‘Miss Hepworth’s stone is a mother’

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The subject of the mother and child occupied Hepworth throughout her life, reflecting both her own experiences as a mother and a wider interest in maternity in early twentieth century modernist sculpture.

Child with Mother (1972) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Although Hepworth produced Mother and Child carvings throughout her life, such as her 1929 sculpture Infant, and her late work, including Child and Mother (1971), it was the 1930s that saw her greatest output on the subject.

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth's Mother and Child carvings of the 1930s date from the time of her second pregnancy. In October 1934, pregnant with what she thought was one baby, she gave birth to triplets.

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

As some of her first multi-part sculptures, the Mother and Child works formed a key part of Hepworth's sculptural development. The mother appears as both a seated, upright figure, as in Mother and Child (1934), and as a reclining figure in Large and Small Form (1934), where the waves of the maternal body recall the undulations of a landscape.

Large and Small Form (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

'It is not a matter of a mother and child group represented in stone. Miss Hepworth’s stone is a mother, her huge pebble its child. A man would have made the group more pointed: no man could have treated this composition with such a pure complacence. The idea itself is a spectacular one, but it gains from Miss Hepworth’s hands a surer poignancy.’

~Adrian Stokes, ‘Miss Hepworth’s Carving’, The Spectator, 3 Nov 1933

The Mother and Child works received considerable critical attention in a review by the critic Adrian Stokes.  Despite his praise, Stokes' review reads in essentialist terms, with Hepworth’s gender posited as the source of her success with the ‘mother and child’ theme.  

Barbara Hepworth at the Palais de Danse, 1961 (1961) by Rosemary MathewsThe Hepworth Wakefield

As a woman and a mother, Hepworth experienced the struggle to forge an art career in a highly male dominated environment. In 1943 she wrote to Herbert Read of her frustration at being excluded from the British Council touring exhibitions, which she attributed to: 

'1) Being a woman, 2) Being abstract, 3) Being young and 4) Being a wife and mother etc.etc.’ 

This struggle for women to combine an art career with family life is a subject that still remains painfully relevant today. Only last year, art critic Hettie Judah undertook interviews with 50 artist mothers to assess the impact of motherhood on their careers. 

Few female artist friends of my generation had kids: they felt they would not be taken seriously. Those who did tended to keep the two spheres separate’

Barbara Hepworth with Ben Nicholson at Happisburgh, Norfolk, 1931 (1931)The Hepworth Wakefield

Arguably one of Hepworth’s achievements was her very ability to bring together art and life – sculpture and motherhood: 

‘my studio was a jumble of children, rocks, sculptures, trees, importunate flowers and washing’   

 ~Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970

However, this was not achieved without a struggle, especially in the first few months after the arrival of the triplets. Just two months after the birth, Nicholson returned to Paris and Hepworth found herself forced to make decisions regarding the care of their children alone.

By Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

Hepworth’s letters to Nicholson express the central dilemma she found herself in, namely how to balance work and childcare.

‘I am so deeply happy about the babies & want them with me all the time but I am also so deeply unhappy about not working.’ 

Eventually a solution was found in the form of a nearby nursery training college, Wellgarth, which could take care of the triplets and allow Hepworth to work and thereby earn a living. 

Two Forms (1934/35) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

If Hepworth’s pregnancy had been dominated by biomorphic Mother and Child works, the work she produced after giving birth was marked by its shift to complete abstraction. A number of these works utilise oval, egg-like forms, often associated with rebirth.

Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture record for Three Forms (1935) (1935) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Several triparte Three Forms sculptures also exist from 1935, which may connect to the arrival of the triplets.  In each work, the three different forms are held by a fourth entity: the base plate, the integral ‘maternal’ support that  holds the composition together.

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s ability to juggle an art career with motherhood makes her an important role model to many women working in the art world today. Her Mother and Child works also continue to act as a source of influence to contemporary artists.

In 2010, artist Victoria Lucas produced The Search, a sound installation recorded at The Hepworth Wakefield in response to Hepworth’s Mother and Child (1934). In this work, the artist and her two siblings strive to replicate the sound of their mothers laugh; a sound that they have not heard for seven years since her death. Lucas will be reprising work as part of the exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life on 7 August 2021.

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