Dame Barbara Hepworth

Figure of a Woman


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Corsehill stone
Object: 533 × 305 × 279 mm
Presented by the artist 1967

Display caption

Hepworth was one of a number of sculptors who returned to the handcraft of carving. The resulting immediacy of the artist’s relationship to her material was crucial. She described her process as an ‘effort to find a personal accord with the stones...I was fascinated by the kind of form that grew out of each sculpture, and by the kind of form that grew out of achieving a personal harmony with the material’.Like others, she sourced a wide range of indigenous British stones. This figure is made of Corsehill stone, a red sandstone quarried in Dumfriesshire.

Gallery label, July 2007

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T00952 Figure of a Woman 1929-30

BH 27

Corsehill stone on integral marble base 533 x 305 x 279 (21 x 12 x 11); weight 47.5 kg

Incised into back of base 'BH' centre ('H' chipped)

Presented by the artist 1967

?Purchased from the artist by Mr and Mrs Geoffrey Gorer, London; from whom purchased by Zwemmer Gallery, London by 1950 and sold to Nicholas Guppy after 1961; sold back to the artist March 1965

?First Exhibition of the Young Painters Society, New Burlington Galleries, London, March-Apr. 1930 (348, as 'Half Figure of Woman by Barbara Hepworth Skeaping')
London Group Exhibition of Open-Air Sculpture, Selfridge's Roof Garden, London, June-Aug. 1930 (44, as Girl)
Sculpture by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, Oct. 1930 (34, repr.)
London Group 29th Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London, Oct. 1931 (320, as Half Figure in Hamhill stone)
Neue Englische Kunst, Hamburg Kunstverein, June-July 1932 (34, as Frau)
Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings by Paul Nash and Barbara Hepworth, Temple Newsam, Leeds, April-June 1943 (74)
Sculpture and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, Wakefield City Art Gallery, Feb.-March 1944, Bankfield Museum, Halifax, March-April (3, as Figure)
XXV Venice Biennale, June-Oct. 1950 (British Pavilion 65, as Woman)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April-June 1954 (10, as Woman)
London Group: 1914-64 Jubilee Exhibition, Fifty Years of British Art, Tate Gallery, London, July-Aug. 1964 (69, repr. as Woman: Half Figure)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (7, repr. in col. p.10)
Barbara Hepworth, Plymouth City Art Gallery, June-Aug. 1970 (2)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (45, repr. p.56)
British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Sept. 1981-Jan. 1982 (part 1, 101)
Images of Women, Leeds City Art Gallery, Oct. 1989-Jan. 1990 (64, repr. p.49)
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. (8, repr. in col. p.30)
Carving Mountains: Modern Stone Sculpture in England 1907-37, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, March- April 1998, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, May-June (20, repr. p.52)

John Grierson, 'The New Generation in Sculpture', Apollo, vol.12, no.71, Nov. 1930, p.349
Louise Gordon-Stables, 'London Letter', Art News, vol.29, no.6, 8 Nov. 1930, p.23
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.162, no.27, repr.
Tate Gallery Report 1967-8, 1968, p.61
Alan Gouk, 'Subject to Stones: British Sculpture at the Whitechapel I: 1901-1950', Artscribe, no.32, Dec. 1981, p.28, repr.
Nicholas Hely-Hutchinson, 'The Reluctant Modernist: John R. Skeaping, R.A. 1901-1980', unpublished MA Dissertation, University of St Andrews, 1982, p.32, pl.20
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.10, repr. p.23
Penelope Curtis, 'British Modernist Sculptors and Italy', British Artists in Italy 1920-80: Rome & Abbey Scholars, exh. cat., Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury 1985, p.14
Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1988, p.42, 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.31-2

Herbert Read, 'Barbara Hepworth', Biennale di Venezia, Jan. 1951, p.14
Guy Burn, 'Hepworth', Arts Review, vol.20, no.7, 3 April 1968, p.184
Christopher Neve, 'Holes in a Sculptor's Landscape: Barbara Hepworth', Country Life, vol.143, no.3710, 11 April 1968, p.886
'Some Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth', Studio International, vol.175, no.900, May 1968, p.252 (in col.)
Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Serota (eds.), British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, London 1981, p.80
A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, London 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.34, pl.19
Rachel Barnes, 'On Good Form', Guardian, 12 Sept. 1994, p.4

Hepworth's Figure of a Woman embodied a bold assertion of the modernist tendency towards formal experimentation associated with 'direct carving'. In 1932, by which time the arguments for this practice were well rehearsed, she would explain that carving was 'more adapted to the expression of the accumulative idea of experience' ('The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson', Studio, vol.104, no.477, Dec. 1932, p.332). Such experience appears to have been as much accrued in the working as in life. Thus each block afforded a demonstration of responsive carving techniques; how far these differed between stone and wood may be seen in comparing the robust forms of Figure of a Woman with the similarly posed but more sensuously handled sycamore Figure, 1931 (BH 34, Pier Gallery, Stromness, repr. Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, pl.16a).

The appearance of Corsehill stone, a red sandstone, is soft and dry and resembles terracotta in texture and colour. It attracted comment when Figure of a Woman was first shown: Kineton Parkes remarked upon the 'pleasing material' (The Art of Carved Sculpture, I, 1931, p.130), while John Grierson wrote that in it there was 'as one expects from a woman sculptor, a more conscious feeling for the colour of the material' (Grierson 1930, p.349). Since then the sculpture has been scratched in places (on the top of the head and the figure's right hip), while the stone's porous surface became heavily soiled. In 1991, it was surface cleaned and steam cleaned. The sandstone contrasts with the greyish ochre of the marble base, to which it is fixed (the joint being filled with pigmented plaster) and which bears Hepworth's initials. However, the base did not appear in either the photograph in the Tooth's catalogue (Oct. 1930) or another of the same moment (seen in Hammacher 1968 and 1987) where it is displayed on a square stone block. The sculpture had already been exhibited twice that year: its presence in the Selfridge's Roof Garden exhibition (June-Aug.) is confirmed by the artist's records (Hepworth albums, TGA 7247.1), and it is likely to be the Half Figure of Woman shown at the earlier Young Painters' Society. The initialled base may, therefore, date from the purchase of the work by Geoffrey Gorer, presumably from the 1931 London Group exhibition.

At least three different techniques are demonstrated on the figure itself. Although unpolished, most of it is worked smoothly in order to equate the bulk of the stone with the body and to focus detail on defining areas, such as the column of the neck and the points of the elbows. The weighty forms allow for the carefully opened cavities between the elbows and the sides. In a way that is more extreme than with Torso, 1928 (Tate Gallery T03128), Figure of a Woman retains the mass of the block in the lower part, with the concomitant modification of the structure of the torso. This is particularly evident in the rear view, where the broad hips and shoulders are joined by a powerful but boneless back. In contrast to the surface, sharp cutting and incising secured further details. The strong form of the nose and mouth contrast with less distinct eyes. They are asymmetrical - like those of Skeaping's Fish, 1930 (Tate Gallery T06548) - the left eye being a careful almond, and the right eye abbreviated to three shallow cuts. To the treatment of planes and the cutting, a third quality was added as the lower surface of the mass of hair shows the tooth marks of the claw-chisel used to rough-out the block. The furrows coincide with the direction of the hair as it converges to form a bun. In this detail, the emergence of the figure from the block was embodied in the shift from unformed to formed, from stone to image.

Hepworth had explored this contrast in texture on a number of closely contemporary pieces. Photographs of two of these were published by Penelope Curtis: Mother and Child, 1929 in Brown Hornton Stone (BH 18; present whereabouts unknown, repr. Curtis, 'Early Hepworth: New Images for Old', Burlington, vol.137, no.1113, Dec.1995, p.848, fig.75) and Female Nude, Half-Figure, 1929 (no BH no.; present whereabouts unknown, repr. ibid., fig.74). In both the heavy-limbed bodies are massive and the hair left with the claw-chisel marks. In the emphasis on the profile Female Nude, Half-Figure is especially close to Figure of a Woman, although the flatter and more crudely stylised face may suggest that it is earlier. To some extent, the handling of all three works may be related to Michelangelo with whom direct carving was associated in books such as Kineton Parkes's The Art of Carved Sculpture (1931, I, p.48); the hair of Figure of a Woman may even be compared to the rough hair of his unfinished and similarly posed Brutus, c.1538 (Bargello, Florence). More immediately, the variety of surfaces was also evident in Moore's figures, such as Reclining Figure, March-May 1929 (Leeds City Art Gallery, repr. David Sylvester, ed., Henry Moore Complete Sculpture: Volume 1 Sculpture 1921-48, pp.38-9, LH 59), where the block on the head and the massiveness of the body are especially close to Figure of a Woman. In both sculptors' work a response to that of two senior modernists is evident. In 1929, considerable public hostility was aimed at Jacob Epstein's carvings of Night and Day, 1928-9 on the headquarters of London Underground - a project in which Moore had also been involved. Massive block-like forms were already evident in the work of both Moore and Hepworth, and their strength in Figure of a Woman may be seen as an assertion of the 'new movement' in sculpture despite this controversy. The scale and balance of Hepworth's forms may also be compared with Picasso's classicising paintings of heavy-handed women, such as Women at the Fountain, 1921 (MOMA, New York, repr. Christian Zervos, Picasso, vol.4, Oeuvres de 1920-22, Paris, 1951, p.119, pl.322).

Hepworth and her circle were particularly enthusiastic about precedents outside Europe - Mexican, African, Egyptian and Asian sculpture - as well as those excluded from the classical European tradition. The primary source was the British Museum, with which Hepworth and Skeaping were familiar, not least through the curators who collected their work (such as George Hill and Laurence Binyon). The flattened triangular face of Figure of a Woman hints at Hepworth's interest in Cycladic sculpture more evident in her Musician, 1929 (BH 19, private collection, repr. Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.20, no.5). The locked hands, which recur in the sycamore Figure, 1931 (BH 34) and ensuing works, relate to Mesopotamian sculptures such as the Statue of Kurbil, c.2500 BC (British Museum WA 114207), then newly arrived from Sir Leonard Woolley's excavations at Ur. Such precedents have been identified as the 'locus classicus' of the theme by Charles Harrison (English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, 1981 and 1994, p.229), who has noted Moore's later article in The Listener (5 June 1935) in which he expressed his enthusiasm for Sumerian work. These sources encouraged similarly fine carving in hard stone.

Although these themes identify an approach which Hepworth shared with Skeaping and Moore, there remain distinct differences between their works. Alan Wilkinson (Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, pp.31-2) has contrasted a 'sense of calmness and serenity' (which he associated with classical art) in Figure of a Woman with the 'alertness' of Moore's Mexican-inspired Girl with Clasped Hands, 1930 (British Council, repr. David Sylvester, ed., Henry Moore Complete Sculpture: Volume 1 Sculpture 1921-48, p.45, LH 93). Penelope Curtis has argued persuasively for a blurring of these distinctions, seeing a residue of Italian influence in both sculptors' works alongside their enthusiasm for extra-European sources (Curtis, 'British Modernist Sculptors and Italy', British Artists in Italy 1920-1980, exh. cat., Canterbury College of Art 1985, pp.12-14). Skeaping's contribution to this dialogue has been minimised through the loss of important works. However, a photograph of his similarly posed Half-Length Figure of a Woman, c.1929-30 in Ancaster stone (location unknown, repr. John Skeaping 1901-1980: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Arthur Ackermann & Son Ltd 1991, p.10), which was shown at Tooth's in 1930 alongside Figure of a Woman, shows a shared formal language. Skeaping made his figure more naturalistically muscled and the face less stylised, he also took it to a higher shine. As well as providing a wider context for Hepworth's work, these differences highlight its assurance.

Figure of a Woman is representative of Hepworth's use of the anonymous female as the vehicle of expression. She eschewed the idealised classical form which continued to characterise such acclaimed contemporary sculptures as Dobson's Cornucopia, 1925-7 (Hull University Art Gallery, repr. Neville Jason and Lisa Thompson-Pharoah, The Sculpture of Frank Dobson, 1994, p.65, no.51) and Gill's Mankind, 1927-8 (Tate Gallery N05388). This also involved a challenge to perceptions of sexual stereotypes, a tendency implicit in the minimal marking of the nipples on Figure of a Woman which has the effect of de-eroticising them. The overall solidity of the form resulted in a powerful image of self-assurance.

Matthew Gale
April 1997

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