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Sculpture and the spiritual

25 September 2015

Nicholas Cranfield seeks insight into Barbara Hepworth

© Bowness

Crucial work: Barbara Hepworth’s Discs in Echelon, 1935, a sculpture in padouk wood, on loan to the Tate from the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Crucial work: Barbara Hepworth’s Discs in Echelon, 1935, a sculpture in padouk wood, on loan to the Tate from the Museum of Modern Art, New York

GRAINY images of two future queens giving a Hitler salute are not the only ones of the young Princess Elizabeth in 1933 to emerge recently. While the nation worried about the political proclivities of the future King and Emperor, who seems to encourage them (and one might well question who held the camera), photographs have gone on show in Tate Britain of the interior of a London studio.

Barbara Hepworth, who had married the British sculptor John Skeaping in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in 1925, set up a studio with him in their house in Hampstead in 1928. She would remain in this studio until 1939, long after her divorce and another artist, Ben Nicholson, had moved in. This second family moved to St Ives ten days before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Hampstead studio was bombed in the Blitz, destroying all the works left there; so only the photographs show what it had looked like when Nicholson and Hepworth worked together. This has allowed the curators to bring together works by both artists which had once been in the same studio space.

Here on a wall is Nicholson’s 1933 Princess, a screen-printed cotton, oddly prescient of the Dorothy Wilding image used for the Coronation stamps 20 years later. It is a simple image, which turns out to derive from a self-photogram by Hepworth, and it shows that both artists were keen to experiment with designs for fabric while also hewing stone. In the same years, Hepworth arranged her phallic sculptures, such as Standing Figure (1934, private collection) and Two Forms (1933, Tate), around a photograph of Nicholson.

After her death, in a house fire that resulted from her smoking in bed, The Guardian obituary described the multi-millionairess as “probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day”. This extravagant claim for a towering giant is difficult to justify within the lights of this piecemeal but largely enjoyable show on Millbank.

For this is a survey of British sculpture across Hepworth’s lifetime (she was born in 1903 and died in 1975) rather than a specifically monographic show.

There are more than 100 works on display, about 80 of them by Hepworth. As well as works by her two husbands, the roll call includes Alan Durst, Henry Moore (of course), Jacob Epstein, Ursula Edgcumbe (an extravagantly quasi-Middle Eastern seated figure, of 1931), Eric Gill, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

In a four-page essay on sculpture in the journal Circle: International survey of constructive art, which was edited in 1937 by Nicholson and by J. L. Martin and Naum Gabo, Hepworth claimed: “Full sculptural expression is spatial — it is the three-dimensional realization of an idea, either by mass or by space construction.”

She might also have said that it was spiritual, as she never fought shy of recognising that aspect of her own work. At various times, Hepworth claimed to be a Christian Scientist, while also identifying herself as an “Anglican Catholic” and even an atheist.

Her parents were early members of the Christian Science movement, which the young woman at first rejected, preferring the High Church tradition of Wakefield Cathedral, where she had been baptised. But before marrying Skeaping she had given him a copy of Science and Health (apparently unread).

From Nicholson, who had been drawn into Christian Science by his first wife, Winifred, Hepworth was drawn more to Mary Baker Eddy’s writings. On the death of her first son in action with the RAF in 1953, she carved a Madonna and Child for St Ives Parish Church, but it was not until her sixties that she returned to her earlier Anglicanism. This is evident in her 1963 bronze Construction (Crucifixion), a cast of which is in the Close at Winchester Cathedral.

Writing for The Christian Science Monitor in 1965, Hepworth averred that “A sculpture should be an act of praise, an enduring expression of the divine spirit.” Seen in this light, much of her work makes sense, the 1935 Discs in Echelon from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for instance. A masterly essay in the catalogue explores this as crucial; and yet the St Ives Madonna and the Crucifixion do not appear.

This is not to claim that Hepworth was anything as unfashionable as a “Christian artist”, whatever one of those might be, but it is an obvious gap in the narrative trajectory of the display. As a campaign supporter for CND, she saw nuclear armaments as the ultimate consequence of 2000 years of deviation from the principles of Christianity.

The Tate exhibition pulls off two coups of which it can be justly proud. The first unites four of the five monumental guarea wood sculptures that she carved in 1954-55. Each was named after sites in Greece which she had finally visited after 30 years. Pierced Form (Epidauros) has not been brought from St Ives.

With the help of studio assistants, these square-metre blocks — Corinthos, Delphi, Phira, and Delos — were cut from more than 17 tonnes of the imported Nigerian hardwood from Benin, at that time a British colony. The polished outer surface of each sings in contrast to the vulnerable carved interior of each piercing. The works honoured her dead son, Paul Skeaping, as the cruise around Greece had been an attempt to fight off depression after his death.

In 1965, a retrospective of her work was shown in a pavilion originally designed by the Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) in 1955 for a temporary exhibition in Arnhem. It was popular enough, even though it looks little more than a bus-station shelter built from breeze block. It was rebuilt ten years later at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, where Hepworth’s sculptures inaugurated it.

In time, that structure also failed (it has been rebuilt more permanently in 2010); but the last gallery has been arranged to re-create something of the plein air experience for our encounter with bronzes such as the 1956 Trevalgan which scoop the air, and her 1958 Model for Meridian.

But even they do not seem enough to justify past claims for the stature of the sculptress who is here accorded her first substantial London retrospective after 47 years. I worry that unconsciously the curators have parked Hepworth as another post-war relic, like so many old charabancs.


Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World” is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until 25 October. Phone 020 7887 8888.



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