed area. This was achieved by the swirling agitation of the surface of the plaster when it was still wet. The middle stone (Magic stone 1) has three sides with similar indentations and one with an uneven oval recess, up to 27 mm (1 1/8 in.) deep, which at some stage caused the face of the solid to bow slightly. Circles are incised into two faces of the last stone (Magic stone 2), as if a hollow cylinder had been pressed into the plaster.

Brian Smith has confirmed that the work was executed by Hepworth's assistants under her direction. In keeping with her standard practice, each form was hollow cast from a plaster original. The plaster of Paris was laid onto expanded aluminium sheets wrapped around an aluminium armature; it was worked while wet and carved later. Those corners of the 'stones' where four planes intersect are slightly imperfect as two of the planes do not reach the apex of the angle. This disjunction suggests that the plaster was assembled from flat panels, the thickness of which equated to the discrepancy in the join (approx. 5 mm / 3/8 in.). In addition to the recessed areas of the 'stones', the surface of the original plaster 'figures' was textured with a regular but apparently random pattern of small and longer linear marks. The appearance is consistent with Hepworth's 1970 description of working the plaster of her Single Form, 1962-3 (BH 325, UN Plaza, New York, repr. Alan Bowness, ed., The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-69, 1971, pls.66-73): 'I used axes, rakes, hatchets - different kinds in a different rhythm. You can see the axe marks where I wanted extra vitality' (ibid., p.15). The edges were also distressed in places, suggesting a desire to soften them in a way that would distinguish the 'figures' from the geometrical sharpness of the 'stones'.

Conversation with Magic Stones was issued in two editions. Of the first edition of two sets, which were to remain complete, the first (1/2) is in the collection of Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas and the second (2/2) in a private collection in Switzerland. The artist's copy (0/2) is that owned by the Tate Gallery, but was wrongly stamped '2/2' by the foundry. There were also to be a further four casts from which the different elements were to be sold individually. Of these, only two sets were cast; two pieces from the first set were sold to an American collector (1/4) and the whole second set is in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2/4).

The artist told the bronze founders that the plasters of four of the pieces would be ready by the beginning of August 1973 and that 'the other two nine ft. figures will follow' (letter to Morris Singer, 19 July 1973, TGA 965). They assured her that they would be moulded and the first set cast in bronze by November, and would be patinated and finished ready for shipping to New York at the end of the year (letter, 20 July 1973, TGA 965). The plasters were painted as a guide for the foundry, to whom she wrote: 'As regards the colouring of "Conversation with Magic Stones"; I indicated all this with a thin wash of brown, indicating very thin liver of salts [potassium sulphide] and blue on the surfaces, that I want to be blueish-white' (4 Oct. 1973, TGA 965). She felt that the first set cast (2/2) was too dark and asked for the liver patination to be lightened in order to bring out the green-blue areas. The deliberately varied patina is readily apparent on the Tate's work, which, despite prolonged display out of doors, is in good condition. The grass between the forms is persistently damaged by the number of museum visitors moving around the sculpture but, in keeping with the wishes of the artist's trustees, the ability to enter the group is considered essential.

The concept of Conversation with Magic Stones was reworked in two related smaller sculptures. The group of six forms was cast in bronze in a reduced form (305 mm/12 in. high) with slightly modified proportions; though entitled Maquette for Conversation with Magic Stones (BH 575, artist's estate, repr. artist's album, TGA 7247.45), it was made a year after the large sculpture. Labelling a subsequent, smaller version of a work 'maquette' had been a regular feature of Hepworth's practice since the production of multiple versions of works such as Orpheus (Tate Gallery T00955). She also commissioned Breon O'Casey and Brian Ilsley to produce an edition of six sets of three small-scale 'magic stones' in sheet silver (Breon O'Casey, interview with the author, 16 Oct. 1996). These were dated 1973 and exhibited, as Three Magic Forms (BH 569, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, repr. Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.131), in 1974 alongside Conversation with Magic Stones (Barbara Hepworth: 'Conversations', Marlborough Gallery, New York, no.18).

Hepworth related her major late sculptures to earlier ideas. Over the years, she explained to Bowness in 1970, 'I kept on thinking of large works in a landscape ... And in the last ten years I've had the space and time and money for materials, so I've been able to fulfil many ideas that were around for a long, long time' (Bowness 1971, p.7). The roots of Conversations with Magic Stones may be identified at two earlier moments in her career. In the right hand 'figure' there are echoes of works originated in the 1930s, such as Single Form (Eikon) (Tate Gallery T00697), as both are a rounded triangular form with a sloping top. However, the three 'figures' appear to be specifically related to two alabaster groups from the early 1950s. One of these, Three Figures - Conversation, 1951/2 (BH 183, destroyed, repr. Tate Gallery cataloguing files) was shown at the Lefevre Gallery in October 1952 and, having been purchased by the British Council, was irreparably damaged in 1962-3. The other, in the estate of the artist, does not appear to have been completed, as it is unpolished. It is unclear whether it was conceived as three individual sculptures or, as seems more likely, a group of three figures. As both alabaster groups are comparable in style, material and size (approx. 300 mm/12 ins), the estate's set may also be dated c.1951-2. It is disposed on a wooden base in an arrangement similar to that of Conversation with Magic Stones. In both the large bronze and alabaster sculptures, the forms of two of the figures are very similar, but the one on the left is more complex in its larger version.

The figures of the destroyed alabaster group were more intimately arranged and, though still closely related, are less like those of Conversation with Magic Stones. However, all these works echo the forms of Hepworth's series of 'group' sculptures of 1951-2, most particularly Group II (People Waiting), 1952 (BH 181, Private Collection, USA, repr. J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, 1961, pl.181). These works share a common rectilinear figure style that, in a Tate Gallery catalogue entry on another 'group' piece, has been compared to the form of the prow of a gondola (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, 1979, p.84). The style may also be seen in relation to Hepworth's paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, such as Family Group - Earth Red and Yellow (Tate Gallery T02228), in which figures are defined by interlocking straight lines.

Conversation with Magic Stones reflects similar concerns to the works of twenty years earlier, most especially the theme of social interaction. Hepworth related Group I, 1951 (Tate Gallery T02226) and its two successors to her experience of watching the crowds in Piazza San Marco, Venice and the way people responded bodily to each other and to the architecture. This was consistent with the predominance in her thinking of a concern with social formations and the relationship between individuals, the artist and society. Conversation with Magic Stones reflects a synthesis of that theme of human interaction with the more metaphysical aspect that had developed in her thinking in the intervening period. In the viewer's ability to physically interact with the work, Hepworth developed this theme to its grandest and most literal representation.

The origin of the form of the 'magic stones' lies in Hepworth's most purely abstract work of the mid-1930s. The irregular polyhedron appears to have been scaled up from the left hand element of her Two Forms, 1934-5 (BH 65, Private Collection, repr. Hammacher, 1968, 2nd ed. 1987, p.64, pl.41), one of the geometrical pieces that followed the birth of her triplets in October 1934. In common with similar works of the period, this may be related to the Cubistic head sculptures of Giacometti, such as Cube, 1934 (Alberto Giacometti Foundation, Zurich, repr. Reinhold Hohl, Giacometti: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing, 1972, pl.68), which Hepworth would have seen in reproduction in the fifth issue of Minotaure in May 1934 (p.42, as Pavillon Nocturne). Such crystalline forms recurred in her paintings of the 1940s; her Drawing for Sculpture, 1941 (formerly in the collection of John Wells, repr. Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, pl.62a), in particular, incorporates two-dimensional images which are especially close to the 'magic stones'.

It has also been pointed out that the 'magic stones' are similar to the mysterious rhombohedron that appears in Dürer's engraving Melancholia I, possibly as a symbol of Geometry (Matthew Gale, unpublished catalogue of the Kettle's Yard Collection, 1995). Associated with melancholy through the contemplation of the hidden significance of numbers, Geometry 'epitomised man's attempt to understand the world around him' and had alchemical associations. Gale argues that the complexity of Hepworth's solid may be thought to embody this esoteric and alchemical pursuit (ibid.). Giacometti cited Dürer's print as an inspiration and, though there is no record of Hepworth's conscious reference to it, it may be significant that her small silver Three Magic Forms was known as 'Geometria' while in the collection of Priaulx Rainier, a close friend (ibid.). Such esoteric symbolism is consistent with the reference to magic in the title of Hepworth's sculpture.

The work thus establishes a tension between human presences and the symbolic embodiment of metaphysical, magical forces within a landscape setting. The totemic character of the 'figures' had also been seen in The Family of Man and had featured in the work of other British sculptors, such as Henry Moore and William Turnbull. The 'magic stones' were anticipated by a number of small monolithic carvings to which Hepworth applied such abstract, esoteric terms as Touchstone, 1969 (Tate Gallery T02016). The title Conversation with Magic Stones, the arrangement of its figures and their situation all invite comparison with the Neolithic stones in the landscape west of St Ives. In particular, it may be significant that a number of such groups have been seen in figurative terms, such as 'The Merry Maidens' and the 'The Pipers' near St Buryan in West Penwith. Hepworth's work had been specifically associated with such sites as the Men an Tol by J.D. Bernal in the 1930s (Catalogue of Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Alex. Reid & Lefevre, 1937) and, after her relocation to Cornwall, she cited 'the remarkable pagan landscape' as a major source of inspiration (Read 1952, section 4). The title and the forms of the 'stones' may also be thought redolent of Paul Nash's depictions of abstract solids in the countryside of the 1930s and 1940s.

Specifically, when Conversation with Magic Stones was first exhibited in New York, Dore Ashton discussed it in relation to primitive cultures, asserting that 'Hepworth has closely pondered the simple configurations of magical societies'. She described the 'figures' in terms of 'the static majesty of totems ... the Cycladic ... [and] a memory of menhirs'. She observed that the 'stones' 'carry messages: the eternal circle scratched on one; scarab-like textures on another; ambiguous imprints (a fossilized foot? hand?) on another' (Barbara Hepworth: 'Conversations', exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, New York, 1974, p.6). She saw in them 'two ancient themes - the earth and upright man' and identified in the sculpture the theme of natural origin:

In so many origin myths, the horizontal is the earth, the female principle, the Earth Mother. For many cultures, the stones are the bones of the Earth Mother, and in the Navajo language, Earth means 'recumbent woman'. The stones I find in Hepworth - whether the bronze analogies in 'Conversation', or real stones - are nearly always the bones of the Earth Mother, carrying their ineffable message of origin. They subsume all of our longings for beginnings; for truths that escape pragmatics.
(ibid., p.6)

Chris Stephens
March 1998

Full catalogue entry from The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03851 Conversation with Magic Stones 1973

Group of six individual bronzes, each on an individual base; individual sizes, without bases: Figure 1, 2820 x 482 x 533 (111 x 19 x 21); Figure 2, 2743 x 584 x 470 (108 x 23 x 18 1/2); Figure 3, 2692 x 635 x 457 (106 x 25 x 18); Stone 1, 927 x 1219 x 609 (36 1/2 x 48 x 24); Stone 2, 800 x 1308 x 914 (31 1/2 x 51 1/2 x 36); Stone 3, 863 x 1066 x 1219 (34 x 42 x 48); size of bases: of each Figure, 762 x 610 x 102 (30 x 24 x 4); of each Stone, 610 x 610 x 102 (24 x 24 x 4); overall size on ground as displayed at Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives approximately 4800 x 4100 (189 x 162)
Cast foundry mark on each base ‘Barbara Hepworth 2/2' on right side and ‘MORRIS | SINGER | FOUNDERS | LONDON' on left side
Accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue in lieu of tax and allocated 1984
Prov: Trustees of Dame Barbara Hepworth
Lit: Barbara Hepworth, A Pictorial Autobiography, new ed. 1978, p.129; Tate Gallery Report, 1984-6, 1986, p.126 (repr.). Also repr: Barbara Hepworth, ‘Conversations', exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery, New York 1974 (3, repr. in col. and black and white); Barbara Hepworth, Late Works, exh. cat., Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh 1976 (13, repr. in col. and p.27)

The sculpture is a group of six bronzes, three taller ones called by the artist ‘Figures' and three smaller ones called ‘Stones' (the titles are from the unpublished catalogue of Hepworth's sculpture in the Tate Gallery Archive, her number 567). It was cast by the Morris Singer Foundry from plasters, and was never carved in stone. A cast was first exhibited at Marlborough Gallery, New York in March 1974.

In the last five years of her life Hepworth made four large-scale group sculptures, in each of which the individual pieces resembled her small abstract carvings of the 1930s. Two of these were carved in marble: ‘Assembly of Sea Forms' 1972, (Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena) and ‘Fallen Images' 1974-5, (Tate Gallery, T03153, at St Ives); the other two were cast in bronze: ‘The Family of Man' 1970 and the Tate Gallery's ‘Conversation with Magic Stones' 1973. In all four of these groups it is evident from the titles that she thought of the shapes as abstract figures. To some extent this applies to all her work, but in these late sculptures it is almost unique that they are at the same time abstract and yet placed in a narrative by their shapes and positions (the small marble T02226 ‘Group 1 (Concourse) February 4 1951' is an earlier example in which the shapes derive from crowds seen in Venice).

‘Conversation with Magic Stones' is an enlargement and extension of a sculpture that Hepworth made much earlier, as the three ‘Figures' are larger versions of three alabaster carvings (collection of the artist's estate, St Ives). These alabasters, each about twelve inches high, are not dated and have not been catalogued, but appear to have been made in the early 1950s. Each has a pin set into its base, but no additional base exists, and the group was perhaps abandoned without being finished, since the surfaces have not been polished. The proportions of the large sculptures differ slightly from the alabasters; the horizontal slots in them are more deeply cut and the edges more precise.

In 1952 Hepworth made a small alabaster sculpture ‘Three Figures (Conversation)'. In her records in the Tate Gallery Archive this is listed as number 183 but without a photograph. It was purchased by the British Council, probably from its first exhibition at New Sculpture and Drawing by Barbara Hepworth, Lefevre Gallery, Oct. 1952 (13), which also included drawings titled ‘Group of Three Figures (Red & Gold)' and ‘Group of Three Figures (Indian Red)'. This sculpture was damaged beyond repair in 1962-3, probably while lent to a British Council Hepworth exhibition touring the Far East during these years, and is now recorded only in the British Council's photograph. It consisted of three alabaster abstract figures 292 mm (11 1/2 inches) high, on a tall wooden base. These alabasters are not identical with those now at St Ives, but are the same size and are extremely similar in appearance. The relation between these two groups is unknown, but it is possible that Hepworth once intended them to be a single group of six parts. The title of the group ‘Conversation' was revived for the 1973 bronze group.

The large plasters were made in the artist's workshop at St Ives, as described by Brian Smith, the Curator of the Barbara Hepworth Museum:

As for the making of the large group, this was done in the yard and stone carving studio at Trewyn Studio (now the Museum) the construction following the usual procedure of an aluminium armature covered with aluminium mesh on which the plaster was applied and textured to Barbara Hepworth's directions. To get the dimensions the assistants would hold up lengths of aluminium strip and Barbara would indicate the height she wanted it cut to, followed by the width and depth, until a long box shape was constructed. When curves were required, flexible lathes were bent until Barbara decided the curve was correct and the aluminium strip was shaped accordingly. To get the circles that occur on one of the ‘stones', wire was bent to shape and secured by string and then expanded until the artist decided the circle was of the right size (letter to the Tate Gallery, 22 September 1987).

The plasters were sent to the Morris Singer Foundry at Basingstoke and the first cast was made in October 1973. Hepworth painted the plasters the colour of the patina she wanted, as she wrote to the foundry: ‘As regards the colouring of "Conversation with Magic Stones"; I indicated all this with a thin wash of brown, indicating very thin liver of salts and blue on the surfaces, that I want to be blueish-white' (4 Oct. 1973, letter at Morris Singer Foundry Ltd.).

The photographs of the sculpture in catalogues of 1974 and 1976 show it in the artist's garden at St Ives, where it has remained since this became an out-station of the Tate Gallery in 1980. The installation of the group was directed by the artist, who first arranged the ‘Figures' and then had the ‘Stones' placed between them, rearranging the ‘Stones' several times.

A ‘Maquette' of this sculpture was made after the large version had been completed, being begun later in 1973 (305mm (12") high, repr. Barbara Hepworth, exh. cat, Marlborough Galerie, Zurich 1975, p.47). The ‘Figures' in this are almost exactly the same size as the alabaster carvings, and were carved from solid plaster. This maquette was also cast in bronze at Morris Singer, in an edition of nine.

Five casts of ‘Conversation with Magic Stones' exist, either numbered as complete groups or as groups to be sold individually:

0/2 The Tate Gallery, at St Ives (T03851)
1/2 Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas
2/2 Private Collection, Switzerland
1/4 Separate pieces, two of which are in a private collection, U.S.A.
2/4 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

The numbering of these casts indicates that three were intended to be kept together as groups (0/2 to 2/2) and of the four groups intended to be sold individually (1/4-4/4), two (3/4 and 4/4) were not cast. The cast at St Ives was mistakenly numbered by the foundry 2/2, although supposed to be 0/2.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.167-9

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