At her death in 1975, Barbara Hepworth was described as 'probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day.' Forty years later, Hepworth is the subject of a major exhibition at the Tate Britain, the first large scale retrospective of the artist's work in London for 50 years. Hepworth's work has previously been displayed in dedicated venues, such as The Hepworth Wakefield, and her old studio in St Ives, which is managed by the Tate. The sculptor's 2D works can also be found in various collections across the country. As the Tate Britain's exhibition draws to a close, I went out to find the public sculptures in London that constitute part of the legacy of Britain's best loved, internationally acclaimed, modernist sculptor.
Barbara Hepworth moved to St Ives in 1939 in order to escape a panicked London shortly before the declaration of the Second World War. Although her arrival was not auspicious, Hepworth admired the 'barbaric and magical countryside' of Cornwall, studded with ancient standing stones and hemmed by dramatic coastal landscapes. Thirty years later, and towards the end of her life, Hepworth declared the area her 'spiritual home'.
On Hampstead Heath, something of the totemic phenomena of the Cornish landscape has been enshrined among the rhododendron bushes beside Kenwood House. Hepworth's Monolith Empyrean (meaning 'heavenly stone') is carved from a limestone block rich with fossils. The sculpture's outline is humanoid, but the viewer is invited to look through and beyond the sculpture by cavities that pierce right through the block, framing shifting perspectives of the gardens. The sculpture used to stand on the London Southbank, but it has occupied its place on Hampstead Heath since it was purchased by the London County Council in 1959.
My grandmother started Art College in the early sixties, a time when Hepworth had established her predominance over the British sculpture scene and her predilection for the monumental was exerting a hypnotic influence on aspiring sculptors. On my grandmother's first day, her tutor asked her to choose between pursuing a vocation in painting or sculpture. Without hesitation, my grandmother chose painting. Her reasoning was that, as abstraction and monumentalism were dominating sculptural creation, she did not want to work in a medium that would require her to depend on male students to carry up gigantic, heavy blocks of stone for her from the Central Saint Martins basement! Hepworth's massive Single Form, in Battersea Park, made me think of my grandmother. At over 10 feet tall, Single Form occupies the outer limits of what can be accomplished in a single bronze casting.
Single Form was constructed as a memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1952 up until his death in 1961. Hammarskjöld, a good friend of the sculptor, had been speaking to Hepworth about a commission for the UN site just before his tragic death in an airplane crash. Single form was first exhibited in Battersea Park in 1963. Over the next year, Hepworth recast the sculpture in three parts for the UN site, scaling the sculpture up from 10 feet to a gigantic 21 feet high.
When interviewed in 1972, in the last few years of her career, Hepworth stated that she thought 'every sculpture must be touched. It is part of the way you make it and it's our first sensibility: the sense of feeling; the first one we have when we are born.' The current exhibition of Hepworth's work at the Tate Britain suffers the major flaw of having locked Hepworth's sculptures away in irritatingly reflective glass cases, and for having instructed its stewards to keep an eagle eye on fingers twitching to caress Hepworth's tactile bronzes. Fortunately, on the front lawns of the Tate Britain, is Figure in Landscape, which is happily exposed for the general public to peer at, prod and stroke it to their heart's content.
This is the second time that Figure in Landscape has welcomed visitors into the Tate Britain. In 1968, during the previous large-scale retrospective of Hepworth's work in the Tate Britain, Figure in Landscape was positioned on the front steps of the gallery. It must be supposed that Penelope Curtis, the out-going director at the Tate Britain and lead curator of the Hepworth exhibition, is giving the nod to the work of her forebears.
John Lewis opened its flagship store on Oxford Street in 1961. To celebrate the occasion, and to project a marketable image of urbanity, John Lewis commissioned a sculpture to adorn the plain facade that faces onto Holles Street. Several sculptors entered the competition, including Barbara Hepworth. All of them were rejected. On her second attempt, Hepworth's sculpture Winged Figure was accepted. In 1963, the sculpture was fixed in place.
Barbara Hepworth declared that she thought 'one of our universal dreams is to move in air and water without the resistance of our human legs. If the Winged Figure in Oxford Street gives people a sense of being airborne in rain and sunlight and nightlight I will be very happy.' The current gleam of the aluminium and stainless steel sculpture is due to a recent restoration.'
There used to be a fifth Barbara Hepworth sculpture in London. Two Forms (Divided Circle) used to stand in Dulwich Park, but it was stolen by suspected metal thieves in 2011.
Viccy Ibbett, Art UK Volunteer