Dame Barbara Hepworth

The Scalpel 2


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Oil paint and graphite on paper on board
Support: 492 × 728 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995

Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T07009 The Scalpel 2 1949

Oil and pencil on board

492 x 727 (19 3/8 x 28 5/8)

Inscribed in pencil 'Barbara Hepworth | 1949' b.r. and on back '51 | Barbara Hepworth | "The Scalpel" | 1949 | oil & pencil' centre

Accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue in lieu of tax and allocated 1995

Purchased from the artist by her parents, Mr & Mrs H.R. Hepworth, thence by descent to Lady Summerson

New Sculpture and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, Lefevre Gallery, London, Feb. 1950 (51)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April-June 1954 (128)

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 The Scalpel 2, 1949, were executed in pencil and oil paint on a gesso-like ground. In this way, they may, like Hepworth's contemporaneous nudes (see Tate Gallery T00269), be seen as both paintings and drawings. The work has a primary support of thin composite board, which is faced with a thin layer of paper. The support of The Scalpel lacks mechanical strength, and its liability to fracture due to its brittle nature has led to some losses of ground and paint. It appears to have been trimmed after the work was completed.

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 The Scalpel 2 appears to be of a similar nature to that of Fenestration of the Ear (Tate Gallery T02098), which 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. The rich golden brown oil glaze that dominates the work was thinly 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 basic design appears to have been sketched in first, possibly with a pencil and certainly, in places, with a blade. Areas of brown paint were then abraded or removed according to the composition and blue and green colouring added in places. The detailed drawing was, thus, the final stage of the process, though adjustments were clearly made: some lines and shading have been partially rubbed away, some hard pencil line has been strengthened and pencil was used to block out areas where too much ground was visible.

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.

While some hospital pictures bear the names of specific operations - notably the Fenestration of the Ear series - it is more common for them to have general titles; in this, The Scalpel 2 may be seen as typical. The painting might be considered as a reworking of a smaller painting of the previous year - The Scalpel (Mr & Mrs R.E. Nagelschmidt). Both consist of three half-length figures - two male doctors and a female nurse - ranged horizontally across the composition. However, in contrast to the symmetry of the first version, the focal point of The Scalpel 2, the eponymous scalpel, was moved to the left hand side. The highly burnished area of ground between the two male figures and the gaze of all three figures draws the viewer's eye across.

It may be more useful to associate the Tate's work with other images of three figures arranged formally. In contrast to the Fenestration of the Ear series, most of the hospital pictures have an iconic quality which is accentuated by the formality of their composition. While the whole body of works encompasses studies of detail and more complex figure groups, the majority are of two or three people in harmonious arrangements. The stiff poses and slightly rhetorical gestures combine with the Quattrocento compositional order to emphasise the works' abstract quality and suggest a symbolic level of meaning. This hieratic feeling prompted Philip Hendy to identify a sacramental quality in the hospital pictures ('Art: New Subjects for Old', Britain Today, no.146, June 1948, p.37). In this way, the artist elevated the subject and presented compositional harmony as a symbol of social co-operation.

Chris Stephens
October 1997

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