Study Visit – Barbara Hepworth and Tate Britain

Having very much enjoyed visiting Hepworth’s St Ives studio last year, I was excited to be joining this Study Visit to the current exhibition of her work at Tate Britain. The arrangement of the offered a timeline through her evolving practice, and whilst the scale and material of her work evolved, a constant thread could be detected through it; the pursuit of harmony, both internal and external. Harmony with the materials, harmony of form, harmony of spirit, and, the greatest ambition, art bringing harmony to the world.

Hepworth was one of the wave of 20th century sculptures who embraced ‘direct carving’ as both a methodology and a philosophy.  Breaking with classical sculptural practices of modelling and casting, they sought a greater connection with their materials by the physical hand working and in the expression of the material in the completed work. Gill, Moore, Gaudier-Brzeska and Epstein were all working in this way. Her early works were small naturalistic forms of torsos and birds. Working from the solid meant that closed forms were more easily found in the material, and small forms allowed for greater early experimentation. Even her early works had a sensuous flow.

These earlier works showed the influence of non-European, ‘primitive’ art in the addition of incised marks, for instance ‘Sculpture with Profiles’, 1932,  but later she abandoned these, as her work simplified and became increasingly abstract. She explored sculptures which were composed of several pieces, creating a dialogue between the them and a negative space to consider in addition to the positive. Always the nature of the material and the beauty of its surface possibilities are considered. At one stage, she experimented with Constructivism and sculptures were produced which used geometric forms and mathematical ratios but these seem, to me at least, to be among her least successful works.

Hepworth’s sculptures grew in size. The convex, closed forms  and gave way to rotund forms with large, concave depressions and then piercings. The inside of the form became as important as the external surface. In a response to the coves of Cornwall, she started painting the interior surfaces in whites or the blues of the sea. She may also have been influenced to use colour in this way by Adrian Stokes who wrote ‘Carving colour gives the interior life, the warmth, to composition … the simultaneous life of the blood’ and she also acknowledged the influence of seeing the exposed interiors of bomb damaged Medieval sculptures (Stephens, 1998).

When she was given a consignment of large hardwood trunks, she celebrated the material with smooth polished external surfaces displaying the grain and colour of the wood, but showing the chisel marks on the internal surfaces which she painted white. The hard wood grain cracked in places, adding to the materiality.

Some of the most striking works in the exhibition were actually a drawings from her operating theatre series, particularly ‘Concentration of Hands’, 1948. The shapes made by the figures echo the shapes in her sculptures. The drawing uses pencil and oil paint on board and she has worked the surface to create texture in the way she might work a sculpture. Often I enjoy drawings for their spontaneity and freedom but there is nothing spontaneous about these carefully considered and structured drawings.

A comment made repeated and independently by all the students visiting the exhibition, was that we regretted that the sculptures were in glass cases and that they cried out to be investigated by touch, to be stroked.

Sketches and Notes

tate (4 of 6) tate (5 of 6)

After an enjoyable lunch outside in the autumnal sun, with the usual lively discussions about course content and future choices, we returned to the galleries where Gerald Deslandes, our tutor for the day, showed us works by Hepworth’s contemporaries, especially Moore. In particular, he talked about Moore’s dis-quietening, challenging, sentinel figures in contrast to Hepworth’s pursuit of harmony. The Tate holds a large collection of Moore’s work; ironical after J.B. Manson, then Tate Director, told Tate Trustee Robert Sainsbury, ‘Over my dead body will Henry Moore ever enter the Tate’ (Correia, 2014).

Gerald’s comments, as always, were full of interesting insight. He discussed the religious significance of Anthony Gormely’s ‘Bed’ and how he carved the shapes by  consuming, with difficulty, the wax soaked bread in a kind of protracted Eucharist. This was compared with Anish Kapoor’s ‘Adam’ which references the early cave temples of India which had rectangular niches carved to accommodate sculptures of Hindu gods or Buddha. The niche is painted in such a matte, dark colour that it impossible to focus on it or tell how deep it is; it could be a opening to infinity.

I sketched some other sculptures. I found this piece, ‘Liar Liar ‘, 2008-2009, by Nicholas Pope particularly interesting. Massed pottery forms, vaguely anthropomorphic, advance from a corner of the gallery. They are human height and have braying mouths or maybe eyes. The mouths might be accusing the observer or someone else of lying. Some of us found they threatening, others benign. The white clay of which they are coiled, clearly shows the method of manufacture, adding to the organic, sentient creature feel. I think the success of the sculpture lies in the ambiguity and that people can project different interpretations on to it.

tate (1 of 6) tate (2 of 6) tate (3 of 6)



Alice Correia, ‘Henry Moore and Tate: A Timeline’, July 2014, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015,, accessed 28 September 2015.

Stephens, 1998. Hepworth, D. B. (1940) Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) Available at: (Accessed: 28 September 2015).


About starrybird

I am mature student studying art with The Open College of the Arts. My passion is printmaking.
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