Hospital Drawings

Barbara Hepworth's view of surgery

By The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings at The Hepworth Wakefield (2012/2013) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1944 Barbara Hepworth’s daughter Sarah was hospitalised with a bone infection called osteomyelitis. Sarah was treated by the surgeon Norman Capener, who was interested in modern art and became an important friend to Hepworth and Nicholson.

Reconstruction (1947) by Barbara HepworthArts Council Collection

In 1947 Capener suggested that Hepworth might observe an operation at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter. This marked the first of many reconstructive operations that she would observe at hospitals in Exeter and London over the next three years.

The Hands and the Arm (1948) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Over this period, Hepworth produced nearly 80 works, which range from rapid sketches in pencil and crayon, to finished drawings in pencil and oil paint on a gesso-like ground. The works vary from those in which the viewer assumes the distanced role of an observer watching a scene from afar, to close up studies of an individual figure or even just the hands of the surgeons.

Reconstruction (1947) by Barbara HepworthArts Council Collection

"I was allowed only a small notebook and pen or pencil. I had to train myself to note only the most important things and to memorise the entire structure of the group, which was always changing as the operation proceeded. It was from notes such as these that I made my paintings when I returned to the studio. During one operation I sometimes made 40 or 50 brief notes of this kind"

- Barbara Hepworth, Lecture to surgeons in Exeter, c. 1953

Two Figures (1947) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The first hospital drawing was created on 14 November 1947, a month in which Hepworth made seventeen drawings, often producing two or three in a day. Two Figures (1947) is one of the first drawings in the series. Produced in ink, crayon and pencil, it shows the surgeons putting on gowns ahead of surgery. 

Tibia Graft (1949) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Alongside Capener, Hepworth became acquainted with two further London surgeons, Edward Rodney Garnett Passe and Reginald Watson-Jones, who both worked at the London Clinic on Harley Street.  The drawing Tibia Graft (1949) depicts Watson-Jones, who is shown in a posture of intense focus.

Fenestration of the Ear (The Microscope) (1948) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Passe was an important ear, nose and throat surgeon who specialised in an operation called the fenestration of the ear, which involved making a new aperture in the inner ear to resolve hearing loss.

"You can imagine how impressed a sculptor would be by the precision and delicacy of this particular operation"

Hepworth produced six paintings and one sketchbook from her observations of the fenestration of the ear procedure. In each work, the focus is on the surgeons at work rather than documenting the operation itself.

'When I entered the operating theatre I became completely absorbed by [...]  the extraordinary beauty of purpose and co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life, and the way that unity of idea and purpose dictated a perfection of concentration, movement, and gesture.'


~Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952

Reconstruction (1947) by Barbara HepworthArts Council Collection

One of the most fulfilling things for Hepworth about witnessing operations was observing 'the close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors'.

On a physical level, both professions utilised many of the same tools – plaster, chisels and mallets – and required close attention to detail and hand-to-eye co-ordination. A number of the hospital drawings focus on close-up views of the surgeons' hands.

Tibia Graft (1949) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Spiritually, both professions also sought to enrich the human mind and body:
 
‘the medical profession […] seeks to restore and to maintain the beauty and grace of the human mind and body [...] The artist, in his sphere, seeks to make concrete ideas of beauty which are spiritually affirmative’ 

~Barbara Hepworth, Lecture to surgeons in Exeter, c. 1953

Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings at The Hepworth Wakefield (2012/2013) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The National Health Service was launched on 5 July 1948, the very period when Hepworth was producing her own hospital drawings. In their celebration of human co-operation, the hospital drawings embody similar ideals to those of the NHS and the extended welfare state.

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