Single Form

Discover the story behind one of Hepworth's most famous sculptures.

By The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth speaking at the unveiling of the United Nations Single Form, New York, June 1964 by UN Photo/ Teddy ChenThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s Single Form (1961-4) at the United Nations Plaza in New York is arguably her most significant commission and the largest work she ever completed. She was an ardent supporter of the UN and a friend of the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, to whom the work is dedicated.

Suite of the Secretary-General at United Nations Headquarters (1961)The Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth first came into contact with Dag Hammarskjöld in 1956, beginning a correspondence that would continue until Hammarskjöld’s untimely death  in 1961. In 1957 Hepworth lent (and later gifted) Hammarskjöld her sandalwood sculpture Single Form (1937-8) for display in his office.

your Single Form stands as a sentinel, representing the integrity both of the artist and of this operation’
 
~  Dag Hammarskjöld to Barbara Hepworth, 1960

For Hammarskjöld, Single Form embodied the spirit of the UN. He composed a poem entitled ‘Single Form’ which was posthumously published in his book Markings (1964). A photograph of Hepworth’s UN Single Form (1961-4) was used on the book  jacket.

United Nations General Assembly Building (1952)The Hepworth Wakefield

In 1959 Hepworth made her first visit to New York on the occasion of her exhibition at the Galerie Chalette. While in New York she visited both Hammarskjöld and the UN itself, an experience that she found highly enriching.

‘I came away with such a sense of the integrity at U.N., & so fortified by your friendship towards me, that now I can only hope that I can retain this quality of the macrocosm within this small workshop & invest my stones with a greater purity of idea.’    

~Barbara Hepworth to Dag Hammarskjöld, 1959

Barbara Hepworth at work on the plaster Single Form (Memorial), January 1962 (1962)The Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth last saw Hammarskjöld in London in May 1961. Several months later he died in a plane crash while on a diplomatic mission to the Congo in Africa. In an outpouring of grief she made the work Single Form (Memorial) (1961).

‘in a kind of despair, I made the ten-foot high Single Form (Memorial) [...] Memorial was made just to console myself, because I was so upset’
 
~Barbara Hepworth, 1970

The boating lake, Battersea Park, London, with 'Single Form (Memorial)' sculpture in the background (1962-01/1964-05) by Jonn GayHistoric England

In 1963 Hepworth exhibited Single Form (Memorial) at the open-air sculpture exhibition at Battersea Park with a dedication to Dag Hammarskjöld. The sculpture remains sited in the park today.

Single Form (Chûn Quoit) (1961) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Single Form (Memorial) is connected to two other Single Form works that Hepworth produced in 1961: the walnut carving Single Form (September) and the bronze Single Form (Chûn Quoit). Hepworth stated that both works were made with ‘Dag in mind’. The ‘September’ subtitle is a reference to the month of Hammarskjöld’s death, while Chûn Quoit is a Neolithic chamber tomb located in West Penwith.

Barbara Hepworth with the plaster for Curved Form (Bryher II) (Photo: Studio St Ives © Bowness) (November 1961)The Hepworth Wakefield

Both of these works are also formally related to the bronze Curved Form (Bryher) of 1961, which also has a cut out circle to one side. Hepworth described this work as ‘the beginning’ of her Single Form (1961-4) commission. 

Barbara Hepworth at work on the plaster Single Form (Memorial), January 1962 (1962)The Hepworth Wakefield

When making Single Form (Memorial), Hepworth had been struck that ‘it ought to be bigger [...] with a great swing to the form’. 

Barbara Hepworth with the plaster Single Form at the Morris Singer Foundry, May 1963. Photograph by Morgan Wells (1963)The Hepworth Wakefield

In November 1961 Ralph Bunche, Under-Secretary to the UN, approached her with a proposal for a sculpture for the UN headquarters dedicated to Dag Hammarskjöld. Before he had died, Hammarskjöld had hoped that Hepworth might produce a new work for UN building.  Bunche’s commission would bring this idea to fruition while providing a lasting memorial to Hammarskjöld.

Hepworth used Single Form (Memorial) as her model for the commission, reinterpreting the three metre high sculpture at double the scale. However, she did not simply blow up Single Form (Memorial) at double the size, but made various alterations in surface and proportions to reflect the altered scale.

Barbara Hepworth working on the armature of Single Form in the Palais de Danse, St Ives (1961) by Studio St IvesThe Hepworth Wakefield

After visiting the UN site in October 1962, Hepworth began work on the full-size plaster prototype in her studio at the Palais de Danse. A former cinema and dance hall in St Ives, Hepworth had acquired this second studio in 1960 to allow her space to work on larger works, especially those to be cast in bronze. Today, the outline of the plaster prototype Single Form can still be seen on the floor of the Palais.

Sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1964) by Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

Due to its vast size Single Form was too large to cast in one piece and was instead cast in seven sections. Hepworth chose to keep the grooved lines of the joins visible as an inherent part of the structure. She included a personal inscription in her own handwriting within the pierced circle of the sculpture: ‘To the glory of God, and the memory of Dag  Hammarskjöld'.

Sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1964) by Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

Single Form was completed in April 1964 and was shipped to New York on the American Champion, before being installed at the UN headquarters.

Barbara Hepworth at the UN unveiling of Single Form (1964)The Hepworth Wakefield

An unveiling ceremony was held on 11 June 1964, including a short speech by Hepworth in which she spoke about Single Form in relation to the ideals of Hammarskjöld and the UN:

Barbara Hepworth speaking at the unveiling of the United Nations Single Form, New York, June 1964 by UN Photo/ Teddy ChenThe Hepworth Wakefield

‘The United Nations is our conscience. If it succeeds it is our success. If it fails it is our failure. Throughout my work on Single Form I have kept in mind Dag Hammarskjöld’s ideas of human and aesthetic ideology and have tried to perfect a symbol that would reflect the nobility of his life, and at the same time give us a motive and symbol of both continuity and solidarity for the future.’

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