Dame Barbara Hepworth

Seated Figure


In Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Lignum vitae
Object: 356 × 267 × 216 mm
Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980

Display caption

Hepworth, like Moore, was born and brought up in Yorkshire. They both attended Leeds School of Art and then the Royal College of Art in London. In the late 1920s Hepworth and Moore continued the tradition of direct carving, as opposed to modelling, and were drawn to 'primitive' art forms. But in the 1930s Hepworth looked more towards European abstract and Surrealist models. 'Seated Figure' still retains vestiges of primitivism, but displays a growing interest in abstract organic forms. Hepworth, like Moore was concerned to be truthful to her materials: The sculpture is suggestive of a tree trunk from which the form is released.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03130 Seated Figure 1932-3

BH 46

Lignum vitae 356 x 267 x 216 (14 x 10 1/2 x 8 1/2)

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

Purchased from the artist by Sir Michael Sadler, 1933; bt from his estate through the Leicester Galleries by Mark Harvey, 1944, from whom bt by Gimpel Fils on behalf of the artist April 1970

Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Alex Reid & Lefevre Ltd., London, Oct.-Nov. 1933 (6, as Composition)
Selected Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture from the Collection of the late Sir Michael Sadler, Leicester Galleries, London, Jan.-Feb. 1944, 1st ed. (160)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April-June 1954 (18)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Dec. 1994 (13, repr. in col. p.27)

J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.162, no.46, repr.
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
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.111, repr.
Derek Pullen and Sandra Deighton, 'Barbara Hepworth: Conserving a Lifetime's Work', Jackie Heuman (ed.), From Marble to Chocolate: The Conservation of Modern Sculpture, London 1995, p.140
Anne M. Wagner, '"Miss Hepworth's Stone Is a Mother"' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, Liverpool 1996, p.66

Bryan Robertson, 'Barbara Hepworth', Modern Painters, vol.7, no.3, autumn 1994, p.54

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

Hepworth carved Seated Figure at about the same time as the group of alabaster pieces to which Sculpture with Profiles (Tate Gallery T06520) belongs. It shares with them the combination of abstracted form with linear details, but retains characteristics associated with the artist's carving of wood. The original shape of the block is more in evidence in Seated Figure. This is emphasised by the fine quality of the dark grain, which enhances the form of the back, breasts and left arm. Despite originally being exhibited as Composition in 1933, the arrangement of the head, encircling arms and one knee raised over a tucked-in leg is immediately legible. Angular edges (such as those defining the hands) are kept to a minimum, as most of the volume was achieved through transitions with subtle modulations and complex contours. This is true of the hole below the arm, which was carved at converging angles from both sides (visible on close inspection), giving the impression that the figure was coiled around it. The incised lines act as signs for naturalistic details: the wave for the foot developed from undulating toes, the contrasting hands (a 'v' for the right, a spiral for the left) indicate their cupping and clenching, and the device of the profile/full face (shown by the horizontal mouth crossing the profile) derived from familiar Cubist conventions. This retention of reality was a characteristic of Hepworth's wooden sculptures of that moment - it is true of Kneeling Figure, 1932 (BH 42, Wakefield City Art Gallery, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.42) and Torso, 1932 (BH 41, City of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, repr. ibid., pl.41) - as distinct from the greater abstraction in stone.

The sculptor had favoured dark tropical timbers, such as the Burmese wood of Infant, 1929 (Tate Gallery T03129), as their density provided the required resistance in carving. It also carried implicit comparisons with the African sculptures whose example had encouraged a break with European conventions. It is notable that Hepworth's wooden pieces of this moment, like African sculptures, tended not to have separate bases; unusually Seated Figure has no base at all. The corollary of this choice of material was considerable effort; after sawing the base of the African Blackwood Torso, 1932, Hepworth confessed: 'it was the hardest work I have ever done' (letter to Ben Nicholson in Cornwall, post-marked 16 May 1932, TGA 8717.1.1.68). Lignum Vitae is one of the darkest and hardest of these woods, and Tommy Rowe, one of Hepworth's assistants in the 1960s, reported that exudations made it self-lubricating (interview with the author, 16 Oct. 1996). Seated Figure was originally polished with shellac and remains in good condition apart from some fine surface cracking; these cracks temporarily developed an unidentified fungal growth when the piece was shown in 1993 under changed atmospheric conditions (Tate Gallery Conservation Files).

There is evidence that Hepworth approached the sculpture simultaneously through carving and drawing. In the carefully staged photograph of 7 The Mall Studios published in Unit One (1934, p.21), the back of the block of Lignum is recognisable on a work table by the open window. This allows a glimpse of the sculptor's process, as it has only been roughed out and further carving - significantly the piercing of the hole - has been projected by the use of white lines on the surface. This stage in the carving may be dated to mid 1933, when the publication of Unit One was first proposed, as most of the other pieces in the photograph were shown with Seated Figure in the joint exhibition with Nicholson in October rather than the comparable show of 1932. The works include the standing female Figure, 1933 (BH 48, former collection Lady Bliss, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.48), Reclining Figure, 1932 (BH 44, private collection, repr. ibid., pl.44), and the bone-like Figure, 1933 (BH 50, destroyed, repr. A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.60, pl.37).

The survival of two sheets of drawings confirms that Hepworth also worked on the idea away from the block. In Studies for Sculpture (Profile Heads), c.1932 (artist's estate, repr. Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1994, p.50, no.92), schematic overlapping profiles associated with the sculpture's head lie alongside more hesitant sketches of the whole. The most worked of these shows the view from behind with the loosely rectangular back pierced under the arm, and the legs and hands seen through the shaded hole and through the block itself. The lower drawing of the front is fainter and concentrates upon the play of hands. Both show a resemblance to the radically abstracted alabaster Figure (Mother and Child), 1933 (BH 52, destroyed, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.52), where the retaining knees cradled the child-pebble. Extending Hepworth's central concern with the female body, both the stone and lignum figures envisage the seated nude as powerful and enclosing.

The second sheet of sketches, Three Studies for Sculpture, c.1932 (artist's estate, repr. Curtis and Wilkinson, 1994, p.49, no.89), includes two similar drawings related to Seated Figure. The front view shows the sources from which the details were reduced: the hands have fingers, the arms and legs are independent of the mass, the hole emphatically shaded. The drawing of the rear is again treated as if transparent, and this view - rather than the sculpture itself - is related to one of the silhouettes in the collage Composition, 1933 (private collection, repr. Unit One: Spirit of the 30's, exh. cat. Mayor Gallery 1984, p.28, no.3).

Although they appear to be close to the final result, it is impossible to say at what stage the drawings were used in relation to the carving. However, Hepworth's practice seems to have been to visualise sculptures through drawings; writing to Nicholson of other pieces in the previous autumn, she asked: 'do you remember the little drawing of the seated woman & child on the same page as the drawing for the man carving? well I'm doing that one it is v v exciting' (post-marked 3 Sept 1932, TGA 8717.1.1.103). This precedent may suggest that the two sheets of studies pre-dated the carving of Seated Figure, and that the response to the mass of material modified the pre-conceived linear aim. Further, it suggests that drawings may have been the site in which an inherent thematic unity within Hepworth's work - based around the female figure and the mother and child - was visualised.

As a response to the bulk of the block, the cutting of a hole became a recurrent device for Hepworth. In 1930 John Grierson had remarked upon Skeaping boring through the block: 'It gives air and intimacy, and a sort of stereoscopic quality to the composition and ... does by this element of variation deepen its power' ('The New Generation in Sculpture', Apollo, vol.12, no.71, Nov. 1930, p.351). With some justification, this has been taken as a sign of Skeaping originating the device (Penelope Curtis, 'Barbara Hepworth and the Avant Garde of the 1920s' in Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.25), although it is likely that the works to which Grierson was referring were essentially realistic. Nevertheless, penetration of the solid form afforded unexpected qualities, which Hepworth and Moore explored from 1931 and 1932 respectively. Only with Hepworth's lost Pierced Form, 1931 (BH 35, destroyed, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.35) can her subsequent claim be strictly accepted that her act of piercing resulted in 'an abstract form and space' (Read 1952, section 2). In Seated Figure, although abstracted into a circular opening, it remained tied to a realistic source and served a function comparable to that in Figure of a Woman, 1929-30 (Tate Gallery T00952).

Beyond the use of the hole, Seated Figure parallels concerns explored in a number of contemporary works. The treatment of the incisions - like those on Sculpture with Profiles (Tate Gallery T06520) - and the simplification of features are related to the use of scraped profiles in Nicholson's paintings. The treatment of the form - especially the heavy enclosing arms, conical breasts and block-like head - may be compared to Moore's contemporary half-length alabaster Figure, 1931 (Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham, repr. David Sylvester, ed., Henry Moore Complete Sculpture: Volume 1 Sculpture 1921-48, p.77, LH 102). He also used puncturing under the arm in his African wood Composition, 1932 (former collection Sir Kenneth Clark, repr. ibid. p.72, LH 128). Both of these carvings were reproduced in Unit One (1934, pp.33-4), where Hepworth reproduced her most abstract works to date, including the lost Figure (Mother and Child) , 1933.

Sir Michael Sadler bought Seated Figure from Hepworth's joint exhibition with Nicholson in 1933 (Alex Reid & Lefevre, invoice 3 Nov. 1933 as 'Carving by Barbara Hepworth "Composition" (Lignum vitae)', Sadler papers, TGA 8221.1.3). He was intensely interested in contemporary sculpture at that time (Michael Sadleir, Michael Ernest Sadler, 1949, pp.388-9), also buying Skeaping's Blood Horse (Tate Gallery N05455). Both works appeared in the posthumous exhibition of his collection (Leicester Galleries 1944), but the two differing editions of the catalogue suggests that works were removed from the display; Seated Figure was only listed in the first edition. This seems to be confirmed by his great nephew, Mark Harvey, who told Hepworth that he bought it when Sadler's collection was 'dispersed' (7 April 1970, TGA 965). In the process of her correspondence with Harvey, which led to her re-acquisition of the work, Hepworth recalled having 'a special feeling for the sculpture' (letter to Mark Harvey, 28 April 1970, TGA 965).

Matthew Gale
April 1997


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