I rarely draw what I see. I draw what I feel in my body.

Barbara Hepworth

Talisman ll 1960

English sculptor, one of the most important figures in the development of abstract art in Britain She trained at Leeds School of Art, where she became a friend of Henry Moore, and at the Royal College of Art. Her early sculptures were quasi-naturalistic and had much in common with Moore’s work (Doves, Manchester City Art Gal., 1927), but she already showed a tendency to submerge detail in simple forms, and by the early 1930s her work was entirely abstract.

She worked both in wood and stone, and she described an important aspect of her early career as being the excitement of discovering the nature of carving’-this at a time when there was a general antagonism to direct carving’. In this, too, she was united with Moore, but her work, unlike his, is not representational in origin but conceived as abstract forms. Yet she consistently professed a Romantic attitude of emotional affinity with nature, speaking of carving both as a biological necessity’ and as an extension of the telluric forces which mould the landscape’.

From 1925 to 1931 Hepworth was married to the sculptor John Skeaping (1901-80). In 1931 she met Ben Nicholson, who became her second husband a year later, and through him became aware of contemporary European developments. They joined Abstraction-Création in 1933, and Unit One in the same year. During the 1930s Hepworth, Nicholson, and Moore worked in close harmony and became recognized as the nucleus of the abstract movement in England.

Hepworth’s outlook was already clearly formed in the short introduction she wrote for the book Unit One in 1934: “I do not want to make a stone horse that is trying to and cannot smell the air. How lovely is the horse’s sensitive nose, the dog’s moving ears and deep eyes; but to me these are not stone forms and the love of them and the emotion can only be expressed in more abstract terms. I do not want to make a machine which cannot fulfil its essential purpose; but to make exactly the right relation of masses, a living thing in stone, to express my awareness and thought of these things … In the contemplation of Nature we are perpetually renewed, our sense of mystery and our imagination is kept alive, and rightly understood, it gives us the power to project into a plastic medium some universal or abstract vision of beauty.”

In 1939 Hepworth moved to St Ives in Cornwall with Nicholson and lived there for the rest of her life (see st lves painters). During the late 1930s and 1940s she began to concentrate on the counterplay between mass and space in sculpture. In 1931 in Pierced Form (destroyed in the war) she first introduced into England the use of the ‘hole’, and she now developed this with great subtlety, making play with the relationship between the outside and inside of a figure, the two surfaces sometimes being linked with threaded string, as in Pelagos (Tate, London, 1946). Pelagos also shows her sensitive use of painted surface to contrast with the natural grain of the wood.

In all her work she displayed a deep understanding of the quality of her materials and superb standards of craftsmanship. By the 1950s she was one of the most internationally famous of sculptors and she received many honours and prestigious public commissions, among them the memorial to Dag Hammerskjold-Single Form-at the United Nations in New York (1963). She now worked more in bronze, especially for large pieces, but she always retained a special feeling for direct carving. Hepworth died tragically in a fire at her studio in St Ives. The studio is now a museum dedicated to her work .




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