Dame Barbara Hepworth

Fenestration of the Ear (The Hammer)


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Oil paint and graphite on board
Support: 384 × 270 × 6 mm
frame: 575 × 460 × 45 mm
Purchased 1976

Display caption

Hepworth made a number of paintings based on her close observation of surgical operations. This is one of a series showing different stages of a delicate procedure to correct hearing loss. She was impressed by the 'the extraordinary beauty of purpose and co-ordination' of the surgeons and nurses, and observed how 'that unity... dictated a perfection of concentration, movement and gesture and... induced a spontaneous space composition'. Coinciding with the launch of the National Health Service, the harmony of this work took on a wider symbolism for an artist who believed passionately in the Welfare State.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T02098 Fenestration of the Ear (The Hammer) 1948

Oil and pencil on board

384 x 270 (15 1/8 x 10 5/8)

Inscribed in pencil 'Barbara Hepworth 4/48' t.l.

Purchased at Sotheby's (Grant-in-Aid) 1976

Given by the artist to be sold at Treason Trial Defence Fund Sale, Cathedral Hall, Cape Town, South Africa, 31 Jan.-1 Feb. 1958 (230), bt Herr Heinrich Nathan, by whom sold Sotheby's 10 Nov. 1976 (146, repr.), bt Waddington and Tooth Galleries for Tate Gallery

Barbara Hepworth, Durlacher Bros, New York, Oct. 1949 (2), as Fenestration (the beginning)
Contemporary British Painting 1925-50, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Dec. 1950-Jan. 1951 (14) as Fenestration (the beginning)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April-June 1954 (108, as Fenestration of the Ear)
Three British Artists: Hepworth, Scott, Bacon, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, Oct.-Nov. 1954 (10, dimensions reversed in cat.)
Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings 1937-54, North American tour organised by Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1955-6, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, April-May 1955, University of Nebraska Art Galleries, June-Aug., San Francisco Museum of Art, Sept.-Oct., Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, Nov.-Dec., Art Gallery of Toronto, Jan.-Feb. 1956, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, March, Baltimore Museum of Art, April-June 1956 (20, as Fenestration of the Ear, dimensions reversed in cat.)
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, Dec. 1956-Jan. 1957 (20, as Fenestration of the Ear)
St. Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-March 1985 (75, repr. p.172)
Barbara Hepworth: 'The Fenestration of the Ear', Tate St Ives study display, June-Sept. 1993 (no number)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1978, pp.80-4, repr.
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.15, repr. p.43
Michael Tooby, An Illustrated Companion to the Tate St Ives, London 1993, p.44, repr. in col.

Twentieth Century British Art: From Sickert to Hirst, Spink-Leger Pictures, London 1998, p.[p.64]

Around the middle of 1947 Barbara Hepworth was invited to observe an operation at the Princess Elizabeth Hospital in Exeter by Norman Capener, the surgeon who had earlier treated her daughter Sarah's osteomyelitis. The artist made numerous subsequent visits to operating theatres in Exeter and in London at the National Orthopaedic Hospital and the London Clinic, where she made rapid pencil sketches and notes in a sterile pad. These resulted in a significant number of hospital pictures made between 1947 and 1949, which were shown at the Lefevre Gallery in April 1948 and in New York in 1949. They stimulated considerable critical interest and were seen as a radical departure in the artist's work indicative of a more general shift in art production after the war.

Some of the works are pencil or chalk drawings, but many, including Fenestration of the Ear (The Hammer), 1948 were executed in pencil and oil paint on a gesso-like ground. In this way, they may, like Hepworth's contemporaneous nudes (for example Tate Gallery T00269), be seen as both paintings and drawings. This work has a primary support of thin composite board, which has a reverse chamfer, suggesting that it was the central remnant of a picture mount. Three corners have been crumpled by impact and in 1977 these were consolidated; there have also been paint losses along the edges.

Though the grounds of these works are generally described as gesso, the artist told Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Conservation Department: 'I have always made my own grounds by building up several layers of the best flat paint procurable, and each surface I rubbed down or scraped down until I got the hardness and depth that I required. The paint that I used during the years in question 1948-1951 was Ripolin flat white' (R.A.C. Cobbe, `Examination of Modern Paintings: Technical Information Received from Artists', Studies in Conservation, vol.21, no.1, Feb. 1976, p.27). The ground of Fenestration of the Ear has been identified by Tate Gallery conservators, drawing on this account, as combining Ripolin Flat white (an alkyd resin-based household paint), white lead and chalk. A thin, soft blue-grey oil glaze was painted over the ground. This layer was then rubbed and scraped with a blade so that areas of white ground became more visible and the texture of its brushwork was accentuated. The pencil drawing was applied over this rough ground and the cobalt blue area at the top and brown towards the bottom painted last.

The appearance of the hospital pictures, in common with their materials, has an archaic quality that reflects the artist's admiration for the painters of the early Renaissance. They are characterised by a solid figure style, reminiscent of Masaccio's frescos in the Brancacci Chapel combined with a concentration on the elongated, thin eyes of Giotto. A Masaccio-like aspect had been seen recently in Henry Moore's wartime drawings, which Hepworth greatly admired, and she had earlier told Herbert Read of her love for Masaccio's 'virility, humanity and vision' (letter to Herbert Read, 8 Dec. [1940], Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.). Read, in his turn, identified in the 'austere humanism' of the hospital pictures' style the artist's consciousness of abstract form (Herbert Read, 'Barbara Hepworth: A New Phase', Listener, vol.39, no.1002, 8 April 1948, p.592). In many of the works - The Scalpel 2 for instance - this quality is emphasised by the formality of the composition. A sense of human identity is also established by the artist's concentration on the figures' hands and eyes.

Hepworth explained that the formal harmony was not simply an artistic device but symbolic of the common purpose of the doctors and nurses. 'From the moment I entered the operating theatre', she wrote,

I became completely absorbed by two things: first, the extraordinary beauty of purpose and co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life, and the way that unity of idea and purpose dictated a perfection of concentration, movement and gesture, and secondly by the way this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work.
(Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, section 5)

For Hepworth, the idea of a common purpose, which the compositional formality symbolised, had a social as well as an interpersonal dimension. These images may be seen to embody the principles of the collective society which was an increasing concern for her during the 1940s. It has been suggested that the hospital drawings were celebrations of the National Health Service, which had been planned since 1944 and was inaugurated on 5 July 1948 (Chris Stephens, 'From Constructivism to Reconstruction: Hepworth in the 1940s' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, 1996, pp.140-2). Stephens has argued that the NHS, a central plank of the Welfare State which was established by the 1945-50 Labour government, must have been of great importance to Hepworth, a staunch Labour supporter who had long campaigned for better social provision. The emotional and financial strain of her daughter's protracted and serious illness, it's suggested, would have imbued it with an even more poignant significance.

An earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry has identified Fenestration of the Ear (The Hammer) as one of a series of six pictures produced in April and May 1948 from sketches made of that operation at the London Clinic (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8). A sketchbook used by Hepworth during those sessions survives in the Science Museum (Inv. No.1977-500; Pictorial Collection Ref. No.PC1500). Though no other similar book is known to exist, a reference to having traced 'one of these old notebooks' in a letter from Hepworth to the owner suggests that there were others (letter to Mrs Barbara Passe, 14 Sept. [1952], Science Museum). It was argued in the catalogue that the Tate's picture was exhibited in America in 1949 and 1950-1 under the wrong title. As the other works in the series have sub-titles, the gallery accepted the suggestion of the artist's executor, Sir Alan Bowness, that this piece should be known as 'The Hammer' for ease of identification.

The exhaustive entry demonstrated the documentary accuracy of the fenestration pictures. The fenestration operation was performed from 1924 until the early 1950s as the treatment for Otosclerosis, the principal cause of hearing loss among middle aged people. The operation - since superceded - involved the making of a new window (fenestra) in the inner ear. The Tate's picture, however, shows an early stage, known as the mastoidectomy, when access to the inner ear is gained through the mastoid bone. The figure on the left of the group was identified as the surgeon E.R. Garnett Passe, one of the foremost practitioners of the fenestration operation. On the right is Dr John Seymour, his assistant surgeon, and the central female figure is his private theatre sister, Margaret Moir, who coincidentally later became Hepworth's secretary. Passe also became a close friend of the artist, who made a portrait bust of him and, possibly, his wife (Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation, Carlton, Victoria, Aus.).

One of the six works in this series, listed in the artist's catalogue as 'Fenestration of the Ear No.6 (little one) blue drapery 1948', was never photographed and its current whereabouts is unknown. However, for the earlier catalogue, Miss Moir listed the other five in the order of the processes they depict. The first in that scheme is Fenestration of the Ear (The Beginning) (Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation, Carlton, Victoria, Aus.); the second is the Tate's; the third, Fenestration of the Ear (The Lamp) (Leeds City Art Gallery); Fenestration of the Ear (The Microscope) (Spink-Leger Pictures, London) is the fourth and Fenestration of the Ear (The Magnifying Glass) (Bolton Art Gallery) the fifth (comparative illustrations).

Annotations made by the artist in the Science Museum sketchbook suggest a different sequence of events. A note on page 27, probably made at the time and possibly based on a discussion with the surgeon, lists '3 stages' of the operation: '1st by eye (mastoid op) | 2nd with magnifying glass - making skin flap | 3rd with microscope making new hole'. It may be, therefore, that if the works are to be listed according to the sequence of the operation's processes the fourth and fifth works should be interchanged. However, it is not certain that the artist intended such a narrative structure as the works were not executed in that order. The Hammer, The Lamp and The Magnifying Glass are all dated April 1948 and The Beginning and The Microscope May. Unexplained numbers on the reverse of the artist's photographs of the paintings may suggest an alternative order: The Hammer is numbered 33, The Microscope 35 and The Beginning 36. The other two are not numbered, but as they are dated April they may be supposed to be 32 and 34. If one were to number The Magnifying Glass 32 and The Lamp 34 the series could be seen to develop in pairs. Both The Magnifying Glass and The Hammer are vertical compositions and offer an elevated view of three-quarter length figures in similar poses. The Lamp and The Microscope are horizontal, include three closely related figures (there is a fourth in the latter picture) and feature the tubular form of the canvas-encased drill used by the surgeon. The Beginning is unlike the others in that it shows the scene as viewed from a different position and includes a sketchily rendered head, which, it has been suggested, may be a self-portrait (Stephens 1996, p.147). That the six fenestration pictures were never shown together may be further indication that Hepworth did not consider them a homogenous series.

Some of the other works in the series can be related to sketches. To some extent, however, none is as close to a study as The Hammer, which was clearly based upon the drawing on page 18 of the surviving sketchbook (comparative illustration). Though necessarily rendered with great economy, the drawing established the basic figure composition and the details of the surgical instruments. A number of further studies of the detail of the surgeon's hammer and gouge may indicate Hepworth's particular interest in this stage of the operation. It has been proposed that she was drawn to it by its similarity to her own practice of carving (Barbara Hepworth: 'Fenestration of the Ear', Tate St Ives study display broadsheet, 1993). The sequence of drawings in the sketchbook suggests that they depict more than one operation; this is consistent with Margaret Moir's recollection that Hepworth, 'came to the London Clinic on several occasions in the space of two or three weeks, each time a Fenestration Operation was being performed ... She did brief sketches during these visits, at all stages of the operation' (letter to the Tate Gallery, 13 June 1978). The length of these visits is uncertain, but at the beginning of March 1948, presumably around the time of her visits to the London Clinic, Hepworth wrote to Herbert Read from Cornwall, 'I was in "the theatre" for ten hours one day last week' (letter dated 6 March [1948], Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.). That over forty pages have been removed from the front and back of the Science Museum sketch book might indicate that it had contained drawings of other subjects.

No other documentary narrative comparable to the Fenestration of the Ear has been identified among the hospital pictures.

Chris Stephens
March 1998

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