Barbara Hepworth

(1903- 1975)

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1903, and studied at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. She learned to carve stone while in Rome in 1925-6, together with her first husband, the sculptor John Skeaping. This was not part of the sculptor's normal training at that time, but considered the work of a stonemason. Hepworth thus aligned herself to the direct carving movement championed by modernist sculptors such as Brancusi, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska. After their return to London, Hepworth and Skeaping held their first important exhibition, showing mainly stone carvings of figures and animals, at the Beaux Arts Gallery in June 1928. A second joint exhibition followed at the gallery of Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, in October 1930. Hepworth's early carvings were well received and sold for substantial sums. Hepworth and Skeaping's relationship deteriorated, however, and the marriage was dissolved in 1933. In 1931 Hepworth had met the painter Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), and they began to work in very close association from the spring of 1932. The forms in Hepworth's sculptures became more and more simplified. By the end of 1934 Hepworth was making totally abstract sculpture - not simplifications (or abstractions) of human or organic forms, as was the case with her contemporaries Brancusi and Arp. These works by Hepworth can be regarded as the first completely abstract sculptures made anywhere in the world, the equivalent of the carved White Reliefs that Ben Nicholson was making simultaneously. She also became a member of several forward-looking groups, such as the 7 & 5 Society, Unit One and Abstraction-Creation. In 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St Ives, Cornwall, where she became an influential member of the artistic community, being a founder member of the Penwyth Society in 1949. Although Hepworth's marriage to Ben Nicholson was dissolved in 1951 he remained in St Ives until 1958, and the mutually beneficial influence of painter and sculptor on each other's work persisted. They gradually regained their international reputation after the hiatus of the Second World War and its aftermath. Hepworth had important retrospective exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1954 and 1962, at the São Paulo biennale, Brazil, in 1959 (where she was awarded the grand prix), and at the Tate Gallery in 1968. She exhibited regularly in London, New York, and Zurich, and was shown throughout Europe and the United States, in Japan, and in Australia. She became Dame Barbara Hepworth in 1965. After a long battle with cancer, she died on 20 May 1975 in a horrific fire at her home. Her studio was designated the Barbara Hepworth Museum in the following year and, on coming under the Tate's aegis in 1980, secured an unrivalled collection of her work for the Gallery.

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