Dame Barbara Hepworth

Discs in Echelon

1935, cast 1959

Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Object: 343 × 508 × 273 mm, 100 kg
Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980

Display caption

The title of Discs in Echelon announces its formal simplicity – the offset relation of two slightly different discs placed on a rectangular base. The discs present almost flat surfaces to each other, but the outer sides are more rounded; in elevation, a crisp edge at the discs’ upper shoulders is broadened as it descends. The original version of this work was carved directly by hand from ‘darkwood’ (possibly rosewood) in the 1930s. It was cast in bronze more than twenty years later.

Gallery label, April 2012

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03132 Discs in Echelon (version 4) 1935, cast in 1959

BH 73, version 4; cast '1/4 A'

Solid bronze bolted to integral base 348 x 505 x 274 (13 11/16 x 19 7/8 x 10 3/4)

Cast numerals and incised inscription in front face of base 'A 1/4' l. and '1/4 A' r.

Presented by the executors of the artist's estate, in accordance with her wishes, 1980

Exhibited (ý = unidentified cast, ü = other cast):
Hepworth, Galerie Chalette, New York, Oct.-Nov. 1959 (2ý)
Barbara Hepworth, Galerie Charles Lienhard, Zurich, Oct. 1960 (1ý)
British Art and the Modern Movement 1930-40, Welsh Committee of the Arts Council, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Oct.-Nov. 1962 (125)
Art in Britain 1930-40 Centred around Axis, Circle, Unit One, Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1965 (39ý, repr. p.31)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (27ü)
Exhibition on the Occasion of the Conferment of the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of St Ives on Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth, Guildhall, St Ives, Sept.-Oct. 1968 (no cat., prototype)
Barbara Hepworth, Plymouth City Art Gallery, June-Aug. 1970 (33)
Barbara Hepworth Exhibition, 1970, Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan, June-Sept. 1970 (2ü, repr. as lent by '1/4 Janet Leach')
Unit 1, Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery, May-July 1978 (BH3ý as lent by 'Barbara Hepworth Museum')
Barbara Hepworth: A Selecton of Small Bronzes and Prints, Scottish Arts Council tour, Scottish College of Textiles, Galshiels, April-May 1978, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, June, Dundee Museum and Art Gallery, Sept., Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie, Sept.-Oct., Hawick Museum and Art Gallery, Oct.-Nov., Maclaurin Art Gallery, Ayr, Nov.-Dec. 1978 (2ý)
The Seven and Five Society 1920-35, Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, Aug.-Sept. 1979, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Sept.-Oct., The Minories, Colchester, Oct.-Nov., Michael Parkin Gallery, London, Jan.-Feb. 1980, Newlyn-Orion Gallery, Penzance, Feb.-March 1980 (no numberü, repr. [p.19])
Barbara Hepworth: A Sculptor's Landscape 1934-74, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea, Oct.-Nov. 1982, Bangor Art Gallery, Nov.-Dec., Wrexham Library Art Centre, Dec. 1982-Jan. 1983, Manx Museum, Isle of Man, Feb. 1983 (2ý)
Two Sculptors and Two Potters: Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Cleveland Gallery, Middlesborough, Oct.-Nov. 1986 (12ü, as '1935 brass')
Barbara Hepworth: Ten Sculptures 1951-1973, New Art Centre, London, Nov. 1987 - Jan. 1988 (5ü, repr. as '1959, Cast 1 of an edition of four')
10 Decades: Careers of Ten Women Artists Born 1897-1906, Norwich Gallery, Norfolk Institute of Art and Design, Norwich, March-May 1992 (no numberü)

J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.163 no.73 (as 'Version 4')
Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, London and Bloomington, Indiana 1981, rev. ed. London and New Haven 1994, p.269
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
Barbara Hepworth: A Sculptor's Landscape 1934-74, exh. cat., Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea 1982, [p.5]
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, pp.112-3, repr.
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, London 1995, p.251
Claire Doherty, 'Re-reading the Work of Barbara Hepworth in the Light of Debates on "the Feminine"' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, Liverpool 1996, p.171
Alun R. Graves, 'Casts and Histories: Material Evidence and Hepworth's Sculptures' in Thistlewood 1996, pp.179-82

Alan Bowness, Modern Sculpture, London 1965, p.73
J.P. Hodin, 'The Avant-Garde of English Sculpture and the Liberation from the Liberators', Quadrum, no.18, 1965, p.59
'Barbara Hepworth: The Artist and her Work', Bijutso Techo, Aug. 1970, p.2

The conception and production of the Tate's Discs in Echelon are separated by twenty-five years, so that the work may be considered to belong to two periods in Barbara Hepworth's career: 1935, when the original was carved in wood, and 1959, when the present bronze cast was made. The title announces the work's formal simplicity, with the off-set relation of the two discs on the rectangular base being described by the artist's first use of the unexpected military term. In fact, the discs are more complex than would first appear, and differ slightly from each other. They present almost flat faces to each other with the outwards sides being more rounded. In elevation, a crisp edge at the upper shoulder is broadened and rounded as it descends and the underneath has a flat plane in order to facilitate fixing. Profound differences attended the change of material and means of production of these subtle forms, as four castings in three materials were made from the carving. These changes were associated with a fundamental alteration of Hepworth's approach as she moved from carving direct to working with a studio of assistants.

The original Discs in Echelon was carved in 'darkwood' - possibly rosewood - during Hepworth's constructive period in 1935 (BH 73, version 1, MOMA, New York). It was amongst her contributions to the important 14th 7&5 exhibition (Zwemmer Gallery, Oct. 1935), and, with the more anonymous title Carving, was reproduced shortly after in Myfanwy Evans's periodical Axis (J. M. Richards, 'London Shows: Ben Nicholson at the Lefevre: 7&5 at Zwemmer's', Axis 4, Nov. 1935, p.22). In that year it was bought by a Sheffield collector, W.B. Bennett, who presented it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936. Prior to being sent to America, a plaster cast was taken from the wood (BH 73, version 2, Trustees of the artist's estate) and exhibited in 1937 (Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Lefevre, Oct. 1937). This was unprecedented in Hepworth's practice up to that moment, and serves as a measure of the work's success in her eyes. The plaster was made as a preliminary to the unique aluminium cast of the same year (BH 73, version 3, Gimpel Fils), which remained unexhibited in the artist's possession until acquired by her dealers in 1959. The Tate's copy belongs to the edition of four solid bronzes cast in 1959; four hollow bronzes were cast in 1964 (BH 73, version 5) both sets being cast from the plaster in the artist's collection.

During the 1950s, and especially following the success of her prize at the Sao Paolo Biennial (1959), Hepworth secured her position as one of the handful of major sculptors of her generation. This strengthened the demand for her work and she made her first pieces for bronze in 1956. The adoption of this quintessential medium of academic sculpture contravened Hepworth's early rejection of such conventions, as well as her belief in the relationship between form and material. It raised fundamental problems for her, as she acknowledged in a letter to Herbert Read in which she reflected on the pressures to produce bronzes able to survive in the 'travelling circus' of contemporary art. For new works, Hepworth's procedure was to carve plaster for casting, a process which she believed more direct than modelling clay; she emphasised this distinction to Read: 'whilst I endeavour to remain constant to "truth to material" I really query the plaster versus clay controversy' (29 Oct. 1961, Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.). At the same time, she began to cast small editions of earlier works in bronze; in the particular case of Discs in Echelon the cast was a logical consequence of the experiment with aluminium. The employment of assistants facilitated these processes, as they increasingly worked alongside and instead of Hepworth on the more laborious and mundane aspects of preparing and finishing.

Hepworth chose to cast the edition of four Discs in Echelon (version 4) locally, possibly because of a combination of control over the process and financial reasons. The sculptor Brian Wall, who was an assistant at the time, recalled that it was cast by Holman's of St Just (interview with the author, 3 May 1996). The simplicity of the forms was matched by the simplicity of the technique employed: the two discs and the base were solid sand casts - a process in which the dampened sand is packed around the form and removed to leave a void into which the molten bronze is poured. However, the result was crude and finishing was labour intensive, as the pitted and blackened surface which resulted from contact with the sand had to be filed down (Breon O'Casey, interview with the author, 16 Oct. 1996). The discs were cast the right way up and air trapped in the molten liquid left defects towards the top. These were plugged by drilling and filling each with a dowel of metal, derived from the excess cut from the same cast to achieve as close a match in colour as possible. The assistants to whom this work fell - Brian Wall, Breon O'Casey and Tommy Rowe - found that the bronze had been bulked out with domestic chrome-covered brass taps. The more brittle chrome had to be drilled out and plugged as it broke the files used to prepare finish the rough cast surface (ibid.). Derek Pullen has observed that, in cooling, the metals would have 'tended to solidify separately'; the resulting differences were accentuated by the patination process and are especially visible in the lighter patches on the rear of the right disc (note to the author).

The quality of the finish resulted in a curious correspondence, which suggested that the foundry returned a preliminary cast for inspection. They wrote:

Reading between the lines we assume the casting was not the required finish expected, but trust you will be able to bring it to your standard for any future use. Our man was very worried as it was not possible to get the pattern out of the sand without tearing, and then try and build up the mould. Actually the pattern should have been made with loose pieces. Also instead of green sand finish, we would blacken and dry the face of the mould in future.
(letter from W. Holman to Hepworth, 27 April 1959, TGA 965)

To this was added, by way of reassurance: 'we have often made brass fender tops for Cornish Ranges' (ibid.). The 'green sand finish' would have given a rougher surface, and may also explain the inconsistencies in the Tate's cast, visible in the shiny areas of the shoulders of the discs (Derek Pullen, Tate Gallery Conservator in conversation with the author). The patina is a subtle combination of shiny and dull areas of brown, reminiscent of the finish of Japanese bronzes or pottery glazes. However, uneven weathering may have contributed to the effect, as it seems likely to have been the cast displayed and photographed in the artist's garden (repr. Barbara Hepworth, exh. cat., Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, 1966, front cover). The stamping of the Tate's copy with '1/4 A', may suggest that it was the first cast and the one retained by the artist; its shortcomings may have been tolerated in these circumstances. As a result it may be identified with the 'prototype' listed in the artist's album (TGA) as shown at the Freedom of St Ives Conferment in 1968.

The supposition that the Tate copy was the first cast is reinforced by Hepworth's reply to the foundry: 'I think that if I can improve my design for you and with your experience of my requirements, we ought to be able to get the sort of finish which would be economically possible for me to manage' (copy of letter to W. Holman, 29 April 1959, TGA 965). This suggests that further work was done; in particular, different finishes seem to have been achieved. One other cast, in the collection of the late Janet Leach, has a 'blackish' finish (Janet Leach in conversation with the author, 8 Jan. 1997); it bears no number, although it is listed as '1/4' in the artist's album. The cast listed as '4/4', which the artist gave to her son Simon Nicholson, was highly polished - a condition confirmed by his widow Sylvie Nicholson (in conversation with the author, 11 March 1997); this is the cast frequently reproduced as representative of the edition. Of the other casts listed in the artist's album, '2/4' was in a private collection and '3/4' was given by her in 1968 to the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo; however, the Kröller-Müller catalogue notes it as '0/4' (Sculptures in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, 3rd English edition, 1970, p.75).

At the very least, it is clear that the numbering of the edition was confused and inconsistent. On acquisition, the Tate's cast was identified with '4/4' (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, p.112), which had been bought back jointly by Hepworth and her dealers Gimpel Fils when her son sent it to auction (Sotheby's 4 Dec. 1963, lot 174, repr.). This identification now seems unlikely, not only because of the discrepancy in the numbering, but also because, as already observed, Simon Nicholson's cast was notably shiny. In 1965, Hepworth exchanged with her dealers a cast from the new hollow edition of Discs in Echelon (BH 73, version 5) for her share of this cast; at that stage, she had in her possession all four of the solid casts listed in the album.

The decision to have the bronze cast locally may have been prompted by pressure of time. Six months after the correspondence with Holman's, one of the solid casts was shown in New York. There it served as a work from the 1930s and must have been directly comparable to the original wood in the Museum of Modern Art. The uneven quality of casting may account for the inability to sell examples from the edition until 1968. It also seems to be the reason for the orthodox hollow cast edition of 1964 by Hepworth's regular foundry Morris Singer Ltd.

One further consequence of the St Just casting was the tremendous weight of the solid cast. In 1994, the Tate's cast was dropped during transfer to the Barbara Hepworth Museum in St Ives and suffered considerable damage. Deep gouges and scratches resulted in the upper shoulders of both discs which have now been successfully restored.

In contrast to the bronze of the late casts, the materials used for the early versions of Discs in Echelon were indicative of Hepworth's personal modernism in the 1930s. The unusual aluminium cast made in 1936 was the epitome of this. The dealer Kay Gimpel remembered the artist remarking retrospectively that it was a 'cruel material' (Graves 1996, p.180), although it is unclear whether this remarked on its handling, its final appearance or wider associations. At the time, aluminium implicitly evoked the machine aesthetic of contemporary design, which shaped such stream-lined vehicles as Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird in which the land speed record (301.13 mph) was set in September 1935. The darkwood original of Discs in Echelon did not evoke such associations, although it carried the idea of direct carving into constructive art. Richly dark, it contrasted with the white modernism of Three Forms, 1935 (Tate Gallery T00696). Other related works were carved in such woods, notably Two Forms, 1935 in snakewood (BH 67, formerly collection of Mark Tobey, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.67) and Darkwood Spheres, 1936 (BH 80, destroyed, repr. ibid., pl.80). While the vertical element of the former is closely comparable to that of the discs, the latter sculpture shows the achievement of a geometrical purity in the alignment of two spheres of different sizes. Such variety was characteristic of Hepworth, who had used white stones and exotic woods side by side in the early 1930s thus echoing Brancusi's practice of making versions of the same work in different materials.

By 1935, the different material strands in Hepworth's work had been pulled together in a unified concentration upon formal abstraction. While emphasising the continuity of carving in her work, she would recall that she 'had developed a deliberate conception of form and relationship' (Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, section 3). The technique was reconciled with what she called the 'absolute reverse of all that was arbitrary' by providing subtle variety on increasingly idealised forms. When Hepworth exhibited the plaster of Discs in Echelon in 1937, the physicist Desmond Bernal observed that in such works 'the greatest thought has been given to exact placing and orientation' of the similar forms. He added: 'The separate surfaces are made to belong to one another by virtue of their curvatures and their precise distances apart much as two sheets of a geometrically defined single surface' ('Foreword', Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Alex. Reid & Lefevre, 1937). Bernal's scientific authority was welcome support in the face of earlier criticism, which most commonly associated the purity of Hepworth's work with a draining of emotion and meaning. Two years earlier J.M. Richards reviewed the 7&5 exhibition - in which the original Discs in Echelon and Three Forms, 1935 featured - in the supportive periodical Axis. Nevertheless, his assessment of Hepworth's composition of 'convex shapes' was equivocal:

The earlier one is still organic in the derivation of its forms, as are Henry Moore's; the latter one is not. A revealing contrast, but in this case, though the artist is following Ben Nicholson's successful lead, the necessary vitality does not seem to have survived the change. The later work appears empty compared with the earlier. Her third exhibit, in wood, is the most satisfactory of the three.
('London Shows: Ben Nicholson at the Lefevre: 7&5 at Zwemmer's', Axis 4, Nov. 1935, p.24)

For Richards, therefore, Hepworth's forms were distilled to the point of emptiness. In addition, the key notion of 'vitality' - widely used in art criticism of the 1930s as a measure of a work's success - was used to divide Hepworth from her male peers. This position had been stated more nakedly by Hugh Gordon Porteus in the preceding issue of Axis: 'Take away from Barbara Hepworth all that she owes Moore, and nothing would remain but a solitary clutch of Brancusi eggs, with a few Arp scraps' ('New Planets', Axis, 3, 1935, p.22). Beyond the apparent vitriol, Porteus continued in more measured and generous style to discuss the subtlety of Hepworth's touch:

Considered singly, her objects often lack power - partly, perhaps, because of the proximity of a Moore! But consider the superb poise of her new twin monoliths; and, as between the units of her rotunder pieces, note the precise apprehension of surface tension. Her objects are related together in a manner diametrically opposed to that of Moore. Where Moore's forms are linked by an intangible bond of sympathy, attraction of opposite magnetic poles, Barbara Hepworth's are as deliberately based on similarity of forms, magnetic repulsion. Each unit is a highly individualised, haughty, feminine, enclosed lump, spurning its neighbour with a tacit noli me tangere.

The discussion of 'sympathy' and 'magnetic repulsion' evokes some of the qualities of Discs in Echelon, even if Porteus's combination of comprehension and criticism is somewhat obstructive.

Such uneven comparisons to Moore and Nicholson were to haunt the discussion of Hepworth's work until the 1950s and beyond. She took the opportunity to clarify the term by which she was divided from them by asserting: 'Vitality is not a physical, organic attribute of sculpture - it is a spiritual inner life' ('Sculpture', Circle, 1937, p.113). In 'L'Art contemporain en Angleterre' in Cahiers d'Art (vol.13, 1938, repr. p.38), Herbert Read took the opportunity to illustrate the original Discs in Echelon as newly acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and to claim that it exemplified 'quelque chose dans le tempérament anglais - non pas ... notre puritanisme, mais plutét notre transcendantalisme' (ibid., p.32).

Despite such arguments, it is only recently that Hepworth's uneven critical reception has been exposed to scholarly assessment, by Katy Deepwell and others ('Hepworth and her Critics', Thistlewood 1996, pp.75-93), and the sculptor's achievement disentangled from the perception that her individual practice was a faint echo or reflection of her male contemporaries. In the process of this revision Claire Doherty has re-read Hepworth as an exemplar of a Kristevean 'sculpture féminine'. In place of her perceived passivity, Doherty has seen Hepworth's practice as 'highly electric' and suggested that Discs in Echelon in particular encouraged the spectator's inspection 'generating either a desire to eliminate the imperfections or a need to halt the unbearable tension' (Doherty 1996, p.171).

Matthew Gale
April 1997

You might like

In the shop