‘Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent trying to say it. I know that all I felt during the early years of my life in Yorkshire is dynamic and constant in my life today.’
Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), one of the most important artists of the 20th century, was born in Wakefield.
Her father was a surveyor for West Riding County Council, and Hepworth accompanied him on his inspections of local roads and bridges.
At Wakefield Girls’ High School Hepworth was inspired by seeing images of Egyptian sculpture and encouraged by the headteacher, Miss McCroben, to apply for a scholarship to Leeds School of Art.
Following this, in 1921, she began her studies at the Royal College of Art in London.
‘All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the forms.’
Barbara Hepworth, speaking in the BBC film Barbara Hepworth (Dir. John Read, 1961)
Hepworth in the 1920s and 1930s
On completing her degree in 1924, Hepworth was awarded a West Riding travel scholarship, enabling her to travel to Italy. She learnt to carve from a master-carver in Rome, where she met her first husband and fellow artist John Skeaping.
The couple returned to London in 1926 as proponents of ‘direct carving’, the practice of carving directly into wood or stone, rather than modelling sculpture in clay for a master-craftsman to then make the finished work.
Hepworth and Skeaping separated in 1931, and Hepworth became part of an artistic circle that included Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, with whom she lived in Hampstead during the 1930s.
Representational aspects of Hepworth’s work gave way to geometric shapes, as in Pierced Hemisphere I and Two Forms.
Hepworth would later relate this shift to having triplets with Nicholson in 1934, noting that after this ‘the work was more formal, and all traces of naturalism had disappeared, and for some years I was absorbed in the relationships in space, in size and texture and weight, as well as in the tensions between the forms.’
‘Carving to me is more interesting than modelling, because there is an unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration.’
Hepworth moved to St Ives in 1939, the same year she begun making stringed sculptures. As seen in her ‘Landscape Sculpture’ works of the late 1940s, Hepworth connected these forms to nature noting, ‘the strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills.’ Living in close proximity to the countryside, Hepworth reflected in 1946, ‘The main sources of my inspiration are the human figure and the landscape; also the one in relation to the other.’
In 1951, Hepworth had a solo exhibition at Wakefield Art Gallery, which toured to York and Manchester.
Hepworth took on a number of important public commissions in later life. On permanent display at The Hepworth Wakefield is the aluminium prototype for Winged Figure (1961–3), commissioned by John Lewis for their flagship store on Oxford Street, London. At nearly six metres high, this is the only working model to survive from the monumental commissions Hepworth received at this time.
Hepworth was prolific during her later years, making nearly as many works during the 1960s as between 1925 and 1960. She experimented with new materials, working in bronze, slate and printmaking noting, ‘while always remaining constant to my conviction about truth to material, I have found a greater freedom for myself’.’
Related exhibitions & events
Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life
21 May – 31 Oct 2021
On permanent display - FREE
Yorkshire: Hepworth, Moore and the Landscape
30 Apr - 18 Sep 2016
Hepworth In Yorkshire
16 May 2015 - 13 Mar 2016
A Greater Freedom: Hepworth 1965–1975
18 Apr 2015 - 24 Apr 2016
Making A Modern Collection
05 Jul 2014 - 19 Apr 2015
Barbara Hepworth: Graphic Works
26 Apr 2013 - 07 Feb 2014
Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings
27 Oct 2012 - 03 Feb 2013
Barbara Hepworth & the artists of St Ives
In August 1939, Barbara Hepworth, her four young children and her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, left London – due to the threat of bombings – for St Ives. In St Ives Hepworth contributed to the development of an existing artistic community, which included Bernard Leach, who had established the Leach Pottery there in 1920. Living in close proximity to the Cornish landscape that was depicted by many fellow St Ives artists, Hepworth reflected in 1946: ‘The main sources of my inspiration are the human figure and the landscape; also the one in relation to the other.’
This timeline looks at a selection of paintings, prints and ceramics in Wakefield's Art Collection made by artists Hepworth knew and worked with in Cornwall. These include two recently donated paintings by Hepworth’s contemporary Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, and ceramics by Bernard and Janet Leach which were once owned by Hepworth and were given to Wakefield by her family in 2011.
Three works gifted to Wakefield at the beginning of 2020 through the Cultural Gifts Scheme are also featured; a stringed bronze sculpture by Hepworth, Orpheus (1956); a bronze sculpture by Denis Mitchell who worked as Hepworth’s principle assistant for ten years; and a newly conserved landscape painting of Cornwall by William Scott.
Exhibition of late works by Barbara Hepworth presented by The Hepworth Wakefield and Phillips
'I don’t think anyone realises how much the last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth’. Barbara Hepworth, 1971
Earliest known portrait of Barbara Hepworth is gifted to Wakefield
The portrait will be the centrepiece work in a new exhibition Hepworth in Yorkshire, which opened at the gallery on Saturday 16 May 2015.
Two new Barbara Hepworth exhibitions announced for 2015
Hepworth in Yorkshire and A Greater Freedom: Hepworth will open at The Hepworth Wakefield in spring 2015.
Wakefield's Art collection celebrated at Downing Street
It is estimated that 50,000 international and UK visitors could have seen the works on display in the entrance hall and corridors of No.10. Downing Street.
The Hepworth Wakefield at London Art Fair
50 Years of 'Winged Figure'
John Lewis Oxford and The Hepworth Wakefield celebrate 50 Years of 'Winged Figure'.