Dame Barbara Hepworth

Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster)


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Alabaster on marble base
Object: 265 × 473 × 217 mm
Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980

Display caption

In 1932 Hepworth travelled with Ben Nicholson to France and there visited the studios of Brancusi, Giacometti and Arp. With its emphasis on primary shapes 'Three Forms' reveals the influence of Brancusi in particular on Hepworth's work after her return to England. Hepworth began work on this piece after the birth of her triplets, two girls and a boy, on 3 October 1934. She later said of her work in this period, 'I was absorbed in the relationships in space ... and in the tensions between the forms'.

Gallery label, March 1997

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03131 Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) 1935

BH 66

Grey alabaster on grey marble base 265 x 473 x 217 (10 7/16 x 18 5/8 x 8 1/2); weight 10 kg.

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

Sculpture and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, Wakefield City Art Gallery, Feb.-March 1944, Bankfield Museum, Halifax, March-April (13, as 'Three Forms, Carved in 1935')
Art in Britain 1930-40 Centred around Axis, Circle, Unit One, Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1965 (not in cat.)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (25, as 'Three Forms, 1934')
Barbara Hepworth, Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan, June-Sept. 1970 (1, repr., as 'Three Forms, 1934')
The Non-Objective World 1924-39, Galerie Jean Chauvelin, Paris, June 1971, Annely Juda Fine Art, London, July-Sept., Galleria Milano, Milan, Oct.-Nov. (68, repr. p.75, as 'Three Forms, 1934')
The Thirties: British Art and Design Before the War, Hayward Gallery, London, Oct. 1979-Jan. 1980 (6.61, repr. p.170, as 'Three Forms, 1934')

J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.163 no.66 (as 'Three Forms, 1934')
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.10, repr. p.24 (as 'Three Forms, 1934')
Barbara Hepworth: A Sculptor's Landscape 1934-74, exh. cat., Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum, Swansea 1982, [p.5], (as 'Three Forms, 1934')
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.112, repr. (as 'Three Forms, 1934')
Michael Tooby, An Illustrated Companion to the Tate St Ives, London 1993, p.30, repr. in col. (as 'Three Forms, 1934')
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, pp.53-4 (as 'Three Forms, 1934')

H. Frankfort, 'New Works by Barbara Hepworth', Axis, no.3, July 1935, p.16 (as 'Carving in Grey Alabaster, 1935')
Geoffrey Grigson, 'Painting and Sculpture', The Arts Today, 1935, facing p.106 (as 'Carving, 1935')
Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Serota (eds), British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, London 1981, p.107 (as 'Three Forms, 1934')

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

The elements of Three Forms were carved from Barbara Hepworth's favoured alabaster, in this case of the pale grey-brown stone which established the first published title - Carving in Grey Alabaster - and set on a rectangular base of dark grey marble. It is comparable to the alabaster used for Mother and Child, 1934 (Tate Gallery T06676) and may be some of that sold to John Skeaping by a Cumberland farmer (Henry Moore recollection, Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, 1979, p.117). Hepworth had initiated multi-part juxtapositions in the organic works of 1933, but for such geometric arrangements the defining field of the base was of determining importance for the relationship of solid and void. Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) must have been one of the earliest examples of the more geometrical arrangements, but its exposure has been limited, perhaps because of its extensive damage.

In the photograph in Axis (no.3, July 1935, p.16), the chip out of the lower edge of the base is clearly visible. The remainder is in good condition, but seems to be still unpolished (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, p.112). The right end of the base is not visible, but is actually slightly angled in contrast to the other vertical faces. This may suggest that the narrow length of marble had served some other purpose, possibly, like the later Group I (Concourse), 1951 (Tate Gallery T02226), salvaged from a mantlepiece. It has been noted (ibid.) that a sketch of the work appears amongst other drawings of sculptures apparently sent to friends for safe keeping, perhaps in 1939 (copy in Tate Gallery Cataloguing Files); it was listed under the Cumbrian address of Sir William Morton, the father of the textile designer Alastair Morton with whom Hepworth and Ben Nicholson were in contact during the war. The annotated price (45 guineas) suggests that it was available for sale and was, as yet, unbroken. Presumably the sculpture was still whole when exhibited at Wakefield in 1944, but at some stage the large stone was broken, low down and on a shallow diagonal. Answering an enquiry from the Tate, Dicon Nance, who was one of Hepworth's assistants between 1959 and 1971, recalled 'repairing and polishing' the work. He noted: 'The sculpture was sadly wrecked, the largest form being broken and the forms loose on the base. I did quite extensive work on the largest form and I think I replaced the old steel pins with bronze as the rust from the steel pins was discolouring the alabaster' (letter to the Tate, 27 March 1981). The orange discolouration is especially prominent even though the pins have now been replaced with stainless steel (Tate Gallery Conservation Files). Unfortunately, Nance did not date the repair, but it is likely to have been before 1965 when the sculpture was exhibited again. The resin used to fill the crack and to reinforce the single dowels holding the smaller forms discoloured (to a yellow) and has since been replaced with clear resin. A further repair was required when the base was broken, on a diagonal under the large form, on return from Japan in 1970. This was fixed with two stainless steel clamps and filled with resin coloured with slate dust. The surface has been cleaned and waxed (Tate Gallery Conservation Records).

After its first repair, Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) featured in several of Hepworth's major exhibitions, attesting to the importance and rarity of such geometric works of the 1930s. As was her practice, the three elements are different in form: the small sphere (diam. 65 mm; 2 9/16 in.) is located in the corner, slightly closer to the back than the right edge; the middle element is about two-thirds longer than it is high (77 x 121 x 77 mm; 3 x 4 3/4 x 3 in.); the large element (244 x 152 x 60 mm; 9 5/8 x 6 x 2 3/8 in.) has a flat back. There may be some general proportional sequence as the width of the middle stone is about twice that of the smallest and about half the height of the largest stone. However, it is likely that such relationships were worked out by eye. This is also true of the spacing, as the two elements ranged to the left are balanced visually by the extreme positioning of the smallest across the wide intervening space. It is notable that the characteristically frontal effect was that shown in the dramatically lit photograph in Axis.

That photograph accompanied 'New Works by Barbara Hepworth' written in mid 1935 by the archaeologist - and owner of Two Forms, 1933 (Tate Gallery T07123) - Henri Frankfort. In his enthusiasm, Frankfort even claimed that Hepworth occasionally 'omitted to fix' an element, adding that: 'It means that she has so exhaustively realised all possible spatial interrelations between the elements ... that ... each displacement of the mobile element within the work as defined by the slab, results in a fresh harmony' (Frankfort 1935). Although pinned, the ball of Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) gives this impression. As a result, Frankfort was 'tempted to consider these works as living organisms in which (within certain limits which to pass means death) distinct organs each with a character of its own, exist interdependently within a larger unit which is more than the mere sum of its constituents' (ibid.).

Although Hepworth had been arranging organic elements on bases during 1933-4, the geometric forms seem to date from 1935. She would later associate the move to abstraction with the birth of her triplets on 3 October 1934. 'When I started carving again in November 1934' she wrote, 'my work seemed to have changed direction although the only fresh influence had been the arrival of the children. The work was more formal and all traces of naturalism had disappeared, and for some years I was absorbed in the relationships in space, in size and texture and weight, as well as in the tensions between the forms' (Read 1952, section 3). Here the conjunction of life and art is stressed, just as in discussion of Infant (Tate Gallery T03129), showing their harmonious coexistence at a time when Hepworth was aware that a working mother was unusual. The suggestion of a causative relationship between the children and the new formal relationship is notable, and may at least be related to her enforced rest from carving. In its detail, the retrospective account is contradicted by a letter to Nicholson in Paris from the end of 1934. There she clearly summarised the conflicting pressures: 'I am not going on from week to week & month to month being separated from my carving by nurses undernurses & cooks. I am going to work in the New Year. It is 5 months or more since I did any' (postmarked 21 Dec. 1934, TGA 8717.1.1.197). This indicates that little was achieved in the second half of 1934 (including the last eight weeks or so of the pregnancy) and that work was not resumed in the month following the birth but in 1935. This was hardly surprising given the demands of the tiny children on the weakened mother (Margaret Gardiner, Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir, Edinburgh 1982, p.38), and Nicholson's departure in December to stay with his first wife Winifred and their children. Hepworth told E.H. Ramsden, a decade later, that when she did begin to work again 'all the forms flew quickly into their right places in the first carvings I did after SRS were born in the 3 Forms' (letter to E.H. Ramsden, 4 April 1943, TGA 9310); a sketch identifies this as Two Forms and Sphere (BH 63, private collection, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.63).

The clarification of this moment of change in Hepworth's work has a direct bearing on Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) because it has been dated to 1934 by Alan Bowness (Hodin 1961, no.66). This was based upon the artist's memory of it being the first work completed after the triplets' birth (Tate Gallery Catalogue Files); however, it was dated to 1935 in both articles of that year (Frankfort 1935 and Grigson 1935) and in the Wakefield exhibition of 1944. If made in 1934, it would have to have been in the first half of the year, when Hepworth was still making such organic works as Mother and Child (Tate Gallery T06676) which was exhibited in Unit One (Mayor Gallery, April 1934). This indicates that Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) must date from 1935 and, from the 1943 account, that it was not the first made on her resumption of carving. Indeed, the unpolished state shown in the photograph published in Axis in July 1935, may suggest that it was, as yet, unfinished. The change in date makes the appending of the original title desirable in order to distinguish the work from Three Forms, 1935 (Tate Gallery T00696).

The formal change in Hepworth's work was quite distinct. While remarking on the completeness of the transition from figurative to geometric works, she would, in hindsight, identify a continuity between the phases; she told Ramsden: 'the torso or figure became the Single Form, the Mother & Child or "group" became a Two Form' (4 April 1943, TGA 9310). She also noted that the early work 'contains all the same ideas of form, emotion, tension & so on in a less mature way than the later' (ibid.). Her recollection in 1952, of 'relationships in space, in size and texture and weight' (Read 1952, section 3), is more formal in its analysis of the source and the impact of the juxtapositions.

This transition may be seen in the context of the similar change in Nicholson's work following their contact with Parisian abstract artists. On their visit at Easter 1933, Hepworth and Nicholson had been invited to join the internationalist grouping Abstraction-Creation. In their periodical (Abstraction-Création Art Non Figuratif, no.2, 1933, p.6) Hepworth published two photographs of her lost abstract Pierced Form, 1931 (BH 35, destroyed, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.35) and Nicholson submitted the calligraphic 1932 (painting) (Tate Gallery T01189). It is notable that both were isolated in the respective artist's work in their degree of abstraction. In the following year, Nicholson's illustrations (Abstraction-Création Art Non Figuratif, no.3, 1934, p.35) included one of his earliest reliefs made in December 1933 in Paris, 1933 (6 circles) (private collection, repr. Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1993, p.141, no.50), while Hepworth contributed the lost Figure (Mother and Child) , 1933 (BH 52) and Reclining Figure, 1932 (BH 44, private collection, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.44). Perhaps because of the evidently figurative nature of these works, she wondered 'do A-C want to get rid of my carvings?' (letter to Nicholson postmarked 3 April 1934, TGA 8717.1.1.182). Both artists were close to Jean Hélion, and after he broke with Auguste Herbin and left Abstraction-Creation neither continued to contribute to the Parisian group.

In late 1933 Nicholson experimented with complete abstraction in making shallow reliefs from which hand-drawn circles were cut. They were acknowledged by Hepworth: 'I am very interested in your new work idea (carving out) naturally - I've been longing for it to happen for ages' (letter postmarked 8 Dec.1933 TGA 8717.1.1.157). The contrast of reliefs with her 'turbulent' organic works seems to have caused Nicholson to dismiss the latter, as Hepworth later reported (letter to E.H. Ramsden 4 April 1943, TGA 9310). However, the sculptor's text written for Unit One written in late 1933 indicates that her position was also changing. While asserting that the work 'must be stone shape and no other shape', she concluded: 'I feel that the conception itself, the quality of thought that is embodied, must be abstract - an impersonal vision individualised in the particular medium' (Unit One, 1934, p.20). She was yet to achieve such a position. The balance of 'spatial interrelations' recognised by Frankfort in 1935 in Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) and associated works paralleled Nicholson's disposition of circles in the reliefs. Indeed, the latter evoke plans of Hepworth's carvings, and spatial judgements for both were made by eye, with the geometry implied rather than measured. Nicholson began to use compasses and rulers in the middle of 1934 for the white reliefs, of which he associated one with the birth of the triplets: October 2 1934 (white relief - triplets) (High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, repr. in col. Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1993, p.144, no.55). Hepworth's more severe juxtapositions appear to have followed in 1935.

In contrast to the theory of direct carving from which the work emerged, a bronze edition of 9 (+ 0, an artist's copy) was cast from the stone original in 1971 (MS cat. BH 521).

Matthew Gale
April 1997

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