Dame Barbara Hepworth



On loan

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art 2 (Edinburgh, UK): Barbara Hepworth

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Elm and strings on oak base
Object: 430 × 460 × 385 mm, 15.2 kg
Presented by the artist 1964

Display caption

Pelagos (‘sea’ in Greek) was inspired by a view of the bay at St Ives in Cornwall, where two stretches of land surround the sea on either side. The hollowed-out sculpture has a spiral form resembling a shell, a wave or the roll of a hill. Hepworth wanted the taut strings to express ‘the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills’. She moved to Cornwall with her husband, painter Ben Nicholson in 1939 and produced some of her best-known sculpture inspired by its wild landscape.

Gallery label, April 2019

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T00699 Pelagos 1946

BH 133

Part painted elm and strings 430 x 460 x 385 (14 1/2 x 15 1/4 x 13) on an oak base

Weight: 15.2 kg

Presented by the artist 1964

Purchased from the artist by Duncan Macdonald 1946, and bought back from the estate of his widow, Mrs Elizabeth Macdonald, by the artist 1958

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture and Drawings, Lefevre Gallery, London, Oct. 1946 (21)
XXV Venice Biennale, June-Oct. 1950 (British Pavilion 74)
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture and Drawings, Wakefield City Art Gallery, May-July 1951, York City Art Gallery, July-Aug., Manchester City Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct. (27, repr. p.22)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April-June 1954 (45, pl.H)
Paintings by Francis Bacon, Paintings & Etchings by S.W. Hayter, Sculpture & Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, V Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna São Paolo, Sept.-Dec. 1959 (4, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth, BC tour of South America, Comisión National de Bellas Artes, Montevideo, Apr.-May 1960, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, May-June, Instituto de Arte Moderno, Santiago, Sept.-Oct., Museo de Bellas Artes, Viña del Mar (Chile), Oct., Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Nov. 1960 (3, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth: An Exhibition of Sculpture from 1952-1962, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, May-June 1962 (3, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (45, repr. in col. front cover)
St. Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-March 1985 (73, repr. in col. p.69)
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. (38, repr. in col. p.76 and front cover)

David Lewis, 'Sculptures of Barbara Hepworth', Listener, vol.44, no.1122, 27 July 1950, p.122
David Lewis, 'The Sculptures of Barbara Hepworth', Eidos, no.2, Sept.-Oct. 1950, p.28, repr. p.29
Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, pp.x-xi, pls.82a and b, 83a and b
E.H. Ramsden, Sculpture: Theme and Variation, London 1953, p.42
Edouard Roditi, Dialogues on Art, London 1960, pp.92-3
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, pp.15,166 no.133, repr.
Barbara Hepworth: An Exhibition of Sculpture from 1952-1962, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1962, p.10
Michael Shepherd, Barbara Hepworth, London 1963, p.38, pl.6
Tate Gallery Report 1964-5, London 1966, p.40
'Recent Museum Acquisitions: Sculpture and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth (The Tate Gallery)', Burlington Magazine, vol.108, no.761, Aug. 1966, p.426, repr. p.424, pl.58
A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, London 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.105, pl.76 (col.)
Ronald Alley, Barbara Hepworth, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1968, pp.16-21
Herbert Christian Marillat, Modern Sculpture: The New Old Masters, 1974, p.54, repr. between pp.142 and 143, pl.105
Peter Selz, Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History 1890-1980, 1981, p.376, pl.1016 (col.)
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.14, repr. p.27
Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, pp.52-3, 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, pp.81, 83-4, 86, 109
Andrew Causey, 'Liverpool and New Haven: Barbara Hepworth', Burlington Magazine, vol.136, no.1101, Dec. 1994, pp.860-1, repr. p.860
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, London 1995, p.168
Derek Pullen and Sandra Deighton, 'Barbara Hepworth: Conserving a Lifetime's Work' in Jackie Heuman (ed.), From Marble to Chocolate: The Conservation of Modern Sculpture, London 1995, p.140, repr.
David Thistlewood, 'Barbara Hepworth: Absolutist and Relativist Interpretations' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, Liverpool 1996, p.5
Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder, 'Hepworth and Gabo: A Creative Dialogue' in Thistlewood 1996, p.120 (repr.)
Penelope Curtis, 'What is Left Unsaid' in Thistlewood 1996, p.159
Claire Doherty, 'Re-reading the Work of Barbara Hepworth in the Light of Debates on "the Feminine"' in Thistlewood 1996, p.168
Emma E. Roberts, 'Barbara Hepworth Speculatively Perceived within an International Context' in Thistlewood 1996, p.187
Un Siécle de Sculpture Anglaise, exh. cat., Galerie national du Jeu de Paume, Paris 1996, p.458
Alan Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: Sculptures from the Estate, exh. cat., Wildenstein, New York 1996, p.26, repr.

Barbara Hepworth, 'Approach to Sculpture', Studio, vol.132, no.643, Oct. 1946, p.99 and on front cover
Wyndham Lewis, 'Moore and Hepworth', Listener, vol.36, no.927, 17 Oct. 1946, p.505
J.P. Hodin, 'Barbara Hepworth', Les Arts Plastiques, vol.4, no.3, July-Aug. 1950, p.199
'Britain and America', Engellsches Unterrichtswerk für Gymnasien. Neue Ausgabe Oberstufe, Textband, pl.XVII (col.)
Reyner Banham, 'Object Lesson', Architectural Review, vol.115, no.690, June 1954, p.406 (detail)
'Barbara Hepworth: Two Stills from a BBC TV Film', Listener, vol.66, no.1695, 21 Sept. 1961, p.446 (set against the sea)
Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, London 1964, p.196, pl.210 (col.)
'Barbara Hepworth's Gift of Sculpture to the Tate Gallery', Illustrated London News, vol.245, 5 Dec. 1964, p.907
Alan Bowness, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor's Landscape, London 1966, p.13
A.M. Hammacher, Modern English Sculpture, London 1967, p.84
Exhibition on the Occasion of the Conferment of the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of St Ives on Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth, St Ives 1968 (commemorative booklet [p.10], not exhibited)
Norman Reid, The Tate Gallery, London 1969, p.152 (col.)
L.R. Rogers, The Appreciation of the Arts 2: Sculpture, London 1969, p.78
Barbara Hepworth Exhibition, 1970, exh. cat., Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan [p.22]
Frank Davis, 'Substance and Shadow', Art and Antique Weekly, 14 June 1975, p.16
David Lewis, 'Barbara Hepworth: 1903-1975', Carnegie Magazine, vol.49, no.9, Nov. 1975, p.401
Barbara Hepworth: Late Works, exh. cat., Edinburgh Festival Society, 1976, unpag.
Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge, Mass. 1977, p.142, pl.107
The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion to the National Collection of British and Modern Foreign Art, London 1979, p.130 (in col.)
Udo Kultermann, Art Contemporain, 1979, p.122
Tom Cross, Painting the Warmth of the Sun: St Ives Artists 1939-1975, Penzance and Guildford 1984, p.105, pl.76
Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.88, fig.77
Andrew Lambirth, 'Hepworth and Dobson Shows', R.A. Magazine, no.44, autumn 1994, p.23 (col.)
Penelope Curtis, 'Through Thick and Thin', Women's Art Magazine, no.60, Sept./Oct. 1994, p.12

One of her best known works, Pelagos epitomises Hepworth's post-war sculpture. In its combination of organic form, natural material and the constructivist technique of stringing, it may be seen as a successful synthesis of the different forces in her earlier works. In 1950 David Lewis, then Hepworth's secretary, described Pelagos as one of 'the two final sculptures' of the period of experimentation that had started with Two Forms with Sphere (BH 63, private collection, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.63) in 1935 (Lewis July 1950). Later, Michael Shepherd identified it as, 'a key work representing her distilled experience up to that time' (Shepherd 1963). The importance which the artist and others have attached to the piece is demonstrated by its illustration on the covers of Studio, at the time of its first exhibition, and of the catalogues of Hepworth's two Tate retrospectives: in London in 1968 and Liverpool in 1994. That Pelagos was bought soon after completion by the artist's dealer, Duncan Macdonald of the Lefevre Gallery, might be further indication that it was seen as the outstanding piece in the one-person exhibition that marked the beginning of her post-war success.

The form of Pelagos derives from the hollowing out of the middle of the wood to make two spiralling arms. This has been described in terms of the hole that characterised Hepworth's earlier work having 'mastered the interior and even broken it open' (Hammacher, 1968). The interior space was painted pale blue with a very matt finish. David Lewis used Pelagos to demonstrate the continuity in her work and to distinguish her preoccupation with light and space from Henry Moore's organicism (Lewis Sept.-Oct. 1950). Though apparently spherical when seen in reproduction, the sculpture's shape is in fact ovoid. The form allows sufficient movement that there are considerably fewer radial splits than in many of Hepworth's other wooden pieces. However, there are numerous small cracks, some of which have necessitated the repainting of the interior, possibly by the artist. There are also areas of the exterior which have been filled.

Pelagos has often been paired with Wave, 1943-4 (BH 122, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, comparative illustration): both are hollowed out wooden forms, their interiors painted pale blue and both are said to relate to the landscape. Hepworth later suggested that she no longer thought the colour to be significant. In a letter to the director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, dated 13 March 1975, she wrote about Wave,

As regards the pale blue - 20 years ago I used Ripoline and this lasted superbly, but 10 years ago when I did some restoration due to careless handling I had to resort to Dulux (matt) with a little cobalt pure artists' colour. Alas I have discovered on all sides that this has no staying power and even on big works like the Crucifixion the fading has been absolute. I can't help feeling that a pure white matt ground ... would not only last but project my point of view. I am much more concerned with the way the colour is applied and the brush strokes than with the actual colour, which used to be pale blue.
(quoted in Alun R. Graves, 'Casts and Continuing Histories: Material Evidence and the Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth' in Thistlewood 1996, p.176).

Though the use of colour had been a feature of Hepworth's sculpture since 1939, this would suggest that the matt finish, which contrasts with the high polish of the wood, was of equal concern. The tension between the interior and exterior became a dominating feature of Hepworth's sculpture and reached a highpoint with the pieces carved in guarea in the 1950s, such as Corinthos (Tate Gallery T00531).

The titles of this work and of Wave are also comparable. Pelagos, like many of Hepworth's titles of the period, is a Greek word suggested by E.H. Ramsden and means "the sea"; its wave-like form has been noted (Alley 1968, p.21). Specifically, the artist associated it with the view of St Ives Bay from her house, Chy an Kerris, where it was carved. 'I had a studio room', she wrote later, 'looking straight towards the horizon of the sea and enfolded (but with always the escape for the eye straight out to the Atlantic) by the arms of the land to the left and the right of me. I have used this idea in Pelagos' (Read 1952, section 4). She elaborated, establishing a land-body duality as the underlying basis for her sculpture in general: 'the lighthouse and its strange rocky island was an eye; the Island of St Ives an arm, a hand, a face. The rock formation of the great bay had a withinness of form' (ibid.). Later, she reiterated the non-visual aspect of the source:

I could see the whole bay of St Ives, and my response to this view was that of a primitive who observes the curves of coast and horizon and experiences, as he faces the ocean, a sense of containment and security rather than of the dangers of an endless expanse of waters. So Pelagos represents not so much what I saw as what I felt.
(Roditi 1960, p.93)

The artist's statements validate Kate Doherty's recent reading of the work in terms of 'allusions to the womb and to the sheltering, caring function of the mother' (Doherty 1996). Implicit in Doherty's discussion is a knowledge of Melanie Klein's idea of art as a reparative process, with which Hepworth may have been familiar through her friendship with Adrian Stokes, a leading advocate of Kleinian theory. Klein's proposition that the work of art was a response to an infantile attack in fantasy upon the mother and, specifically, her womb and its contents, may be seen to relate to the ovoid and enfolding forms that characterise Hepworth's sculpture of the 1940s. That the artist saw them on such a symbolic level is illustrated by the schematised explanation of her iconography that she sent Herbert Read in 1947 (repr. Thistlewood 1996, p.11). There she showed that 'known symbols', such as 'figures hands eyes trees etc', were transformed through emotion and feeling to 'unconscious (or unknown) symbols', amongst which she listed both formal elements - 'curves, spirals ovoids' - and more specific signifiers: 'foetus, errotic [sic], prenatal dream, childhood - primitive etc' (letter to Herbert Read, 6 March [1947], Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.).

Such a sense of wholeness and integration is implicit in Read's discussion of Pelagos: 'our senses are projected into the form, fill it and partake of its organization ... it becomes a mandala, an object which in contemplation confers on the troubled spirit a timeless serenity' (Read 1952). The mandala, a sacred diagramatic representation of the universe in Tantric Hinduism and Buddhism, was an important feature of Jungian theory. Jung proposed that the mandala was a necessary step in the process of individuation - the integration of the conscious and unconscious into a whole individual. While there is no concrete evidence of Hepworth's knowledge of Klein, her interest in Jung is apparent from her letters to Read and others. Read's debt to Jung was especially pronounced in Education Through Art (1943), which was enthusiastically praised by Hepworth (letter to Herbert Read, nd [1943]). In the book Read made special mention of the mandala and Jung's interpretation of it. Hepworth analysed her own childrens' drawings in a manner close to Read's researches and commented on one group which, clearly recalling the mandala, consisted 'of egg forms within eggs, folded again & again into a purse & hidden in a secret place' (letter to Herbert Read, 15 Jan. 1941). Her desire for a sense of harmonious integrity is also indicated by her interest at that time - also shared with Read - in Gestalt psychology.

The 'radiating and parallel lines' of the stringing of Pelagos and Wave have recently been related to the post-war persistence of Constructivist modernisation (Thistlewood 1996, p.5). However, more contemporaneous critiques perceived Pelagos as a negotiation of constructivist and organic aesthetics. In 1952, Herbert Read referred to it as a 'constructive image', but added that it conveyed 'life-enhancing values' directly because, 'the wood is carved into a tense form which suggests the unfolding point of life itself' (Read 1952, p.x). In contrast, it was described by one critic in terms of 'an association not with nature but with some of the engineering accompaniments of civilization; ventilator shafts, hangars and fly-over roadways' (G.S. Whittet, 'London Commentary', Studio, vol.148, no.736, July 1954, p.28). The duality of the work's constructivist and organic aspects reflects Hepworth's wartime move away from the dogmatic Constructivism that she associated with Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner and their erstwhile colleagues in Russia. In 1944, the artist contrasted Herbert Read's description of Constructivism as related to the machine with her more organic understanding of the term (letter to Herbert Read, 14 May [1944]). Earlier she had written: 'Constructivism does not do away with imagery - in fact it contains the most easily understood use of images which are undoubtedly organic in so far as they are the basic forms of the rhythm of landscape, primary construction, the human figure and so on. They are more elemental than the personal imagery of an individual' (letter to Herbert Read, 8 April [1941]).

Hepworth's adaptation of earlier abstract theory to accomodate her growing interest in psychology and engagement with the landscape and nature was central to her work from the 1940s onward. Pelagos is the outstanding example of the integrated, organic forms that resulted from this change in her approach to sculpture.

Chris Stephens
March 1998


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