Dame Barbara Hepworth

Two Figures (Menhirs)


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Slate on wooden base
Object: 825 × 638 × 320 mm
Purchased 1964

Display caption

The title conflates Hepworth's recurrent theme of two figures in harmonious conjunction with her interest in the ancient standing stones that can be seen in the landscape around St Ives. Appropriately, this work is carved from Cornish slate. The artist's first slate sculptures were carved from the bed of an old billiards table. The larger figure contains a striking fossil, which was created by a small creature swimming through the silt that solidified, preserving the pattern of eddying mud in the stone.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T00703 Two Figures (Menhirs) 1964

BH 361

Slate on wood base 825 x 638 x 320 (32 1/2 x 25 1/8 x 12 5/8)

Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1964

Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, April-May 1968 (144)
Sculpture for the Blind, Tate Gallery, Nov.-Dec. 1976 (no number)

Tate Gallery Report 1964-5, 1966, p.41
'Recent Museum Acquisitions: Sculpture and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth (The Tate Gallery)', Burlington Magazine, vol.108, no.761, Aug. 1966, p.426, repr. p.427, pl.61
Edwin Mullins, 'Barbara Hepworth', Barbara Hepworth Exhibition, 1970, exh. cat., Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan 1970, [p.32], repr. [p.18]
Alan Bowness (ed.), The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-69, 1971, pp.8, 38 no.361, pl.99
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, 1982, p.19, repr. in col. p.37
Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, p.54, repr.

'Barbara Hepworth's Gift of Sculpture to the Tate Gallery', Illustrated London News, vol.245, 5 Dec. 1964, p.907
A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.181, pl.160 (col.)
D.M. Field, The Nude in Art, 1981, p.124
David Shalev and Michael Tooby, Tate Gallery St Ives: The Building, 1995, p.12 (col.)

Barbara Hepworth asserted on more than one occasion that 'there is no landscape without the figure'. Indeed, shortly after Two Figures (Menhirs) was acquired by the Tate Gallery, she noted this on a copy of the associated catalogue entry (Tate Gallery Catalogue Files). The title links the human presence and the landscape of megaliths, just as the sculpture suggests the interaction between two people.

Two Figures (Menhirs) is made of slate from the Delabole quarry in north Cornwall. The narrower angled slate (736 x 190 x 76 mm; 29 x 7 1/2 x 3 in.) with the vertical slot is appreciably thicker than the broader more symmetrical form stepped in front of it (755 x 267 x 70 mm; 29 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.). The artist told the Tate that 'the two forms were carved from the same piece' (Tate Gallery Report 1964-5, 1966, p.41). She also noted that the 'fossil leaf' prominent in the broader element 'only appeared after the final polishing'. However, her assistant Tommy Rowe, who worked on a number of slate sculptures, has recalled that such fossils 'ripped the teeth of the hacksaw' when the stone was cut and would, therefore, have been evident from the outset (interview with the author, 16 Oct. 1996). The darkened areas on the back of the other piece are natural to the stone, but made more apparent by the high polish. Both elements have sustained a number of minor scratches. In 1987 they developed a bloomed coating which was cleaned with a mild abrasive cream, they were then rinsed and wax-polished (Tate Gallery Conservation records). Each form is fixed to the base by a pair of threaded steel rods (13mm; 1/2 in.). The wooden base, measuring 72 x 638 x 320 mm (2 3/4 25 1/8 x 12 5/8 in.), has splits along the back and front edges.

Delabole slate was the only locally available stone that Hepworth carved. There are a number of conflicting stories about how this came about, but most contrast it with a softer black Welsh slate salvaged from a billiard table. Hepworth's assistant Tom Pearce recalled that he had bought the billiard table at an auction, and sold one sheet of the slate bed to Denis Mitchell and the rest to Hepworth (interview with the author, 1 Nov. 1996). Although Pearce was uncertain if this was her first use of slate, Dicon Nance has recalled that Hepworth began making slate sculptures from a billiard table. This was subsequently used mainly for bases, as Delabole slate proved harder and less black (interview with the author, 12 Oct. 1996). The former County Architect H.C. Gilbert, who designed several buildings in St Ives in the 1950s and 1960s, has suggested that it was he who recommended Delabole slate to Hepworth on the basis of his experience of it as a finishing material (conversation with the author, Oct. 1996). He remarked that it was less friable than other slates, and that 'heart slate' could offer a substantial thickness of stone without the stratification. In relation to Two Figures (Menhirs), Hepworth herself told Alan Bowness: 'I found out that if they quarried very deeply in the slate quarry here at Delabole (in Cornwall) they could get a resonable thickness for me, and a very fine quality ... The slates from these deep beds are very beautiful' (Bowness 1971, p.8). As she habitually carved orthodox materials, the use of building slate was a significant departure even if encouraged by its local availability.

What Edwin Mullins called 'the exquisitely graceful' Two Figures (Menhirs), 1964 was amongst the first slate sculptures (Mullins 1970, [p.32]). The earliest seems to have been the wide pierced monolith Carving (Mylor), 1962-3 (BH 322, formerly collection Mr and Mrs Ashley Havinden, repr. Bowness 1971, pl.75); at 845 mm (33 1/4 in.) this was also one of the most substantial. A number of other slate works followed on a similar scale and featuring ranged uprights, these included the graduated Three Standing Forms, 1964 (BH 365, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, repr. Bowness 1971, pl.102) and the crested Two Figures, 1964 (BH 366, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, repr. ibid., pl.100). The material tended to dictate the thin elongated form.

Alongside this material continuity, Two Figures (Menhirs) translated into slate the long-standing theme of the pair of abstracted forms which may be traced back to the 1930s. With the strung redwood carving Two Figures, 1943 (BH 120, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, repr. J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, 1961, pl.120), the forms were explicitly signalled as figurative. From this general concern a sporadic series of works emerged, bearing the subtitle 'Menhirs' and juxtaposing two upright forms. The first of these sculptures was Two Figures (Menhirs) 1954-5 (BH 197, formerly artist's collection, repr. ibid., pl.197) which was carved in teak. The sculptor commented that its elements 'are just two presences bound together by their nature in eternal relationship' ('The Sculptor Speaks', British Council recorded lecture with filmstrip, 1970, TGA TAV525). They are distinguished by the circular holes in oval hollows cut into the left hand element and vertical slots cut into that on the right; these features would reappear in the series. A decade after this work - and in the same year as the Tate's sculpture - Hepworth reworked this in Menhirs 1964 (BH 340, formerly artist's collection, repr. Bowness 1971, pl.90); it maintained the distinction between the two elements even as the piercing was reduced to circles. A refinement of this is found in the contrasting apertures of the Tate's Two Figures (Menhirs), 1964. The series was continued in painted teak in the following year, with Two Personages (Menhirs) 1965 (BH 377, private collection, repr. ibid., pl.115).

It is not clear what connection Hepworth envisaged between the teak of these associated works and the consistent reference to the Neolithic standing stones. She had been interested in the sculptural and environmental effect of such Neolithic stones even before moving to St Ives, as photographs of Stonehenge were reproduced after her article in Circle (1937, p.117). Menhirs are found across West Penwith and, though granite, may be linked to the use of local slate for Two Figures (Menhirs), 1964. Penelope Curtis has stated that the 'title refers to the ancient monuments in Cornwall' and has seen the sculpture as evidence of 'an increasing sense of ritual magic in [Hepworth's] later sculpture'. Curtis also speculated upon the similarity to the elements of Group I (Concourse), 1951 (Tate Gallery T02226), suggesting that Hepworth's perception that the posture of figures responded to architecture also pertained in this pairing (Curtis 1988, p.54). Certainly, the Menhirs series as a whole appears to have embodied the sculptor's concern with the timeless persistence of the figure within the landscape; as Hepworth commented: 'Any standing stone in the hills here is a figure' (Bowness 1971, p.13). At the same time, the paired uprights of the sculptures reflect her desire to express the harmonious interaction of two individuals, seen most explicitly in her two-part monumental carving for the Festival of Britain, Contrapuntal Forms, 1949-50 (BH 165, Harlow Art Trust, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.165).

Matthew Gale
March 1998

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