Dame Barbara Hepworth

Poised Form

1951–2, reworked 1957

In Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Purbeck marble on concrete base
Object: 1170 × 455 × 380 mm
Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980

Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03134 Poised Form 1951-2, reworked 1957

BH 172

Blue limestone 1170 x 455 x 380 (46 x 17 7/8 x 15) set in a white painted concrete base 170 x 520 x 725 (52 3/4 x 20 1/2 x 28 9/16)

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

New Sculpture and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, Lefevre Gallery, Oct. 1952 (2, as Form in Tension)
2a Rassegna Internazionale di Scultura all'Aperto, Villa Mirabello, Varese, Aug.-Sept. 1953 (64, repr., as Form in Tension)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, April-June 1954 (146, as Form in Tension)

J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.167 no.172, repr. (as Form in Tension)

Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, pls.156-157b (as Forms in Tension)
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, 1982, p.29
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, pp.113-14, repr.

Displayed in the artist's garden, Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives

A grey stone monolith, Poised Form was originally exhibited in a different state: as Form in Tension, it was shown between 1952 and 1954 ringed by two steel rods. Alan Bowness has said that the artist reworked the piece as she 'was not happy about the combination of marble carving and metal rings, so she removed them [the rings] after the Whitechapel exhibition' (answers to a Tate Gallery questionnaire, 30 Sept. 1983). The artist's album of her work states that the sculpture was reworked in 1957 (Tate Gallery Archive), though it was reproduced in its original form in 1961 (Hodin 1961, pl.172). A comparison of Poised Form with photographs of Form in Tension demonstrates that the circular concavity on one face was added when the rings were removed; it was presumably at that time that the stone was set in a new concrete base.

The blue limestone from which Poised Form was carved - actually a pale grey in colour - is a stone rich in small fossil deposits which give the surface a varying appearance. The original faces of the sculpture have a smooth finish, while the concavity shows claw-marks. On its acquisition by the Tate, the work was found to bear the scars of prolonged display in the artist's garden: the surface had been stained by snails and bird lime and there was algal growth in the fissures in the block. The surface had also been finely scored, perhaps as a result of cleaning with wet and dry abrasive paper. The sculpture was cleaned to remove grease, ingrained dirt and salts were removed and a biocide was applied to kill the algae; the fissures in the stone were filled.

The combination of carved stone and metal in Form in Tension is unusual in Hepworth's work. The stone is close in appearance to that used for Contrapuntal Forms (BH 165, Harlow Art Trust, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.165), the monumental figure group commissioned for the Festival of Britain (1951). In contrast, the use of wrought iron may be compared with the work of other British sculptors, particularly Reg Butler. Between 1947 and 1952 Butler, a former blacksmith, produced sculptures of forged iron, most notably Birdcage, 1951 (English Heritage on loan to South Bank Centre, repr. Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Serota eds. British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, 1981, p.129). Hepworth knew him personally and admired his work above that of his contemporaries; she told Herbert Read: 'His figures have a nervous energy which is sculpturally valid. Many of the younger people are just quite simply neurotic in their approach and create a nervous disintegration' (letter dated 13 May 1952, Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.). Hepworth also used bent iron rod in Apollo, 1951 (BH 167, Barbara Hepworth Estate, repr. Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, p.95), a work conceived for the 1952 Old Vic production of Sophocles's Electra. This, however, was distinct from the rods of Form in Tension as it was painted a silvery colour.

It seems likely that the two versions of Apollo and Form in Tension were produced around the same time, which may be borne out by the artist's dating of this work as 1951-2. It is not clear why the artist gave Form in Tension this expansive dating, though in the catalogue of her 1952 exhibition all the carvings were listed under 'Sculptures, 1951-2'. If the works were listed chronologically, Form in Tension, which was second after Group I, 1951, may have been completed in 1951. On the other hand, the two dates may suggest that the iron rods were added slightly later.

Unusually for that period, Hepworth developed Form in Tension from a maquette, which is made of plaster and lead wire and is listed in her catalogue as Maquette for Garden Sculpture (BH 170, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge, repr. artist's unpublished album, TGA 7247.21). The central form is different in the model as a result of the nature of the material: it is more matt in finish, lighter in weight and has a more organic shape than the stone. In addition, it has three metal elements which arc around the main form, the lowest of which was omitted from Form in Tension. The production of a maquette marks a distinction from Hepworth's carvings (Apollo was also made from a bent-wire maquette) in its suggestion of a constructive production process. Its title may reflect the original conception of Form in Tension, which was exhibited outside at Varese in 1953, was displayed in Hepworth's garden and was one of the first works to be photographed with St Ives parish church as a backdrop (Read 1952, pl.156). It seems likely, however, that the artist called the model Maquette for Garden Sculpture in view of those photographs. It may also be significant that Priaulx Rainier, the South African composer to whom Hepworth gave the maquette, helped her to design the garden.

It has been suggested that Form in Tension and its maquette might be compared to images of atomic structures in which electrons orbit, diagrammatically, a nucleus (Matthew Gale, Catalogue of the Kettle's Yard Collection, forthcoming). The atom and atomic power were dominant concerns at the beginning of the 1950s. Forms based upon atomic structure were a leitmotif of much of the design at the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain, where Hepworth's Contrapuntal Forms was a major feature. As Gale points out, 'the atom was a heavily loaded sign' (ibid.) at a time when anxieties over the war in Korea were heightened by the explosion of two nuclear bombs in the Nevada desert in January 1951 and the first testing of the hydrogen bomb in the Pacific in the following May. The delicate balance of the leaning block, alluded to by the title Poised Form, may be seen to contrast with the 'tension' of the original sculpture and its title.

Chris Stephens
March 1998

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