art tanya harrod
She Carved Her Own Way
Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life
By Eleanor Clayton (Thames & Hudson 288pp £25)
Barbara Hepworth’s life was by any standard a remarkable one. It was a triumph of determination. She did not come from a deprived background: her father was a civil engineer who became a well-respected county surveyor for the West Riding of Yorkshire. She went to a good school and was exceptionally gifted musically. She wrote with great clarity and was an accomplished draughtswoman. She sailed into Leeds School of Art and in 1921 won a senior scholarship to the Royal College of Art, then under the invigorating leadership of the recently appointed William Rothenstein. At the college, which at the time occupied a building attached to the Victoria and Albert Museum, she chose to concentrate on sculpture, drawing from casts, modelling in clay, carving reliefs in plaster, with some stone and wood carving too. It was a traditional education, undertaken alongside another student from Yorkshire, Henry Moore.
Hepworth’s turn to sculpture was in itself not so unusual – female sculptors like Dora Gordine and Kathleen Scott were a force between the wars, if subsequently overlooked. In 1925 Hepworth married a fellow RCA student, John Skeaping. Together they took lessons in marble carving in Rome from Giovanni Ardini, a skilled craftsman then working for the acclaimed Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Both initially carved stylised birds and animals, having already attracted the interest of discerning collectors like Edward Marsh and George Eumorfopoulos. In 1928 Hepworth had a successful joint show with Skeaping at the
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Beaux Arts Gallery, which included an austere woman’s torso in Hoptonwood stone, now in the Tate. In 1931 she met and began an affair with Ben Nicholson. She divorced Skeaping in 1933.
By then she was making challenging, stripped-down semi-abstract works and, like Moore, had become associated with so-called ‘direct carving’, which had been pioneered before the First World War by Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill. But being an ambitious female artist working in the avant-garde was far from easy. Her art was relentlessly analysed by male art critics. She was described as a sculptress, which she disliked, and worse; her work was found variously to be feminine, cold and artisanal. Innovatory practice became an issue – who made the first hole, the first oval form, the first string sculpture – and Hepworth was often cast as an acolyte of Henry Moore or of the Russian émigré Naum Gabo. She was consistently and unfairly on the receiving end of diminutions, encapsulated in a remark made by Henry Moore after her death. But for his influence, he reflected, ‘she would have become a drawing teacher at a secondary school’. He proved more a rival than a friend.
Hepworth’s work has received increasing and deserved recognition but her life has until relatively recently been off limits to researchers. Sally Festing’s unofficial 1995 biography was written without access to the sculptor’s archive. The understanding was that her son-in-law, the late Sir Alan Bowness, was writing a definitive study. Researchers on Hepworth were forced to operate round this lack of access, though the Bowness book never materialised. Eleanor Clayton’s Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, published to mark a major retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield, has, however, made full use of Hepworth’s papers, all now available in the Tate Archive. Clayton’s book is described as a biography. It is a description that does this finely written study a disservice. She has taken the decision not to round out Hepworth’s social and artistic circle, none of whom are granted the little pen portraits we associate with biography. Faced with the tide of garishly colourful insights that has accompanied recent biographies of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, we have reason to rejoice at what appears to be an act of benign self-censorship.
Literary Review | may 2021 8