BARBARA HEPWORTH was born into a sepia world before feminism was invented. As a would-be artist, she faced far greater hurdles than her male coevals and especially the sculptor Henry Moore, with whom she was compared throughout her life. However, she held on to her ambition, explaining herself in essays, manifestos and a propagandising A Pictorial Autobiography, which laid down boundaries for what future audiences could know or write about her. In middle age, she emerged into the limelight as an awkward pioneer in the history of modern art, whose signature pierced forms and expressive, dynamic public sculptures had found a new, global audience.
All this was achieved at some personal cost and by ferocious determination and control, both in her lifetime and posthumously. The measures that Hepworth took ensured that her concrete achievements remained to the fore; the familial and emotional were embargoed, together with her personal papers. She knew that to be judged as a woman on the counterweight of her private life would have provoked harsh criticism then.
After her death in 1975, control ceded to her family, particularly her late son-in-law, the curator and art historian Sir Alan Bowness, who has gradually drawn her from under Moore’s long shadow. Deftly machinating for the founding of Tate St Ives and entrusting Tate with Hepworth’s house-museum there, Bowness confirmed Hepworth’s icon status in the 1990s by endowing the HepworthWakefield in her home town with her prototypes for sculpture in plasters that still bear the textured marks of her hand tools.
Now, the Hepworth-Wakefield is 10 years old, celebrating her legacy and upholding her wishes. Retrospectively, Hepworth wove a clear connecting theory thread, elevating her sculpture practice above the fashions and foibles of a lifetime: ‘The forms which have had special meaning for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape); the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) which translates for me the association of meaning of gesture in landscape.’ This is the story retold in the current exhibition and the accompanying publication by Eleanor Clayton that draws discreetly on private papers; here, for the first time, Hepworth’s more compelling private thoughts and feelings are touched upon.
Hepworth grew up understanding men as life’s winners and marriage as a rite of passage. However, as the eldest child with a fair-minded father and an excellent education, she held serious expectations of some kind of equality. At the Royal College of Art, she set herself to win prizes and behave like a ‘real’ artist, with ‘no time for scandal or a superficial way of living’.
On a travelling scholarship to Italy in 1924, she made an impetuous marriage to the Slade’s prize-winning sculpture student John Skeaping. In the marble works there, the pair perfected the skill of direct carving, a departure from the standard Edwardian modelling and casting practices of the time. Back in London, they achieved favourable notices for their portrait heads and animals, referencing the volumes and surfaces of Frank Dobson and Brancusi in smooth, lapidary precious stone, for wealthy private collectors.
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