Since her untimely death at her Cornwall studio in 1975, writes Chris Mugan, Barbara Hepworth has remained one of Britain’s most recognisable sculptors, her mainly abstract works still drawing appreciative crowds to St Ives some 40 years on.
In addition, three distinctive and varied Hepworth sculptures are being offered in theModern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 25 June. One of them, Two Forms With White (Greek), cast in 1969, is described by Andre Zlattinger, Christie’s Head of Modern British Art, as the highlight of the sale. Featuring a dark brown patina and painted partly white, the pair of forms was inspired by her trip to Greece in the previous decade. Andre Zlattinger, Christie’s Head of Modern British art, offers an insight into the market for Hepworth’s work, ahead of our auction in London later this month.
Why is there so much interest in Hepworth in 2015, 40 years after she passed away, especially in terms of the new finds and research appearing at both galleries?
Eleanor Clayton: There are always cycles in great artists’ reputations; especially when they’re seen as too much of the establishment, artists no longer see them as relevant, but then they get reclaimed. Personally, I believe a lot of it is to do with Penelope Curtis [Director of Tate Britain until July], who has studied Hepworth for many years. Her move to Tate Britain has been instrumental in bringing about the show, which is going to be such a huge event we decided to do something here [at The Hepworth Wakefield] to complement it.
How far have Tate and Hepworth Wakefield collaborated on these concurrent exhibitions?
EC: I knew the Tate show was planning on ending with the Rietveld Pavilion, site of a seminal Hepworth exhibition in 1965, while I was always interested in her later works. These are often overlooked, partly because some critics didn’t receive them as well. The title A Greater Freedom comes from a conversation Hepworth had with a critic. I find the later works really dynamic, because she could have taken a pedestrian route and continued to be successful, but experimented a lot with different materials — silver, gold, marble, bronze, printmaking and paint — and how she presented her work. She cared very much about how people interacted with it.
We also knew Tate were placing her in an international context. But we are in Wakefield for a reason: this is where she grew up. I’ve worked with Sophie Bowness, Hepworth’s granddaughter who runs her estate, so I knew it had some wonderful family photographs and juvenilia from her teenage years that have never been seen.
One of the Wakefield shows looks at her Yorkshire upbringing. How much influence did that period have on her art in later years, particularly when she was based in London or Cornwall?
EC: Barbara Hepworth was very vocal about how her father driving her through the Yorkshire landscape at a young age gave her a great sense of form and volume. Things like rocks standing in nature have been very influential throughout her life. In the exhibition we have beautiful black and white photographs she commissioned for a book in 1965 about parts of the region she remembered visiting as a child. Her father and headmistress were also very encouraging. Scholarships from the county allowed her to study at Leeds College of Art, the Royal College of Art and even to travel to Italy.
Inga Fraser: One of the most interesting links I found was Hepworth’s description of the moment she was first inspired to become a sculptor as a result of seeing ancient Egyptian sculpture in a sideshow at school. She described eloquently the magical experience of seeing those works illuminated in the classroom.
Tate claims that Hepworth’s reputation as a member of the international avant-garde has largely been forgotten in Britain. Why, in your opinion, has this been the case, and how should we view her in this light?
IF: Though she was, by nature, not as big a personality as her male counterparts, she was an incredibly high-profile artist, often appearing in the press and the subject of documentaries for broadcast worldwide. Only since her death has her work become less familiar in the public domain; approaches and styles have moved on.
EC: Penelope Curtis gave an interesting talk where she said about how vocal Hepworth was about taking inspiration from the landscape, whether that was Yorkshire or Cornwall, and the establishment of Hepworth Wakefield and her museum in Cornwall in response to those claims has tied her to the British landscape in the public eye. But she also took inspiration from other places, such as Greece, which prompted a whole series of works.
Curators on both sides have unearthed new artefacts and works to illuminate these perspectives. What have been the most exciting discoveries at Tate Britain?
EC: What’s interesting there is how involved Hepworth was in architecture, how she saw her work in that setting. They’ve uncovered work I’ve only seen in pictures as a student, these amazing early sculptures that were considered to be lost, so I’m actually delighted.
IF: Some of the most thrilling finds in the Tate Britain show are sculptures, the whereabouts of which remained unknown since the last Tate exhibition in 1968. In particular, one of Hepworth’s earliest carved stone figurative works will be shown in public for the first time in some five decades. We will also reveal a rich collection of photographs in which we see Hepworth experimenting and manipulating how her work was depicted as an image — a key skill for any artist in the 20th century!
And in Wakefield?
EC: We have the fantastic acquisition of a portrait of Hepworth by Ethel Walker, probably commissioned for her 18th birthday. It really cements the Hepworth in Wakefield display and offers new insight into what her younger years were like. For me, I really enjoyed seeing the plaster relief of her cousins, probably made when she was 15 or 16. It’s so incredibly skillful and adept and shows their likenesses really well. In the late show, however, what is surprising for a lot of people is the variety of materials she used. They’re not used to seeing paintings by her. You think of Hepworth as being part of British Modernism in the Thirties, but she was still so engaged with technology in the Sixties.
The Bank of England is seeking nominations for a figure from the visual arts as the new face of its £20 note. What would your argument be for Hepworth?
EC: She is one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, who had a strong international reputation, but was also deeply influenced by the British landscape and growing up here. She spans significant events in our history and in a lot of cases her work can be traced through these moments, like working with plaster when she was short of money during the Second World War.
IF: Hepworth would cut a fine figure on a new banknote. As our upcoming exhibition testifies, she shaped modern art in the UK. Her sculptures are a familiar feature of public spaces across the British Isles — not just St Ives and Wakefield, but Battersea and Oxford Circus in London, the Orkneys, Exeter, Edinburgh, Wolverhampton and Liverpool — making her one of the most recognised artists in the country. Her works have immediate visual and tactile appeal and her talent and commitment most definitely recommend her for the job.
And finally, how is the market performing for works by Barbara Hepworth?
Andre Zlattinger: Hepworth rightly deserves the recognition of these shows because she is such a key figure in British art. There’s huge international interest in her work, and over the past two years, we’ve twice broken the world record for her work: Curved Form (Bryher II) became the most expensive Hepworth work in 2013, before last year Figure For Landscape sold for £4m.