John Skeaping



Not on display

John Skeaping 1901–1980
Ironstone on serpentine base
Object: 144 × 274 × 41 mm, 2.1 kg
Purchased 1992

Display caption

John Skeaping and Alan Durst shared the enthusiasm for direct carving shown by Jacob Epstein’s Doves displayed on the plinth opposite. The carving of animals was particularly popular during this period because it was felt that they could be more easily abstracted than the human form. As shown by Skeaping’s Fish, carved from a large ironstone pebble, such works combine fine carving with sensitive handling of the material.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Brown iron stone on original green serpentine base 144 x 274 x 41 mm (5 11/16 x 10 3/4 x 1 5/8 in); weight: 2.1 kg
Purchased from Nicholas Skeaping 1992

?Acquired from the artist by F.W. Bravington, 1930s, given to Ruben Lall, c.1960; purchased from Lall by R.J. Smith, c.1960-65; by whom sold to Nicholas Skeaping, 1991

Carving Mountains: Modern Stone Sculpture in England 1907-37, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, March- April 1998, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, May-June (46, repr. p.68)

Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Gallery Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives, London 1999, pp.277-8

The material in which Fish was carved links it to holidays spent at Happisburgh, Norfolk in the summers of 1930 and 1931. Henry Moore was among those who joined Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping on both occasions. As the latter recalled:

Henry, Barbara and I used to pick up large iron-stone pebbles on the beach which were ideal for carving and polished up like bronze. ... Henry accompanied me on one of my fishing trips but he couldn’t leave sculpture alone for long and took with him a piece of iron-stone and a rasp. Sitting at one end of the boat he filed away continuously.[1]

The pebbles were free, and were suitable for direct carving while away from the studio. In late 1931, Hepworth indicated the quantity collected when she told Ben Nicholson that she had gathered ‘all the brown stones up from the beach of mine and Harry’s, and packed up 4 large crates’ to be sent to London.[2]

Iron stone is so called because of its colour rather than its hardness and, as Skeaping’s account suggests, it is relatively easily worked. The comparatively rare sculptural subject of Fish may have derived from simple association with the seaside, but it is notable that Skeaping and Hepworth had visited H.S. ‘Jim’ Ede on 21 June 1928,[3] who had just bought Brancusi’s Fish, 1924 (destroyed, formerly Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).[4] As distinct from Brancusi’s streamlined brass, the organic form of the pebble remains perceptible in the slight undulation through the length of the Tate Fish. Other details were largely confined to the profile. The ripples of the fins were carried into the body by filing into the mass and through the incision of lines, four on the upper fin on the left side and seven on the lower fin on the right. The left side of the tail and the right gill also have defining lines. A notch was cut for the mouth and extended as a slit on the right side. While the left eye has a shallow but crisply incised circle, the right circle is broader, deeper and less precise. This asymmetry is consistent with a prevalent abstraction still rooted in nature.

Fish has suffered from extensive damage. A major break across the area of the gills was associated with a network of cracks. A crude repair left the head and body slightly misaligned. When examined in 1992, it was found that the epoxy adhesive (applied sometime between 1959 and 1980)[5] had bonded into the structure of the stone and resisted efforts to dissolve it. As physical removal threatened to damage the already delicate edges, this area was overfilled with pigmented resin. The tail had also been broken off but not repaired. It was fixed with stone adhesive and filled with resin. Smaller blemishes to the body - chips at the mouth and off the top fin, a scratch along the right side - were similarly treated; the surface, discoloured by the adhesive, was coated with wax.[6]

This condition testifies to the sculpture’s long period of neglect. It resurfaced in the wake of the Skeaping retrospective and was bought by the sculptor’s son.[7] At that time it was attributed to Barbara Hepworth, and acquired by the Tate as her work. The attribution rested on the fact that she exhibited an iron stone Fish in Sculpture by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth in 1930 and in her exhibition with Nicholson there two years later.[8] That work was listed - without a photograph, but noted as ‘9 inches long’ - as BH no.31 in her catalogue of works and subsequently noted as lost.[9] In 1995, research amongst her papers revealed that the dealer Thomas Gibson had contacted both sculptors in 1973 in an effort identify who was the author of the Fish then owned by R.J. Smith. Although made hesitant by the Tooth’s listing, Hepworth had ‘a strong feeling that this is John Skeaping’s work’ and vaguely recalled hers as ‘quite a smooth carving at the top and underneath’.[10] For his part, Skeaping replied that she was ‘right in suggesting that the work was one of mine’.[11] Smith retained the work. While Hepworth’s Fish remains lost, it was considered judicious to include this piece when her works in the Tate collection were gathered in a volume.[12]

The stone compounded the confusion. Skeaping, by his own account, ‘worked quite a lot in iron stone at that period’,[13] and four examples were exhibited in 1930, including Stag (location unknown), and Duck (private collection).[14] As well as her Fish, Hepworth included in the 1930 joint exhibition a half figure Carving in iron stone (private collection)[15] which flattened and reversed the pose of Figure of a Woman, 1929-30 (Tate T00952). Moore also made iron stone figures, including Mother and Child, 1930 (private collection)[16] and, like Hepworth, would use the stone again for incised abstract pieces in 1934. The styles and themes shared by all three in 1930-1 prove difficult to disentangle, especially within the confines of this particular material. However, the divergence between Hepworth’s and Moore’s inclination towards abstraction from the human figure and Skeaping’s reputation as an animalier reinforces his recognition of Fish as his work.

Matthew Gale
December 1996, revised 1999

[1] John Skeaping, Drawn from Life: An Autobiography, London 1977, pp.91-2.

[2] Barbara Hepworth to Ben Nicholson, letter postmarked 29 September 1931, Tate Archive TGA 8717.1.1.52.

[3] Ede’s visitors’ book, Kettle’s Yard Archive, University of Cambridge;
[4] Poisson d’Or, 1924 reproduced in Sidney Geist, Brancusi: The Sculpture and Drawings, New York 1975, p.130, no.181.

[5] Tate conservation files.
[6] Ibid.

[7] John Skeaping 1901-80: A Retrospective, Arthur Ackermann and Son, London, June-July 1991.
[8] Sculpture by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth , Arthur Tooth & Sons, London Oct.-Nov. 1930, no.46; Carvings by Barbara Hepworth and Paintings by Ben Nicholson, Arthur Tooth & Sons, London Nov.-Dec. 1932, extra no.13.
[9] Hepworth catalogue of works Tate Archive TGA 7247.1.
[10] Letter to Thomas Gibson, 18 Jan. 1973, copy, Tate catalogue files.
[11] Letter to Thomas Gibson, 8 Feb. 1973, copy, Tate catalogue files.
[12] A version of the present text, as ‘Appendix B: John Skeaping Fish c.1930’ in Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Gallery Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives, London 1999, pp.277-8.

[13] Letter to Thomas Gibson, 8 Feb. 1973, copy, Tate catalogue files.
[14] Stag, reproduced in exh. cat. Tooth’s 1930, no.18, and Duck reproduced in colour in Ackermann exh. cat., 1991, p.35, no.31.
[15] Reproduced in Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, p.33.
[16] Reproduced in Herbert Read, Henry Moore, Sculptures and Drawings, London 1944, no.18a.

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