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Barbara Hepworth, Reconstruction, 1947 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate / Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
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Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings

27 Oct 2012 - 03 Feb 2013

This exhibition revealed the remarkable series of exquisite drawings and paintings made by Barbara Hepworth during the late 1940s, illustrating surgeons at work in operating theatres within post-war Britain.

Following the hospitalisation of their daughter Sarah in 1944, Hepworth and her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, struck up a friendship with Norman Capener, the surgeon who treated Sarah at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter. Through this friendship, Hepworth was invited to witness a variety of surgical procedures at Exeter and the London Clinic. Over a two-year period, 1947–9, Hepworth produced around 80 works within the series. As well as pencil, ink and chalk drawings, many were executed in both pencil and oil paint on board.

With over 30 works on display, including Hepworth’s sketchbook, this exhibition was the most significant presentation of this extraordinary series to date. The exhibition comprised key loans from national, public and private collections, some of which have never been exhibited previously.

Importantly, this exhibition focused on a less well-known aspect of Hepworth’s artistic practice – her skill as a draughtsperson. Visitors discovered how drawing was an important means for Hepworth of exploring forms that influenced her practice as a sculptor.

Impressed by the close connection she felt between her art and the skilled craftsmanship of the surgeon, Hepworth was particularly fascinated by the rhythmic movement of hands during the medical procedures unfolding before her. The artist explains in her unpublished lecture delivered to an audience of surgeons in the early 1950s, shortly after she completed the series: “There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors.”

The Hospital Drawings series should also be viewed in the context of the launch of Britain’s pioneering NHS in 1948. A ground-breaking change within Post-War Britain society was embraced by artists like Hepworth, who supported the broad left ideals behind the social reconstruction of Britain, to develop a fairer, more inclusive society.

This was a Mascalls Gallery exhibition, curated by Nathaniel Hepburn.

Barbara Hepworth, Tibia Graft 1949. Oil and pencil on paper. 52.2 x 37.3 cm. Purchased 1951 © Bowness

“A superb exhibition….Hepworth’s drawings of surgeons and operating theatres occupy an outstanding place in her oeuvre.” Richard Cork, Financial Times

“full of drama and passion” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

“…so powerful, and so very beautiful.” Charles Darwent, The Independent on Sunday

“The current high reputation of Barbara Hepworth has been boosted by The Hepworth Wakefield, a magnifivent showcase for her art, and is now further enhanced by an exhibition focusin on her Hospital Drawings.” Frances Spalding, The Burlington Magazine

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