Barbara Hepworth - Biography and Legacy
Wakefield, Yorkshire, UK
St Ives, Cornwall, UK
Biography of Barbara Hepworth
Childhood and Education
Hepworth was the eldest child of Gertrude and Herbert Hepworth, a civil engineer. She would frequently accompany her father on car trips round the Yorkshire countryside, and she spent summer holidays at Robin Hood's Bay, also in Yorkshire. This early connection with rural settings was to influence much of her work. After attending the Wakefield Girls' High School, she won a scholarship to study at Leeds School of Art in 1920.
While studying at the school, she met the sculptor Henry Moore, who was a fellow student. They struck up a friendship and a friendly rivalry that would inform the practice of both artists throughout the mature part of their careers. Both Hepworth and Moore went on to study sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London, where they took occasional trips to Paris. Having graduated with a diploma in 1923, Hepworth stayed an extra year in order to compete for the Prix de Rome, which was eventually won by sculptor John Skeaping, her future husband.
She was awarded a West Riding Scholarship in 1924, which allowed her to spend a year traveling abroad. She spent several months in Florence, Italy, where she studied Romanesque architecture and early Italian Renaissance art. She also traveled to Rome and Siena. In Florence's Palazzo Vecchio in May 1925 she married Skeaping, who specialized in sculptures of animals. The couple moved to Rome, where Skeaping was a scholar of sculpture at the British School, and Hepworth learned to carve marble under the tutelage of Giovanni Ardini.
In November 1926, the couple returned to London due to Skeaping's poor health. Hepworth began to exhibit her work at her own studio, before being invited to show at some smaller London galleries, marking the start of her mature art career. Their son, Paul Skeaping, was born on August 3, 1929.
In 1931, Hepworth met abstract painter Ben Nicholson and began a relationship. Hepworth separated from her husband in the same year. The breakdown of their marriage, and the start of Hepworth's relationship with Nicholson (who was also married), was marked by a working holiday to the Norfolk coast organized by Hepworth and Henry Moore. The divorce from Skeaping was finalized in 1933.
Hepworth and Nicholson lived in Hampstead, in north London, near Henry Moore and several other significant artists. Art historian Herbert Read, Hepworth's contemporary and friend, described the area as "a nest of gentle artists." In 1934, Hepworth gave birth to triplets: Simon, Rachel and Sarah Hepworth-Nicholson. Hepworth said of the birth of her triplets, "it was a tremendously exciting event. We were only prepared for one child and the arrival of three babies by six o'clock in the morning meant considerable improvisation for the first few days."
Nicholson and Hepworth shared a studio, where they often worked collaboratively, frequently drawing and photographing each other at work. Hepworth said of their relationship, "as painter and sculptor each was the other's best critic." Nicholson's painting was characterized by a deep devotion to abstraction, and Hepworth was strongly influenced by this in her own sculpture. During this period, her work increasingly eschewed traditional forms. By the mid-1930s she had moved away from the human or figurative-based abstraction of artists such as Constantin Brancusi until she was creating sculptures that were wholly abstract.
Through this commitment to abstraction, Hepworth came into contact with some of the most important artists of the age, including Picasso, Arp, Miró and Mondrian (who Hepworth and Nicholson helped find an apartment when he moved to London). Hepworth and Nicholson were both part of the Paris-based exhibiting group "Abstraction-Creation" in 1933-34. She exhibited extensively with various abstractionist groups in this period, both in the UK and in Paris, and contributed to anti-fascist exhibitions and catalogs. In 1938, Hepworth and Nicholson married.
Just before the outbreak of WWII in 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson went to stay in St Ives, Cornwall, at the invitation of art critic Adrian Stokes. They stayed until the War was over, first at Stokes' own home and then at a small rented cottage nearby. The cramped conditions and demands of a young family meant that Hepworth had little time for sculpture. Instead, she focused her attention on drawing and studies. The small seaside town and Cornish countryside nevertheless made an impression on Hepworth, much as the Yorkshire landscape of her youth had. Her abstract work shifted to include influences of natural shapes and landscapes. In 1949 she bought a house and studio at St Ives, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Though she had often felt in Moore's shadow in terms of fame and recognition, Hepworth's public visibility increased when her work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Hepworth's marriage to Nicholson dissolved in the same year, although he remained in St Ives until 1958. Her work was considerably set back by her reaction to the death of her son Paul in a plane crash in 1953. After she had recovered, Hepworth began to work on a larger scale, taking inspiration from her travels on a restorative visit to Greece. In 1956 she began to work in bronze and other metals, allowing her to create work in small editions to keep up with the increasing demand.
Her work continued to be popular, and she was frequently dubbed the greatest living female sculptor. Hepworth's frequent use of cross-hatching strings, rods or even fishing line in her harder sculptural forms became such a well-known feature in her work that the satirical magazine Punch published a humorous cartoon in 1970 depicting the artist making her sculpture by hand-stitching. She was appointed a Dame in Britain (the female equivalent of being dubbed a knight), and made a Trustee of the Tate Gallery (until 1972), its first female trustee. She worked up until her death in 1975, which was caused by a fire in her studio at St Ives. Her obituary in The Guardian described her as "probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day," though many might differ. Nonetheless, it points to Hepworth's significant standing as a popular artist in her own day.
The Legacy of Barbara Hepworth
Along with her friend Henry Moore, Hepworth was fundamental in establishing a characteristic vocabulary of modern British sculpture. Through a shared interest in the ideal of "truth to materials", or to a sculptural form dictated in part by the inherent properties of the media used, Hepworth and Moore created an approach focused on process and materials that was highly influential for artists as diverse as Eduardo Paolozzi and Anthony Caro. Hepworth also remains a key figure in the history of women artists and has been cited as inspirational by many contemporary figures, including Tracey Emin and Charlotte Moth. One might also note her influence on Rachel Whiteread, whose own large-scale plaster sculptures have extended the pursuit of "absence" to greater reaches.
The critical reception of Hepworth has focused on her biography to an unusual degree. This is perhaps because of her dual roles as woman sculptor and mother, bringing up four young children whilst also nurturing her art; the link is particularly significant in relation to her "mother and child" sculptures. This biographical emphasis can also be explained by the fact that Hepworth was connected with so many of the key artistic figures of her day, including her close relationships with Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson.