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Barbara Hepworth: Art and life, by Eleanor Clayton

30 July 2021

Richard Harries reads a new biography of Barbara Hepworth

IN WAKEFIELD, there is a large, well-designed centre given over to a magnificent exhibition of the works of Barbara Hepworth. Eleanor Clayton, its curator, is the author of this exemplary biography of the artist. With clarity, modesty, and skilled appreciation, she tells the story of Hepworth’s life and work in a way that can be equally enjoyed by specialist and general reader alike.

Formed by the Yorkshire of her childhood, both in spirit and in feel for its landscape, she went with Henry Moore from art school, in Leeds, to the Royal College of Art in London.

The book then traces her development through the different stages of her art, from early talented drawing to early torsos and biomorphic forms (very much her own, not a replica of Moore), her more angular “constructive” phase, and her particularly satisfying interlacing curves and circles, sometimes with strings, through to large public commissions.

Clayton shows how three different forms were fundamental for Hepworth. One is a single upright, expressing the transcendent pull of her work; the other consists of two uprights in relation to each other, indicating our relationships with one another; and the third involves interlacing curves, indicating our earthing in both body and landscape. For Hepworth, everything was in one way or another related to landscape.

She lived most of her life in or near St Ives, in Cornwall, where there is also a centre dedicated to her work. She lived and worked first with a fellow artist, John Skeaping, and then the artist Ben Nicholson. By both, she seems to have been left to bring up their children largely on her own, in cramped surroundings, and always on the poverty line. Although it was a terrible strain — not least when triplets came, and she was desperate to continue producing work, even with all that had to be done domestically — she found motherhood deeply satisfying, and, despite the strain, said that she enjoyed it.

But it was always the work that drove her, and, in the end, she found great critical and public success with major commissions, such as Winged Figure, done for the front of John Lewis in Oxford Street, in 1963, and Single Form, done for the UN in 1964.

© Bowness, Hepworth EstateBarbara Hepworth in the studio, 1966, The Hepworth Photographic Collection

One of the good features of this book are the 170 illustrations, in a mixture of colour and black-and-white. One highly surprising omission, however, is the Madonna and Child that she did as a memorial in St Ives Parish Church to her son, Paul, an RAF pilot killed in a plane crash. Thanks to Art and Christianity, a good photo can, however, be found on the web. The sorrow and strength in Mary’s face, together with the clear need of the Christ-child for his mother in the sculpture, reflects not only the artist’s own feelings at the time, but conveys the warning of Simeon in the Gospel: “A sword shall go through your own heart also.”

Another excellent feature of the book is the previously unpublished letters of the artist, in which she often tries to indicate what it is that her work is trying to convey. Particularly valuable is what is written about her friendship with Dag Hammarskjöld, the remarkable secretary-general of the UN, who was a great admirer of her work. In both, there was a profound spirituality, which they recognised in each other.

Hepworth was brought up as a Christian Scientist, and, while willing to use doctors, retained something of that to the end. Above all, she felt the vitality of life, and the worthwhileness of striving to make it good for all.

Although sometimes she described the power inherent in this life in abstract terms, she could also write about an eruption of God in work. And written in her own hand, on the inside of the UN sculpture, are the words: “To the glory of God and the memory of Dag Hammarskjöld.”

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.
His latest book is Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 images (SPCK, 2020).

The exhibition ‘Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life’ is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 27 February 2022.


Barbara Hepworth: Art and life
Eleanor Clayton
Thames & Hudson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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