Monday, 30 November -0001

Heroic Hepworth

Powerful and personal, Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures changed the cultural landscape and the flank wall of John Lewis, says Sam Taylor

Written by Sam Taylor
Above the Holles Street entrance to John Lewis on Oxford Street sits a 19ft-high piece of sculpture. It’s called Winged Figure, although it looks more like the hull of boat, with a series of radial rods crisscrossing it, as if to stop it flying off. It was specially commissioned by the partnership to enhance their newly opened modernist building and installed in 1963. At the last count, it was estimated that an average of 200 million people a year pass by it, most, presumably, unaware that it is by the late Dame Barbara Hepworth. It does not form part of the newly opened retrospective of her work at Tate Britain, however, which is a shame as it sits in the open air, as her most impressive work is designed to do. ‘If the Winged Figure in Oxford Street gives people a sense of being airborne in rain and sunlight and nightlight,’ she said at the time of its unveiling, ‘I will be very happy.’

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It has taken the Tate almost 50 years to pay their tribute to her work, despite her studio in St Ives (where she lived from 1949 until her death in 1975) forming not only one of Cornwall’s largest cultural attractions, but also a crucial reason for opening the seafront Tate St Ives in the first place – the studio and its gardens up the lane long ago given over to them: the gardens that house her vast, familiar, smooth structures, that beg to be stroked. Her studio with its pots and chisels and tools left as they lay, as if she might suddenly reappear if only she hadn’t set fire to herself in bed one night while smoking.

Hers was a long life lived, painful but proud, a woman of whom it can truly be claimed changed the cultural landscape. It is her largescale version of Single Form, her memorial to Nobel Peace Prize-winner Dag Hammarskjöld, that sits outside the UN Building in New York, for instance: its soft inward dent a painful poke in the heart of stone, a fitting tribute to her much-loved friend.

Hepworth is most famous for her abstract ovals or circles in hard materials or more latterly in wood – easier work as her hands began to seize up. It is often a question as to whether it was she or her RCA contemporary Henry Moore who was the first to ‘pierce’ stone, thereby creating an interior dimension within the exterior space. The Tate Britain retrospective doesn’t really provide the answer, but it does do justice to her complex output, with her Mother And Child stone carvings of the 1930s, along with the tiny standing infant figure – her firstborn, Paul, with the sculptor John Skeaping. She was later to have surprise triplets in the 1930s with the artist Ben Nicholson and they were so impoverished that the children were raised in a local nunnery until they were five. Her son Paul, who became an RAF pilot, died, with his co-pilot, in a flying accident in 1953, her heartbreak immortalised in the work entitled Two Figures (Heroes) 1954, in oil and graphite on hardboard.

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Her exquisite, smaller-scale stone and wood carvings with the taut strings are a recurring theme. Immediately recognisable emblems of the modernist movement, the strings are possibly reminiscent of the natural scars she would have seen daily in the bleak rocks of her native West Riding, and later in the salt seams on the Cornish slate.

Ideally, especially for an artist who often said she needed ‘a strong sunlight’ to work, the Tate would have thought better of confining everything inside. But their lack of any outside settings for the pieces does give an excuse to nip down to John Lewis.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture For A Modern World, runs until 25 October at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1: 020-7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk


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