Barbara Hepworth

(1903 - 1975)

Barbara Hepworth was born on 10th January 1903 in Wakefield, Yorkshire. She studied at Leeds College of Art and subsequently at the Royal College of Art.

She married the artist and sculptor John Skeaping, RA (1901-1980) and travelled with him to Rome in 1925-26. Here she learnt to sculpt in stone, a medium previously used by the likes of Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) and Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957). On their return to London they held an exhibition at the Beaux Art Gallery in 1928 and a further exhibition at Arthur Tooth in 1930; however they were divorced in 1933.

Hepworth lived and worked in Hampstead from 1928 and in 1931, met Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and they worked together from 1932. In 1931-32 Hepworth had created a semi-abstract work Pierced Form with a hole, the idea of which was taken up by Henry Moore (1898-1986), a close friend. Hepworth and Nicholson exhibited together at Tooth in 1932 and then at Lefevre in 1933 where Hepworth remained until 1952.

The 1930’s specifically from 1934 saw Hepworth creating abstract sculptures, the first anywhere in the world, contemporaneously with Nicholson creating his carved white reliefs. Hepworth was thus at the forefront of the Avant Garde along with her peers Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Brâncuşi, Jean Arp (1886-1966), Joan Miró (1893-1983) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Her and Nicholson were members of the Parisian ‘Abstraction-Creation’, and in England the Seven and Five Society. In Hampstead they were at the centre of an artistic and intellectual circle including Henry Moore and his wife, Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968) and latterly Piet Mondrian.

In 1939 Hepworth, with Nicholson and their three children – they had married in 1938 – left London for St. Ives in Cornwall where she remained until her death in 1975.

In 1942 having moved to a large house, Hepworth resumed sculpting, influenced by the Cornish coast and landscape. 1943 saw a Retrospective in Leeds with Paul Nash and in the years following she produced stringed sculptures in wood. However, abstraction in the war years and in the following were relatively unpopular. Perhaps in response, and through her friendship with the surgeon Norman Capener, she produced a series of sixty subjects set in hospitals; exhibited in 1948 and 1949.

In 1950 Hepworth exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in 1951 was awarded two commissions for the Festival of Britain, Contrapuntal Forms and Turning Forms. These she produced in the Trewyn Studios in St. Ives, where she now lived, the same year she divorced Ben Nicholson, although he continued to live in St. Ives. Three important commissions followed Meridian owned by the Pepsi Cola Corporation, Winged Figure for John Lewis in London and Single Form 1961-64, a bronze sculpture in the United Nations Plaza, New York, a memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN Secretary General who died in 1961.

Having worked in wood and stone, in 1956 Hepworth began working in bronze and other metals, including aluminium. Working in bronze was commercially successful, small editions selling to collectors in the United States and at home.

With a burgeoning reputation, Retrospectives were held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1954-62, San Paulo 1959 and The Tate 1968; she was awarded a CBE in 1958 and a DBE in 1965.

Hepworth was widely regarded as the world’s greatest female sculptor and principle originator of ideas. She had interests in radical politics as well as music, dance and theatre. She illustrated books, designed sets and costumes for theatre and opera, she received numerous honorary doctorates.

Hepworth died in a fire in her studio in 1975. The studios were opened to the public, her wish, in 1976 and presented to the nation in 1980; it is now part of The Tate.

Her work is represented in numerous museums worldwide including those in: Edinburgh; Leeds; London; St. Ives; Wakefield; New York; Pasadena and Toronto.