Barbara Hepworth

Explore the artistic development of one of the most important artists of the 20th century

By The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara, Joan, Elizabeth and Tony Hepworth (The Hepworth Photograph Collection) (circa. 1915) by Unknown photographerThe Hepworth Wakefield

Born in Wakefield to a middle-class family, Barbara Hepworth was the first born to Gerda and Herbert Hepworth. As a young girl, Barbara accompanied her father, a County Surveyor, on trips around the Yorkshire countryside, experiences that would have a lasting impact on her work.

Pierced Hemisphere (1937/1937) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

'Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were like sculptures; the roads defined the forms. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me.' – Barbara Hepworth

Robin Hood's Bay (Private Collection) (1920) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In summer the Hepworth family would holiday at Robin Hood’s Bay, near Whitby. Here Hepworth found herself among a community of practising artists. She looked upon the holidays as an opportunity to paint - sketching the house and the surrounding cliffs and caves in a variety of lights. 'At high tide the waves thumped on the house and spray fell all around us… I was always in a state of great excitement, ' she said. 'I crept out at dawn to collect stones and seaweeds, and paint and draw by myself before somebody organised me.' – Barbara Hepworth

Award board at Wakefield Girls School (1920/1920) by Wakefield Girls SchoolThe Hepworth Wakefield

At Wakefield Girls' High School, Hepworth was encouraged in her love of the arts. She recalled fondly 'I shall never forget the joy of going to school and the gorgeous smell of paint I was allowed to use' and how the headmistress Miss McCroben's lectures and slides of Egyptian sculpture 'fired me off.' – Barbara Hepworth

Always a high achiever, Hepworth won a scholarship to study at the Leeds School of Art from 1920.

Henry Moore (1949) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Hepworth first met the sculptor Henry Moore, also born in the district of Wakefield, at Leeds School of Art in 1920. From 1921 - 24, Hepworth studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art; Henry Moore was a fellow student. The work of both artists would be collected by Wakefield City Art Gallery from early in their careers and can now be seen at The Hepworth Wakefield.

Portrait of a Man in Profile [John Skeaping] (1925) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1924 Hepworth moved to Italy on a travelling scholarship from her local council. She met fellow artist John Skeaping in Italy and they married in 1925. The trip had a lasting impression: 'The light at dawn was so wonderful in the eyes of a Yorkshirewoman who had spent three years in London's smog.' – Barbara Hepworth.

She married Skeaping in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In 1929 Hepworth gave birth to their son, Paul Skeaping.

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

After the birth of their son Paul, John Skeaping and Hepworth grew apart: 'John wanted to go free...' Hepworth later met the painter Ben Nicholson, and in 1934 gave birth to triplets – Simon, Rachel and Sarah Hepworth-Nicholson. At the outbreak of war in 1939 the couple moved to Cornwall with their young family.

Hepworth regularly returned to the theme of mother and child. In this version she took the significant step of separating the child from the body of the mother.

These multi-part sculptures mark a shift in Hepworth’s practice that saw a move towards a more abstract form.

Barbara Hepworth: Two Forms (2013/2013) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Curator, Dr Samantha Lackey, discusses Two Forms (1937)

Kneeling Figure (1932) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Carved by Hepworth in 1932, and acquired by The Wakefield Permanent Art Collection in 1944, Kneeling Figure represents not only Hepworth’s early concern with direct carving but also of the human figure. Like many of her contemporaries, such figures reveal her interest in the sculpture of early non-Western cultures, in particular African and Egyptian carving.

Poster from early Hepworth exhibition at Wakefield Art Gallery, 1951 (1951) by The Hepworth WakefieldThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1951, Barbara Hepworth had a solo exhibition at Wakefield Art Gallery, which toured to York and Manchester. The following extracts are from the catalogue introduction written by Patrick Heron and refer to her move from figuration to abstraction:

'First came the early figurative carvings in which the frequent changes of idiom were an indication of growth and capacity for aesthetic exploration... but as will be seen, she never rests long in one place, and towards the end of this period, in, for instance, Mother and Child she was moving rapidly away from figuration towards abstraction. Complete abstraction was arrived at in 1934, and from then until 1948 all trace of representation, or figurative form was banished from her sculpture.' – Patrick Heron

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

Barbara Hepworth took on a number of important public commissions in later life. Single Form is the largest and most significant. It stands in the United Nations Plaza in New York. Hepworth was a friend of the United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld, who admired and collected her work (including a Single Form in sandalwood of 1937-8). Single Form was commissioned by the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation as a memorial to Hammarskjöld after his tragic death in an air crash in 1961.

A Greater Freedom (2015/2015) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Video about Barbara Hepworth by FT Arts

Yorkshire: Hepworth, Moore and the Landscape (2016/2017) by Various ArtistsThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth acquired Trewyn Studio in the centre of St Ives in September 1949 and immediately began working there; she also lived there permanently from December 1950 until her death. 'It is completely perfect for me,' she wrote to Philip James, Director of Art at the Arts Council, on 29 August 1949.

Oblique Forms (1969) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth also experimented with lithography in her late career. She produced two lithographic suites with the Curwen Gallery and its director Stanley Jones, one in 1969 and one in 1971. The latter was entitled The Aegean Suite, 1971 and was inspired by Hepworth's trip to Greece in 1954 with Margaret Gardiner. The artist also produced a set of screenprints entitled Opposing Forms, 1970, printed by Kelpra Studio in London.

Hepworth Family Gift (2011/2017) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 2011 the Hepworth Estate gifted a major group of works to Wakefield, most of which are on permanent display at The Hepworth Wakefield. The Hepworth Family Gift comprises 44 surviving prototypes in plaster, aluminium and wood, as well as drawings, lithographs and screen prints.

Hepworth didn’t see the prototypes as works of art, but as the first stage in the process of casting a bronze or aluminium work.

The majority of these works are the original plasters that Hepworth worked on with her own hands. You can see the marks of her tools on them. Texture was very important to Hepworth, and you get a good sense of this when you see these works in person. There is huge variety among the group, both in scale and texture.

Hepworth Family Gift (2011/2017) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The centrepiece of the Gift is the aluminium prototype for Winged Figure (1961–2), the sculpture commissioned by John Lewis Partnership for their flagship store on Oxford Street, London. At nearly six metres high, this is the only working model to survive for the monumental commissions Hepworth received in later life.

Hepworth Family Gift - The Gift to Wakefield (2011/2011) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021)The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth exhibitions at The Hepworth Wakefield

Alongside the permanent exhibition of The Hepworth Family Gift, The Hepworth Wakefield regularly stage themed displays of Hepworth's work from the collection.

Hepworth Hospital Drawings Exhibition (2012/2013) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The exhibitions showcase a variety of Barbara Hepworth works, including her delicate Hospital Drawings.

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

Following the hospitalisation of their daughter Sarah in 1944, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson struck up a friendship with Norman Capener, the surgeon who treated her at Princess Elizabeth Orthopeadic Hospital in Exeter. Through their friendship, Hepworth was invited to witness a variety of surgical procedures at Exeter and the London Clinic.

A Greater Freedom: Installation view (2015/2016) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

A Greater Freedom: Hepworth 1965–1975 (18 April 2015-April 2016)

Barbara Hepworth was extremely prolific during her later years. Nearly as many works were made during the 1960s as between 1925 and 1960 and these show an experimentation with new materials, sculptures made in bronze, slate, silver and gold, and a significant production of prints.

During this period Hepworth also worked extensively in marble, a material she had been drawn to during the 1920s but had not always been able to afford. Hepworth often used these diverse materials to develop forms that had been present in her work from the early 1930s, stating in 1971, 'I don’t think anyone realises how much the last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth.' – Barbara Hepworth

A Greater Freedom: Installation view (2015/2016) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In addition to the wide range of materials Hepworth worked with during this time, this exhibition featured her innovative exhibition designs, presenting works on breeze-block plinths and including plants within the installation. Some of these features have been recreated in this exhibition, alongside a film of the 1968 show.

A Greater Freedom: Installation view (2015/2016) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

On the occasion of Hepworth’s Tate Retrospective in 1968, Ronald Alley, then Keeper of the Tate’s Modern Collection, wrote 'looking at Barbara Hepworth’s recent work we can see that it is more varied than that of any of her earlier periods, with possibilities leading in a number of different directions.' – Ronald Alley

Late Hepworth. Installation view (2016/2016) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

A Late Hepworth (7 July–27 August 2016)

Curated by The Hepworth Wakefield, the exhibition Late Hepworth was on display at Phillip’s auction house in Berkeley Square, London, from 7 July to 27 August 2016 as part of a year-long partnership between The Hepworth Wakefield and Phillips to support the gallery’s fifth anniversary celebrations.

Late Hepworth. Installation view (2016/2016) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The exhibition offered a unique opportunity to see three of Hepworth’s major series of prints alongside the sculptures to which they relate, rarely lent from the gallery located in the birthplace of the world-famous sculptor.

Late Hepworth. Installation view (2016/2016) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Simon Wallis, OBE, Director of The Hepworth Wakefield, said: 'We are delighted to be working with Phillips for our 5th anniversary year. The best partnerships are those where there is a shared passion – in this instance bringing major works of art from our superb collection held at The Hepworth Wakefield in the heart of Yorkshire to Phillips' beautifully designed central London location.'

Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021)The Hepworth Wakefield

In 2021, to mark the gallery's 10th anniversary, the gallery returned to Barbara Hepworth and curated the largest exhibition of the artist's work since the 1970s - Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life (21 May 2021 - 27 February 2022)

Installation image of Magnolia/Magnoliaceae, Veronica Ryan, part of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021) by Veronica RyanThe Hepworth Wakefield

The Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life exhibition explores that artist's personal life and wide-ranging interests that influenced her work.

Take a tour of the latest exhibition here or explore more about the artist here

Credits: Story

The Hepworth Wakefield
The Hepworth Family Gift has been presented to The Hepworth Wakefield by the artist’s daughters, Rachel Kidd and Sarah Bowness, through the Trustees of the Barbara Hepworth Estate and the Art Fund.

Exhibit created by:
The Hepworth Wakefield staff

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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