Dame Barbara Hepworth

Family Group - Earth Red and Yellow


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Oil paint and graphite on board
Support: 298 × 222 mm
frame: 378 × 300 × 43 mm
Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T02228 Family Group - Earth Red and Yellow 1953

Oil and pencil on hardboard
298 x 222 (11 3/4 x 8 3/4) on an oil painted hardboard support 335 x 277 (13 1/4 x 10 7/8)

Inscribed in pencil 'Barbara Hepworth 20/6/53' running up right hand side b.r.

Bequeathed by Miss E.M. Hodgkins 1977

Acquired from the artist by Miss E.M. Hodgkins by April 1954

Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, April-June 1954 (193)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, April-May 1968 (208)
Exhibition on the Occasion of the Conferment of the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of St Ives on Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth, Public Library, St Ives, Sept.-Oct. 1968 (no cat.)
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. (110, repr. in col. p.130)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, 1979, pp.89-90, repr.

David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, 1982, p.44

Painting, in a diversity of forms, was a facet of Barbara Hepworth's output from 1940. She produced a considerable number in which a frieze-like array of figures are represented by a matrix of intersecting straight lines punctuated by areas of strong colour. Family Group - Earth Red and Yellow, 1953 is an example of this type, which was concentrated around 1952-4 but seems to have begun in 1947 with Drawing for Stone Sculpture, 1947 (private collection, repr. Alan Bowness, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor's Landscape, 1966, pl.33) and continued until 1956 with Figures (Sunion), 1956 (private collection, repr. photograph in the artist's estate). A comparison of the two examples owned by the Tate - one under a foot high and the other life size - serves to emphasise the wide range of scale covered by this body of work.

This painting was made using a technique which Hepworth had developed in the 1940s for her nude studies (see Tate Gallery T00269) and hospital pictures (see Tate Gallery T02098). A thick white oil ground - probably of household paint - was brushed on to the smooth face of the hardboard to give a hard, textured surface. A thin glaze of brown oil paint was applied and then scraped down, in areas to the white ground, so much so that only a halo of colour was left around an almost white composition. The main design was drawn over the paint in black pencil, probably with the aid of a ruler; sections of the resulting grid were filled in with strong colours - red, black, blue, grey - and a pale grey was washed over some areas. The painting is in good condition.

The technique of intersecting lines relates to Cubism, in particular to the later Cubism of Georges Braque. The predominance of long verticals is especially reminiscent of his La Musicienne, 1918 (Kunstmuseum, Basle), which Hepworth could have seen reproduced in the special Cubism number of Art d'Aujourd'hui in May 1953. The suggestion of a continuous line also recalls Klee's conception of drawing as taking a line for a walk, which enjoyed significant popularity among the painters of St Ives in the early 1950s. In post-war Britain both Braque and Klee had come to stand for a more rooted modernism, and their influence on Hepworth may be related to her search for a form of expression that was both human and modern. Her use, in a figurative composition, of the primary colours and rectilinearity associated with Mondrian's abstraction may reflect such a humanising intention. The adaptation of Klee's line to a post-Cubist style, with the filling in of defined areas with strong colour and heavy pencil shading, was particularly characteristic of Ben Nicholson's painting after 1947, though his forms are less rectilinear than Hepworth's. The scraping down of oil glazes over a textured white ground was, similarly, a familiar technique of his. Her style may also relate to contemporary sculpture, in particular to the work of Robert Adams and Henry Moore, which themselves had their roots in Cubism. In Adams's Figure, 1949 (Tate Gallery T03866) the human body is defined by interlocking angular forms, though in three dimensions. Moore had used such forms in the 1930s, but they reached a very public peak in his Time-Life Screen in 1953-4 (Time-Life Building, Bond Street, London, repr. Alan Bowness, Henry Moore Sculpture and Drawings: vol.2, 1949-54, 2nd ed. 1965, pl.74, LH344).

The theme of the family recurred in several of Hepworth's paintings of this type, details of which are given in an earlier Tate catalogue entry (Tate Gallery Aquisitions 1976-8). Human relations at different levels - individual, familial and social - were a dominant theme of her painting and sculpture. While works such as Group I, 1951 (Tate Gallery T02226) were concerned with crowds of people in public spaces, others like Bicentric Form, 1949 (Tate Gallery N05932) dealt with more intimate exchanges by the fusion of bodies in a way that anticipated the comparable painting Two Figures (Tate Gallery T03155). The artist related the idea back to her pre-war abstract work: 'It is an extension of the same idea which started in November 1934, but extended gradually from within outwards; through the family group and its close knit relationship out to larger group related architecture' (Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952). Thus the classic Cubist interpenetration of forms becomes a symbol of the cohesion of people: of the family unit in Family Group and of the two 'heroes' of Two Figures.

At that time, the family was an especially emotive theme for Hepworth whose marriage to Ben Nicholson had collapsed in December 1950. The tension between their need to work and the demands of a large family had been a significant factor in the break down of their relationship and was a source of great anxiety for Hepworth. It has been suggested that it was at the level of this awareness of the conflict between professional and domestic labour that she engaged with the debates around women's art and the problems specific to female artists (Chris Stephens, 'From Constructivism to Reconstruction: Hepworth in the 1940s' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, 1996, p.147). In 1953, however, her relations with Nicholson were friendly enough that they considered purchasing a house opposite her studio for the children (Ben Nicholson, letter to J.R.M. Brumwell, 27 Jan. 1953, copy in TGA, no number). Such a context may suggest a different interpretation of her assertion of a cohesive family.

Chris Stephens
March 1998

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