Hepworth - Pierced hemisphere

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life – exhibition exploring the career of legendary artist and sculpture opens at Towner Eastbourne

A landmark retrospective of Barbara Hepworth is running at Towner Eastbourne until Sun 3 Sept. Encompassing sculptures, as well as rarely-seen drawings, paintings and archival materials, the exhibition celebrates one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. 

The show forms part of Towner 100, a series of exhibitions and events marking the Eastbourne gallery’s centenary. Originally staged at The Hepworth in Wakefield, Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life has garnered rave reviews. It brings together some of her most celebrated sculptures, including the modern abstract carving which launched her career in the 20s and 30s, the iconic strung sculptures of the 40s and 50s, and large-scale bronze and carved sculptures from later in her career. 

Key loans from national public collections are being shown alongside items from private collections which have not been on public display since the 70s, as well as rarely-seen drawings, paintings and costume designs. “Hepworth’s works, spanning her life, are arranged thematically through Hepworth’s wide-ranging interests in music, dance, science, faith and politics,” says Karen Taylor, the Towner’s Collections & Exhibitions Curator. “Within each theme there are both known sculptures and motifs that seem ‘very Barbara Hepworth’ alongside other works that will delight and surprise; such as her hospital drawings and other paintings that collectively offer an insight into the development of her celebrated sculptures. Both are essential in the exploration and telling of Barbara Hepworth’s art and life.

As this important show comes to Sussex, it’s an opportunity to experience Hepworth’s work in a landscape where the land and the sea meet, nestled in the South Downs, important for an artist who juxtaposed land and sea, solid and fluid.

Barbara Hepworth with the Gift plaster of Figure for Landscape and a bronze cast of Figure (Archaean) November 1964. Photograph: Lucien Myers

“She talked on many occasions about her relationship to the landscape in which she grew up in Yorkshire. She wrote about her experience of these lived landscapes in sculptural terms ‘Moving through and over the West Riding landscape…, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the forms’. Then later in the 1940s she moved to Cornwall where she embraced the rugged coastline and light that St Ives is renown for.

Setting the exhibiton at Towner Eastbourne merges both of these experiences of location that Hepworth was drawn to and inspired by, uniting the sea, the reflected light and the open landscape of the Downs  – a combination that Hepworth would surely approve of.”

Of a middle-class family from the West Riding of Yorkshire, Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield in 1903. She trained in sculpture at Leeds School of Art and on a county scholarship at the Royal College of Art met the painters Raymond Coxon and Edna Ginesi and the sculptor Henry Moore. Hepworth was runner-up to John Skeaping for the 1924 Prix de Rome and travelled to Florence on a West Riding Travel Scholarship. After visiting Rome and Siena with Skeaping, they were married in Florence in 1925 and moved to Rome, where both began carving stone. 

In 1926, the couple returned to London. Links forged through the British School at Rome with the sculptor Richard Bedford (a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum), ensured that the collector George Eumorfopoulos visited their studio show in 1927 and bought two of her works. The couple moved to 7 The Mall Studios in Hampstead in 1928 (where Hepworth remained until 1939). With Bedford and Moore, they became leading figures in the ‘new movement’ associated with direct carving. Successful joint exhibitions in 1928 (Beaux Arts Gallery, London and Alex. Reid and Lefevre, Glasgow) and 1930 (Arthur Tooth & Sons) consisted of animal and figure sculptures in stone and wood.

They joined the London Group for successful joint exhibitions in 1928 (Beaux Arts Gallery, London and Alex. Reid and Lefevre, Glasgow) and 1930 (Arthur Tooth & Sons) consisted of animal and figure sculptures in stone and wood. They joined the London Group and the 7 & 5 Society in 1930-1. A son, Paul, was born in August 1929, but the marriage was deteriorating and in 1931 Hepworth met Ben Nicholson (then married to Winifred Nicholson), who joined her on holiday at Happisburgh, Norfolk. She and Skeaping were amicably divorced in 1933. In 1934 Hepworth gave birth to triplets, marrying Nicholson four years later. 

Hepworth and Nicholson revealed their shared move towards abstraction in joint exhibitions in 1932 (Arthur Tooth & Sons) and 1933 (Lefevre).

This became the abiding direction of her work, epitomised by her pioneering practice of piercing different forms, and coincided with experiments in collage, photograms and prints. Establishing links with the continental avant garde, the couple visited the Parisian studios of Arp, Brancusi, Mondrian, Braque and Picasso.

They joined Abstraction-Création and were major figures in Paul Nash’s Unit One grouping and the associated publication edited by Herbert Read (1934). In 1935 they were instrumental in restricting the 7&5 to abstract work, thus paving the way for a fertile period of constructivism enhanced by artist refugees from totalitarian Europe (Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, Gabo). This culminated in the publication of Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art (1937), edited by Nicholson, Gabo and the architect Leslie Martin, and designed by Hepworth and Sadie Martin. Such utopianism was curtailed by the war, and Hepworth and Nicholson evacuated to St Ives, Cornwall. They stayed with Margaret Mellis and Adrian Stokes at Little Park Owles, Carbis Bay. Domestic demands and lack of space restricted Hepworth to small sculptures and painting until, on moving to Chy-an-Kerris, Carbis Bay in 1942, she secured a studio. 

Hepworth – Kneeling Figure

Her first major solo exhibition (Temple Newsam, Leeds 1943) was followed by a monograph by William Gibson (Barbara Hepworth: Sculptress, 1946).

She was prominent amongst St Ives artists, forming a focus in 1949 for the establishment of the Penwith Society of Artists with Nicholson, Peter Lanyon and others, and helping to attract international attention to the group’s exhibitions. Although Hepworth’s contribution to the 1950 Venice Biennale was dogged by comparisons with Moore, two retrospectives – in Wakefield (1951) and London (Whitechapel 1954) – and Read’s monograph (1952) confirmed her post-war reputation. She bought Trewyn Studio, St Ives in 1949, where she lived after her divorce from Nicholson two years later. She visited Greece in 1954 in an effort to recover from the sudden death of Paul Skeaping the previous year.

Hepworth was especially active within the modernist artistic community in St Ives, during its period of post-war international prominence. Her experience of the Cornish landscape was acknowledged in her choice of titles. In a wider context, Hepworth also represented a link with pre-war ideals in a climate of social and physical reconstruction; this was exemplified by her two sculptures for the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain. Public commissions and greater demand encouraged her to employ assistants for preliminary work – including Denis Mitchell and Dicon Nance – and to produce bronze editions. Hepworth’s international standing was confirmed by the Grand Prix of the 1959 São Paolo Bienal, which came amid honorary degrees, the CBE (1958) and the DBE (1965), and a second Whitechapel exhibition (1962) and a European tour (1964). 

In 1964, Her Single Form was erected outside the United Nations building, New York as a memorial to the Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld. Hepworth served as a Tate trustee (1965-72), donating six works in 1964 and a further nine in 1967 prior to the 1968 retrospective at the Gallery. The catalogue raisonné by Alan Bowness (the sculptor’s son-in-law) included in J.P. Hodin’s 1961 monograph was extended in 1971. 

With her long-standing friend the potter Bernard Leach, she was awarded the Freedom of St Ives in 1968 as an acknowledgement of her importance to the town. After a long battle with cancer, she died there in May 1975 in a horrific fire at her home. The studio was designated the Barbara Hepworth Museum in the following year and, upon coming under the Tate’s aegis in 1980, secured an unrivalled collection of her work for the Gallery. Since then, scholarly interest has focused on her status as one of the few women artists to achieve international prominence.

“Hepworth’s dedication to her sculpture permeated all aspects of her life,”

says Taylor. “She lived and viewed her existence through the lens of art. Passion such as Hepworth’s can be infectious and inspiring. We hope our visitors will leave feeling uplifted, reflective and inspired to experience their own landscape, their life through art. Should they leave wanting more they can also pick up a copy of Eleanor Clayton’s publication Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life from the Towner shop.” 

The exhibition opens with an introduction to Barbara Hepworth’s work, showing the three sculptural forms she returned to repeatedly throughout her career using a variety of different materials. Though abstract, these forms reveal Hepworth’s enduring ability to express essential human experiences, from interpersonal relationships to our connection to the world around us. 

Hepworth – Concentration of Hands,1948

A detailed look at Hepworth’s childhood in Yorkshire through archive material and photographs will include some of the artist’s earliest known paintings, carvings and life drawings as she began to explore movement and the human form.

A proponent of direct carving, Hepworth combined an acute sensitivity to the organic materials of wood and stone with the development of a radical new abstract language of form.

Hepworth’s interests in music and dance, and how they informed her sculptures, will be explored in depth. In 1951, Hepworth met composer Priaulx Rainier, and subsequently made several works inspired by the parallels between musical form and abstract sculpture. This coincided with her first theatrical design, for the 1951 production of Electra at The Old Vic. Archive photographs will be displayed together with Apollo, a metal sculpture that formed part of the stage set, along with costume and set designs for the 1955 opera by Michael Tippett, A Midsummer Marriage, staged in 1955 at the Royal Opera House.

This section of the exhibition will also explore Hepworth’s passion for dance, and how she captured movement with gestural paintings and sculptures such as Forms in Movement (Galliard) and Curved Form (Pavan), contextualising her move to creating sculptures in metal in the 1950s.

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life at Towner Eastbourne will culminate with a section looking at Hepworth’s interest in science and technology

From the bold geometric abstract drawings and sculptures made in the 1930s and her friendship with physicist J D Bernal, through to her iconic Hospital Drawings of the 1940s, and her fascination with the Space Race in the 1960s. A group of works will be brought together to reveal the influence of this decade of space exploration on Hepworth, from Disc with Strings (Moon), 1969, made the year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, to Four Hemispheres, inspired by the Telstar satellite.

Hepworth noted at the end of the decade, ‘Man’s discovery of flight has radically altered the shape of our sculpture, just as it has altered our thinking.’ With all these works, Hepworth married her interest in science with a deep spirituality, which will also be explored through the exhibition. In these works, and many others throughout her career, Hepworth connected the local with the universal, and challenged the boundaries of modern sculpture in ways that continue to reverberate today.

“Focusing on Hepworth’s practice through a broader lens offers the visitor the opportunity to appreciate her all-encompassing passion to create and the complexities that Hepworth had to navigate to be an artist, a woman and a mother in the early stages of her career. Eleanor Clayton wrote, when describing works from this period ‘The tension between these two forms could reflect the push and pull of the maternal experience… the desire to care for and be close to her children, and yet retain her own identity and agency.’  To experience her work in this way and understand how they came into being presents a sensitive perspective into her life’s work.”

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life runs at Towner Eastbourne until Sun 3 Sept. 


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