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Barbara Hepworth

 (1903 - 1975)
Barbara Hepworth was active/lived in England.  Barbara Hepworth is known for direct carving abstract sculpture.

Barbara Hepworth

    HEP-werth  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth, also known as Dame Barbara Hepworth, was one of the most prominent early 20th-Century British sculptors. She transitioned from Classical to abstract styles, which were organic and geometric. At first, her approach was startling to the public, but by the 1950s, she was well accepted and was receiving both national and international recognition including participation in the 1950 Venice Biennale and the 1959 Biennial exhibition in Sao Paulo, where she won the Grand Prix award.

The Universities of Birmingham (1960) and Leeds (1961) awarded her honorary doctorates, and in 1965, she received from the British government a highest honor, Dame of the Order of the British Empire.  Many of her works are relatively small scale, but in her later years, she did increasingly larger pieces including Meridian for the State House in London, and the Hammerskj√∂ld Memorial for the United Nations Building in New York City.

Regarding tactile handling of materials as a necessary part of being a sculptor, she did her own carving rather than pursuing the traditional method of creating the mock up in clay and then turning it over to a professional carver.  She seldom used power tools, and working in marble and alabaster, usually did her own polishing of her abstract forms. Many of her pieces had open spaces or pierced areas that created intriguing affects of shadowing, contrasts of light and dark, and volume and void.  In 1955, she added bronze sculpture to her output and began making clay models, which then were sent to the foundry.

Throughout her career, Hepworth did sculpture that reflected the geography where she was rooted---"the rugged Yorkshire countryside in which she grew up, and the Cornish coast, where she lived as an adult . . ." (Heller) She spent most of her adult life on the north coast of Cornwell, living at St. Ives from 1939.

Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England.  Her father was an engineer who worked in West Riding, and she was the eldest of four children.  She had her father's interest in mathematics, and they had close companionship, with her often looking at his engineering drawings.  Her art talent was apparent during her childhood, and in 1920, when she was 16, she enrolled at the Leeds School of Art.  There one of her fellow students was Henry Moore, who, like herself, would become one of England's most famous 20th Century sculptors.

Two years later, she received a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, and graduated in 1924. She then went to Italy where she worked with master stone carvers in Rome. There she received training she could not get at London's Royal Academy since modeling and not direct carving was considered academically correct. She learned from master carver Ardini that the coloration of marble changed depending upon the carver.  In other words, body chemistry affected the aesthetics. This, she said, made her 'decide immediately that it was not dominance which one had to obtain over material, but an understanding, almost a kind of persuasion, and above all a kind of coordination between head and hand.' (Lucie-Smith)

She married John Skeaping, British sculptor, whom she met in Italy, and who had 'bested' her for the Prix de Rome, which he won over her as runner up.  They married in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and returning to England, they had a joint exhibition in London in 1927 in their studio in St. John's Wood.  The next year they had a second joint exhibition, this one at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London. In 1929, the couple had a son named Paul.  

They associated with many like-minded artists from Europe as well as England including Hans Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, George Braque and Naum Gabo.  And Hepworth had increasing association with her former classmate, Henry Moore.  In 1930, they organized a holiday group to the coast of Norfolk, and in 1931 at Norfolk with Moore and other friends, Hepworth met Ben Nicholson, a modernist English painter. 

This encounter led to her divorcing John Skeaping and marrying Ben Nicholson in 1933. The next year, she gave birth to triplets, which, of course, complicated her career as a sculptor and also caused the couple much financial stress.  In 1938, feeling it was difficult to earn enough money in London, they moved to the Cornish village of St. Ives and lived in a home owned by art critic and friend, Adrian Stokes.

Her work, especially influenced by Nicholson, became increasingly abstract, with her arriving at the free forms with open areas that became her signature style.  It was "a sensuous kind of organic abstraction, sometimes incorporating strings, wires, colored paint, or holes piercing the sculptured form." (Heller) During World War II, she ran a nursery school, which meant she had no time for carving, but she did do drawing at night.  Conditions improved for the couple in 1942, as they moved into a larger home.  Seven years later, Hepworth was able to open a studio where she could carve out doors year round.

Although her professional life strengthened, her personal life was troubled.  She and Nicholson divorced in 1951, and Paul Skeaping, her son from her first marriage, was killed in Siam in an air crash.  Suffering much emotional turmoil over this loss, she found comfort only in the affirmation of her sculpture.  As stated earlier, she turned away from carving to working in clay and bronze, and the size of her pieces increased.

In her later years, she had ill health and was confined to a wheelchair.  She lived simply at St. Ives in the home she had shared with Nicholson, and died in 1975 from a studio fire, likely caused by a cigarette igniting her bedclothes.  The next year, her studio became a museum for her work.


Nancy Heller, Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Phaidon: Dictionary of Twentieth Century Art

Edward Lucie-Smith, Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists,

Biography from Bonhams Bond Street
In 1931, and with her marriage to John Skeaping falling apart, Barbara Hepworth took a holiday to Norfolk that would not only change her life but the evolution of Modern British art as we know it. Together with like-minded contemporaries such as Henry and Irina Moore, Ivon Hitchens and Ben Nicholson (whom she promptly fell madly in love with), she travelled to Happisburgh on the coast where she hoped to find both the space to recover from her marital woes and fresh inspiration for her work.

The artistic powerhouse that was the new union of Nicholson and Hepworth was already a significant development for the history of 20th Century art, but perhaps more fortuitous was Hepworth and Moore's discovery of the ironstone pebbles that littered this part of the coastline. So called for its colour rather than its hardness, this natural stone was easily worked and inherently beautiful as Skeaping noted in a memoir "Henry, Barbara and I used to pick up large iron-stone pebbles from the beach which were ideal for carving and polished up like bronze" (see

Although alabaster was predominantly her material of choice through the 1930s, she (and Skeaping and Moore) returned to ironstone time and time again. After Ben departed the holiday early, Hepworth wrote to tell him that she and Moore had packed up no less than four large crates of the stones to be shipped back to London. Their flattish disc-like shape lent themselves to shallow carving and ideas overlapped between the group of friends at this time leading to Tate acquiring an ironstone fish by Skeaping believing it to be by Hepworth.
"It must be stone shape and no other shape"(Op.Cit., p.20)

Aside from the aforementioned qualities of this stone, as Moore was to crucially remark years later some 'had holes going right through them'. That now iconic emblem of modern art, the pierced form, revealed on a blustery beach in East Anglia. Hepworth had already been looking to the organic shapes of her continental contemporaries such as Brancusi and Arp but on home turf it was her who that same year as her fateful trip to Norfolk produced a pink alabaster piece simply titled 
Pierced Form - complete with arbitrary hole. Although exhibited with Arthur Tooth as Abstraction it was clearly derived from a torso (see fig.1).

This modest carved work was of small proportions and simple design yet represented a stylistic development of fundamental importance. One that was to go on to inform and influence not just Moore (as soon as the following year), but dozens of others in the following years and decades. This key sculpture was unfortunately destroyed in the war but conceived in 1934 and of similar form and size, the present work must be viewed as a direct link to the lost, ground-breaking 
Pierced Form.

Furthermore, it also represents that other perennial theme of the mother and child.
In 1934, the year Mother and Child was carved, Hepworth created a group of works on this subject. Being pregnant herself with triplets the subject was deeply personal. However the others dating from this year are two-piece works where the smaller 'child' shape sits on the mother's knee or rests in a hollow formed by her embracing arms or lies nestled beside her. This arrangement imparts a protectiveness and highlights the physical kinship of the two.

The critic Adrian Stokes commented in The Spectator that "So poignant are these shapes of stone.... It is not a matter of a mother and child group represented in stone, Miss Hepworth's stone is a mother, her huge pebble its child." (
Barbara Hepworth, A Pictorial Autobiography, Tate Publishing, 2012, p.29). Mother and Child however presents the viewer with a single, unified form. This physical harmony emphasises even further the maternal tenderness, blending two into one and denoting their eternally linked forms quietly with two incised eyes, one large one small. A living thing in stone. Their gentle curves and soft profile not only recall eroded pebbles but are heavily influenced by a pivotal trip made to Provence with Ben the year before.

She described travelling by train to Avignon in a state of suppressed excitement watching the undulating landscape of the Rhone valley and "I began to imagine the earth rising and becoming human" (Sally Festing, 
Barbara Hepworth, A Life of Forms, Penguin, 1995, p.98).

After 1934 however and following the birth of the triplets, all naturalism disappeared from her work. And by her own admission Hepworth became absorbed in the expression of the texture and weight and the tensions between forms.
The present work was in the collection of Lady Margaret 'Ludo' Read by 1934, the same year of its creation. Sir Herbert and Ludo had just moved from Scotland to London taking up residence in Henry Moore's Parkhill Road studio just a few doors down from Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and with Paul Nash and others nearby, deep in that 'nest of gentle artists' as Sir Herbert famously described it.

A momentous time for all, it was also the same year the Unit One manifesto and Read's first appreciation of Henry Moore were published. Whilst it is not known whether 
Mother and Child was gifted or purchased it is known that it specifically belonged to Ludo, rather than her husband, and given their close relationship one wonders whether this carving could have been a sort of 'welcome' talisman imparted from one (pregnant) woman to the other (who perhaps hoped to be soon).Nowadays it is rare to see Hepworth's work from the early 1930s in private hands. The handful of other known examples are largely in Public Collections, destroyed or untraced. Furthermore, the present work appears to be the earliest pierced form carving by Dame Barbara Hepworth to ever have been offered at auction. Taking this into consideration, its recent exhibition at The Henry Moore Foundation and the esteemed provenance of the Read family, Mother & Child is truly a museum quality carving by one of Britain's foremost sculptors.

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About  Barbara Hepworth

Born:  1903 - Wakefield, Yorkshire, England
Died:   1975 - St. Ives, England
Known for:  direct carving abstract sculpture