Dame Barbara Hepworth

Two Figures with Folded Arms


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Oil paint and graphite on hardboard on plywood panel
Support: 356 × 254 mm
Purchased 1959

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Gallery label, July 2019

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T00269 Two Figures with Folded Arms 1947

Oil and pencil on gessoed hardboard laid on plywood panel

356 x 254 (14 x 10)

Inscribed in pencil 'Barbara Hepworth 11/47' b.l. and on back of panel 'Barbara Hepworth | (Gregory)' centre

Purchased from the executors of E.C. Gregory (Grant-in-Aid) 1959

Purchased from the Lefevre Gallery by E.C. Gregory 1948

Paintings by Barbara Hepworth, Paintings by L.S. Lowry, Lefevre Gallery, London, April 1948 (41)
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture and Drawings, Wakefield City Art Gallery, May-July 1951, York City Art Gallery, July-Aug., Manchester City Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct. (79)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April-June 1954 (98)
The Gregory Collection, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, July-Aug. 1959 (15)
Gregory Memorial Exhibition, Leeds City Art Gallery, March-April 1960 (12, repr. pl.6)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (204)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Dec. 1994, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Feb.-April 1995, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May-Aug. (102, repr. in col. p.89)

Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, p.x, pl.98
Tate Gallery Report 1959-60, London 1960, p.19
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.21, pl.e
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.278
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.15, repr. p.43
Alan G. Wilkinson, 'Cornwall and the Sculpture of Landscape: 1939-1975' in Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, pp.88-90

Herbert Read, The Philosophy of Modern Art, London 1952, pl.14
Alan Bowness, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor's Landscape, London 1966, pl.14

After the war Barbara Hepworth produced a considerable number of pictures of the female nude. These form part of a larger group of images from the late 1940s, the volume of which is indicated by her exhibition of paintings at the Lefevre Gallery in 1948. Of the sixty two pictures shown, twenty one were nudes and thirty one were hospital pictures (q.v.). According to Alan Bowness, the earliest of these figure drawings, amongst which he included Two Figures with Folded Arms, were made 'at the end of 1947 and in 1948' (Bowness 1966, p.20).

While Pelagos, 1946 (Tate Gallery T00699) was seen as the summation of Hepworth's constructivist sculpture, her return to figuration may reflect a period of doubt in her work and a desire to introduce a more human element. In a letter dated 6 March 1948, she told Herbert Read that, though she felt no 'difference of intention or of mood' whether working 'realistically' or in the abstract, she believed that the realistic mode replenished 'one's love for life, humanity and the earth', while the abstract 'releases one's personality and sharpens one's perceptions' (Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.). Her questioning of non-figuration, which was also marked by an increasing organicism in her sculpture, reflected a broader reassessment of modernism after the war.

Like many of Hepworth's two-dimensional works of the period, Two Figures with Folded Arms may be considered both a painting and a drawing. It is executed in graphite pencil (ranging from H to 4B) over a ground of oil paint on gesso. The white gesso, which is thought to have been prepared with traditional size, was roughly applied to the 2.5 mm hardboard with a brush. A pink-grey imprimatura was applied over the gesso and then scraped - probably with a razor blade - so that the ridges of the brushmarks were removed, leaving pigment in the grooves. Long, straight scratches, consistent with the use of a razor blade, may be seen around the legs of the right hand figure. Some areas were rubbed completely flat, for example between the legs of the two women and, in places, the gesso has been abraded so much that the board is visible. The figures were drawn with a strong outline over the thin painted layer and shading was added with finer pencils. The subversion of normal practice by drawing over paint was a well established characteristic of the work of Ben Nicholson. A rough gesso ground had also been a feature of his painting for many years and was popular among artists in St Ives, such as Sven Berlin, just after the war. Adjustments to the right hand figure's left leg indicate that the initial drawing may have been executed rapidly and strengthened later. Incision with a point was used to reduce the strength of the drawn line, as seen, for example, between the buttocks of the left hand figure. The work is in a stable condition, though in 1994 a small piece of loose impasto in the centre had to be consolidated with Cellofas. Tate Gallery conservators have speculated on the effectiveness of the attachment of the hardboard to the original plywood base board, to which a white wash was applied by the artist.

In common with other contemporary works by the artist, Two Figures with Folded Arms shows two views of the same model. Despite Bowness's assertion that Hepworth preferred her models not to take up artificial positions, it would seem that in a number of cases, as here, the artist depicted her subject in a single pose from two viewpoints. Bowness also states that, because of the artist's desire for 'the model to move about naturally', she tended to use 'trained dancers on holiday, rather than professional artists' models' (ibid.). This is said to place an emphasis on the rhythm of the figure's movement, echoed in the rhythmic line of Hepworth's drawing style, and so highlight the pictures' relationship to her abstract work. However, Two Figures with Folded Arms is marked by a static, monumental quality. The strong linear element, the solidity of the figures and the style of the eyes may be seen to reflect the debt to Quattrocento Italian painters that Herbert Read identified in the contemporaneous hospital pictures (Herbert Read, 'Barbara Hepworth: a New Phase', Listener, vol.39, no.1002, 8 April 1948, p.592).

In Hepworth's later paintings the figures became intertwined in a Cubist-like multi-facetted conglomeration. These two and three figure pictorial compositions may be seen to come very close to her contemporary sculpture, such as Bicentric Form (Tate Gallery N05932), in which the form derives from the amalgamation of two bodies. Hepworth's increasing concern with the relationship between two figures was seen most notably in the sculpture Contrapuntal Forms (BH 165; Harlow Art Trust, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.165), which she made for the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Works such as Two Figures with Folded Arms should not be seen as studies for sculpture but as independent and complete works. They followed on from the abstract compositions, such as Forms with Colour (Tate Gallery T07010), which Hepworth had begun to make in 1941 and which continued into the later 1940s. It seems likely that the diversification of her practice into two dimensions was intended to maximise her potential market. It may also have been stimulated by her great admiration for Henry Moore's wartime drawings, most particularly the Shelter Drawings and his depictions of Yorkshire coal miners. The production of paintings enabled Hepworth's friends to purchase work without the expense of acquiring a sculpture. As with the wartime pictures, a number of the figure drawings were sold to members of her immediate social circle. Two Figures with Folded Arms was purchased by E.C. (Peter) Gregory, director of the publishers Lund Humphries, whose collection also included Seated Nude, a painting of the same size, date and, possibly, the same model as the Tate's picture. The inscription in the artist's hand on the back of Two Figures with Folded Arms may suggest that it was purchased before it was shown at the Lefevre Gallery in April 1948 and a letter to Herbert Read, written shortly before the exhibition, confirms that a number of works had already been sold (letter to Herbert Read, nd [1948], Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.).

Chris Stephens
March 1998

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