Arts Muse

Born in Yorkshire, admired worldwide: Barbara Hepworth’s global appeal

Elizabeth Walsh on the lasting legacy of a Yorkshire pioneer.

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Image Credit: Flickr/Puffin11k

I first came across the work of Dame Barbara Hepworth at the Your Art Gallery: Paintings chosen by You exhibition held at York Art Gallery in August last year. Shameful as it is to admit, I hadn’t come across her work before but it is certainly something to be admired. A multitalented modernist  artist  and sculptor, Hepworth was born and raised in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.  Despite having passed away in 1975, her work and legacy live on in the present with her impressive career that spanned five decades being testament to this.

Alongside fellow artist Henry Moore, Hepworth studied at the Leeds School of Art between 1920-1921. Both became leading figures in the avant-garde method of direct carving which involved working directly onto a chosen material. Notably, Hepworth wasn’t limited to the north her entire life however, as she lived in Italy for two years before later settling in St Ives.

With a surge of recent interest surrounding the pioneer in modernist sculptures, a new biography Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life has been published by Eleanor Clayton. Clayton is curator at The Hepworth Wakefield as well as a freelance writer on contemporary art. The biography comes in anticipation of The Hepworth Wakefield's 10th anniversary exhibition of the same name. Both a mother and an artist, Hepworth had the arguably unenviable task of raising her first child and then triplets alongside trying to establish herself. Torn between the two demands, the book details how she made the decision to send her children to boarding school, enabling her to focus on her career.

Hepworth’s fascinating life has also been celebrated in film form with a Sky Arts documentary titled ‘Hepworth’ having been released in March. Along with the multiple commemorations of Hepworth’s achievements comes the question, why is she still so popular even now? In my view the answer is simple. It is because her work is so timeless.

No matter when they were created, Hepworth’s paintings and sculptures speak to every generation. My favourite of Hepworth’s masterpieces is  Surgeon Waiting, a painting created back in 1948. This date is especially significant in today's climate as it marks the same year the NHS was founded, a system we have become so heavily reliant on.

72 years later the painting still has the same chilling impact as the viewer observes the surgeon's focused eyes and careful hands. For me Surgeon Waiting symbolises the ability of art to transcend the boundaries of time and speak to us in the present moment. I think what makes it especially powerful is that it can mean different things to different people and yet still speak to a collective viewership in the midst of unprecedented times.

As much as I admire her paintings, Hepworth’s sculptures are not to be overlooked. She is after all most well known for being a sculptor. Hepworth famously practiced ‘direct carving’ which during the 1920s challenged the tradition of modelling. Modelling involved two stages; a sculpture was first modelled using clay before being later made using bronze. Throughout her career moving from carving figures, Hepworth's work turned more abstract. A work which I feel perfectly captures the stage in between is the sculpture Mother and Child, created in 1934. Motherhood was clearly an important theme in Hepworth’s work as she had four children of her own. While the child is a separate figure from the mother, they are still connected, perhaps showing their eternal bond despite the distance between them.

Hepworth was also arguably impacted by her surroundings. In 1939 she moved down south to St Ives and in this same year started making string sculptures. Hepworth associated these sculptures with nature explaining that ‘the strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills.’ Nature and it’s intriguing shapes have fascinated artists and sculptors alike for centuries. From the renowned artist Richard Long’s simplistic sculptor  A Line Made by Walking to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. However, there is something uniquely captivating about Hepworth’s nature-inspired sculptures as the carefully crafted edges and strings come together to form magnificent abstract pieces.

Medical professionals, mothers and children and nature are all aspects of our lives that we will come into contact with at some point or another. Despite Hepworth’s sculptures and paintings no longer being created following her passing they remain in the public consciousness along with her legacy. She made more than 600 sculptures throughout her lifetime, known for their range and emotional impact. Hepworth’s sculptures of mothers and children may be more impactful for mothers, her medical series may move a patient more so than someone who has never needed to step foot in a hospital. But one thing that’s certain is that her work is effortlessly timeless and will continue to impact viewers for years to come.

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