The Move to Metal

Explore Hepworth's return to bronze.

Orpheus (Maquette I) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1956 an important change took place in Hepworth’s work as she returned to making sculptures in bronze after a period of around thirty years.

Mrs A.R.T. Richards (Quita) (1924) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

At art school Hepworth had been taught the traditional method of modelling for clay and had produced a number of bronze portrait busts, such as Head of Mrs A.R.T Richards (Quita) (c.1924-5). However, as she embraced direct carving she also rejected bronze, working almost solely as a carver until 1956.

Prototype for 'Bronze Form (Patmos)' (1962) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

‘I only learned to love bronze when I found that it was gentle & I could file it & carve it & chisel [plaster]. Each one is a “person” to me - as much as a marble’

~Barbara Hepworth to Ben Nicholson, 1966

As Hepworth’s words reveal, her reconciliation with bronze was brought about by finding a way of uniting carving and casting. She developed a technique of producing plaster models at the same scale as the final bronze, which she could then carve using her carving tools. This was in contrast to the customary practice of making a small maquette that would then be enlarged at a foundry.

By Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

Hepworth would begin by producing an armature of aluminium or chicken wire, before applying wet Plaster of Paris which could be built up using either tools or her bare hands. When dry, the surface of the plaster could be carved.

Sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1964) by Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

‘I’ll begin with the bones in metal and then on the bones I will lay the planes in plaster and then carve [...] I love this idea of starting with the skeleton, knowing how you draw the bones of the human figure, and then you clothe it with its muscles, its skin and its texture. This I think is fundamental in me, whether I’m carving from a piece of wood or building up a work for bronze’

~Barbara Hepworth, Westward Television Film, 1967

Barbara Hepworth in the garden with Curved Form (Trevalgan) (1956) (1956)The Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s return to working in bronze was likely in part due to her increasing professional success. Casting in metal meant editions could be made of the same work, allowing her to greatly increase her output. Bronze also provided her with the opportunity to produce works on a  larger scale that would be suitable for outdoor display.     

Involute II (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Conceptually, bronze also offered possibilities for exploring new forms, lending itself to open, fluid forms that were much more difficult to achieve through carving in wood or stone.

‘the problem is, how to extend the forms beyond the capacity of stone & wood? How to swing up & outwards when feeling cannot be contained by the block?’

~Barbara Hepworth to Herbert Read, 1961

Curved Form (Pavan) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Many of the first works Hepworth produced in metal – both in bronze and in sheet metal – utilise open, spiral-like forms, such as the related works Curved Forms (Pavan) and Forms in Movement (Galliard), both of 1956. The pavan was a stately court dance of the 16th and early 17th centuries, often paired with the more lively galliard.

The sense of movement afforded by the looping curves of Curved Forms (Pavan) and Forms in Movement (Galliard) was ideal for representing music and dance. Hepworth identified ‘passionate, arrested movement – inducement of sound and resonance' as qualities associated with the properties of metal.

The Seed (Project for Metal Sculpture) (1957) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

While Hepworth was exploring these spiralling curved forms in her sculpture, she was also working on gestural paintings that utilise similar open forms. A number of these works were given the subtitle ‘project for sculpture’, such as The Seed (Project for Metal Sculpture) (1957), suggesting a direct connection between the paintings and the concurrent sculptures.

The Seed (1957) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

'I feel most strongly about the two mainstreams in contemporary sculpture carving on the one hand and a more fluid approach (in metal) which is perhaps nearer to the realism of painting than carving [...]'

~Barbara Hepworth, 1952

Winged Figure in situ at night, at John Lewis Oxford St, London, April 1963 (1963)The Hepworth Wakefield

There are even direct connections between individual paintings and sculptures, such as the 1957 brass sculpture Winged Figure and the painting Winged Figure – Brass (Project for Sculpture) of the same year. The 1957 Winged Figure would later form the basis for Hepworth’s Winged Figure (1961-2) commission for John Lewis on Oxford Street, London.

Barbara Hepworth at work on the plaster for Oval Form (Trezion) (Photo: Val Wilmer) (1963) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The open forms of bronze also allowed the viewer a greater participation in the work. As Hepworth observed, ‘there is a stronger sense of participating in the form – you want to go in and out as you look at a sculpture like Trezion’. Archival photographs show Hepworth physically enveloped within the coiled forms of Oval Form (Trezion) (1961-3).

Orpheus (Maquette I) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth used metal to continue some of her earlier developments in carving, such as the use of stringing in her Orpheus sculptures. The strings were made from reddish brown fishing line.

Spring (Arts Council Collection) (1966) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

She was also able to continue her earlier explorations with colour when painting the inner concavities of her carvings. Colour could be achieved in bronze casting through the use of patination, the surface colour produced through chemical reactions.

Four-Square (Four Circles) (On long loan to THW from the Hepworth Estate) (1966) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth gave very precise instructions to the foundry regarding patination. Many of her bronzes contrast a dark exterior with a lighter interior, highlighting the distinction between inner and outer form as she had done in her earlier carvings. 

Winged Figure in situ at night, at John Lewis Oxford St, London, April 1963 (1963)The Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth continued to work in metal for the rest of her career, allowing her to carry out major large scale commissions, such as Winged Figure (1961-2) for John Lewis’ headquarters in London. Today such commissions continue her legacy in the public domain.

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