Dame Barbara Hepworth



Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Irish marble on oak base
Object: 820 × 530 × 433 mm, 167 kg
Bequeathed by the artist 1976

Display caption

This sculpture is unusual because Hepworth made very few single upright forms in the 1960s, especially unpierced. Stylistically, there are links with her 'Torso' carvings of the 1920s, particularly a black marble 'Torso' from 1927 which is in a private collection. The artist believed that sculpture was 'something you experience through your senses, but it's also a life-giving, purposeful force.' As with 'Two Figures (Menhirs)', also in this display, the work appears to have a sacred and mysterious significance that is further enhanced by its title.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T02016 Touchstone 1969

BH 496

Irish black marble 630 x 305 x 370 (24 3/4 x 12 x 14 5/8) on oak base 90 x 430 x 530 (3 1/2 x 17 x 20 7/8)

Bequeathed by the artist 1975

Barbara Hepworth: Recent Work, Sculpture, Paintings, Prints, Marlborough Fine Art, Feb.-March 1970 (35, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth 'Conversations', Marlborough Gallery, New York, March-April 1974 (5, repr.)

Alan Bowness (ed.), The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-69, 1971, pp.14, 50, no.496, pl.204
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6, 1976, p.106, repr.
Douglas Hall, Barbara Hepworth: Late Work, exh. cat., Edinburgh International Festival Exhibition, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, 21 Aug.-Sept 1976
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, 1982, p.19, repr. p.40
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, 1995, p.298

Towards the end of her career, Hepworth's use of a wide variety of stones from diverse sources reintroduced the polychromatic quality that had been noted in her exhibitions with John Skeaping in the 1920s. In particular, she began to carve green, sepia and black marbles from Ireland and Sweden in addition to the more familar white varieties from Italy and Greece. An earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry has suggested that single stone forms such as this may be seen as re-interpretations of Hepworth's early figurative work in similar materials. Specifically, it related Touchstone to Torso, 1927 (BH 8, Earl of Sandwich, repr. J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, 1961, pl.8), which is of a similarly fossil-rich Irish black marble (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6).

Touchstone was most probably carved from a block of Galway Shell Black marble. In June 1966, Hepworth asked Irish Marble Ltd. of Galway to send her samples and a price list. The company's brochure explained that their black variety - Galway Black and Galway Shell Black - was not a true marble but a 'semi-crystalline limestone which polishes well'. From the edge of Galway Bay, the Black was 'mainly free from white spots and the Shell Black has a heavy white fossil content which, when polished, produces magnificent patterns of sea fossil, oysters and crustaceans interspersed with filigree shapes of fossilised sea plants' (TGA 965). She wrote that she was 'delighted' with the Jet Black Galway Marble and their Dark and Light Green Connemara Marbles. She requested some pieces of the Jet Black, 'two to three feet high and a nice shape', and added: 'Should you have any scantlings of the Shell Black I would be happy to work them' (12 Sept. 1966, TGA 965). This suggests that, despite the added difficulty of carving an inconsistent piece of stone, the pattern of white specks that characterises this work was deliberately sought after.

The form of Touchstone is that of a rectangular block with opposing corners cut away. Despite this symmetry the effect in plan is to create an apparently irregular form. While the vertical edges are rounded, those around the top are bevelled to prevent chipping. Characteristically, the sides of the sculpture curve in towards the bottom to give the effect of lightening the work by releasing the block from the base. Concave circles are sunk into two adjacent faces: towards the top of one and near the bottom of that to its left. The surface of the black stone is punctuated by the white speckles of fossils. At one point towards the top edge these congregate as a cloud-like form and on one of the chamfered bottom corners the process of carving has exposed an especially large section of a single fossil. There are several fine cracks, most noticeably beneath one of the concavities, which were in the original block.

As with many of Hepworth's sculptures, this work can be related to a painting of the same title (dated May 1966), though there is no other evident link between them. The term touchstone has three definitions all of which may be relevant to this work. It is simply a general term for a black stone such as black marble or basalt, but this meaning derives from its more specific application to a variety of black quartz or jasper used to test the quality of gold and silver. It was this function that gave rise to the third definition of touchstone as a test of quality in general (OED). It would seem, by her own account, that Hepworth alluded to this in the title. In 1968, she said that she wanted her work to be 'a totem, a talisman, a kind of touchstone for all that is of lasting value ... something that would be valid at any time or that would have been valid 2,000 or even 20,000 years ago' (Times, 2 April 1968, quoted Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1974-6.). This idea had been reflected a decade earlier, with pieces with titles such as Talisman (BH 253 and BH 276) and Totem (BH 278). The elevation of the abstract art object as the embodiment of resistance to the materialism of the modern world had been a mainstay of Hepworth's theory since the 1930s, when its currency amongst a variety of artists was exemplified in projects such as Circle (1937). As the artist told Alan Bowness in 1970, 'I called that marvellous piece of Irish black marble 'Touchstone' and that is what sculpture is all about. It's something you experience through your senses, but it's also a life-giving purposeful force' (ibid., p.14).

Chris Stephens
March 1998

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