Barbara Hepworth

Writings and Conversations

“Every figure has a presence. In fact, you can barely have any standing object which doesn't.”

Early in her career as a sculptor, Dame Barbara Hepworth (January 10, 1903 – May 20, 1975) argued that the contemplation of nature renews our best self; “our sense of mystery and our imagination is kept alive, and rightly understood, it gives us the power to project into a plastic medium some universal or abstract sense of beauty.”

Echoing the sentiments of many who found life’s pale removed by our spirits immersion in natural beauty, it is not surprising that Hepworth’s work manifests that beauty.

Barbara Hepworth's 'winged figure' outside John Lewis on Oxford Street.
Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Winged Figure’ on John Lewis department store on Oxford Street, London. “I wanted to capture the greatest variety of light and shadow, from morning sun, afternoon reflected light and night floodlighting, so that visually the sculpture never remained static.”

Working realistically replenishes one’s love for life, humanity and the earth. Working abstractly seems to release one’s personality and sharpen the perceptions, so that in the observation of life it is the wholeness or inner intention which moves one so profoundly: the components fall into place, the detail is significant of unity.

From ‘Sculpture’, Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, 1937

Hepworth was a British sculptor who created vivid modernist shapes and figures. Writings and Conversations gathers Hepworth’s articles, essays, and interviews from 1933 until her death in 1975.

A constructive work is an embodiment of freedom itself and is unconsciously perceived even by those who are consciously against it. The desire to live is the strongest universal emotion, it springs from the depths of our unconscious sensibility – and the desire to give life is our most potent, constructive, conscious expression of this intuition.

Extract from a letter to art critic Herbert Read, March 1948

Though the collection spans decades, Hepworth is clear on certain things: what drives her, the roles of fear and freedom, the difference between modelling and carving (and why she prefers the latter),1 the defining feeling of presence in her work.

Bronze cast sculpture model for "Meridian" by Barbara Hepworth. New College, Oxford featured in Barbara Hepworth's "Writings and Conversations" in The Examined Life Library.
Bronze cast sculpture model for “Meridian” by Barbara Hepworth. New College, Oxford. “It is part of my conviction as a sculptor to treat both the maquette and the scale model as complete works.” Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Although Hepworth abstains from defining “sculpture,” she does allow that through it “[y]ou can open the door to a fuller understanding.”2

I call it Figure and indeed, in my mind, it is a figure. It has a presence, every figure has a presence. In fact, you can barely have any standing object which doesn’t, except engineering-wise, which doesn’t take one to the presence of the figure in landscape.

Interview with Robert Sharpe at Trewyn Studio, St. Ives, 1971.

Although Hepworth is less known than her contemporary Henry Moore, she has become more popular and better understood recently due to exhibitions like the Tate’s 2015 Retrospective. Hepworth’s work is also on full-time exhibit at the Hepworth Wakefield in West Yorkshire.3

"Two Turning Forms" by Barbara Hepworth featured in "What is Presence? Five Examples."
“Two Turning Forms” and other work by Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I’m a North Country-woman. I was born at Wakefield and brought up in Yorkshire. I was profoundly influenced by Yorkshire. My father used to drive me all over the Dales.

But what I was lacking in Yorkshire I only discovered when I was to Italy and that was light. In my work I always used light a great deal. I test everything I do by sunlight, and by moonlight, and in rain greyness. This place is like Yorkshire and the Mediterranean, and I need them both.

Edwin Mullins, ‘Hepworth at Home’, The Daily Telegraph Supplement, 1966

Hepworth saw place in its physicality, apart from meaning. Lines, formations, change over time. Like fellow British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, Hepworth knew her work had to dialogue with the landscape and yet stand apart. The human form must be part of the experience.

I cannot write anything about landscape without writing about the human figure and human sprit inhabiting the landscape. For me, the whole art of sculpture is the fusion of these two elements – the balance of sensation and evocation of man in this universe. At an early age I began to observe the movements and behaviour of people, to study their posture and gestures and anticipation what was about to happen. Were people around me ill, or cross, or anxious?

‘A Sculptor’s Landscape’, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor’s Landscape, 1966

At Hepworth’s studio garden in St. Ives, where she produced most of her work, see—and touch—many of her pieces. Her combination of shapes, lines, even materials in such proportion makes one feel something unspoken. Lines or holes are often added—why?

Perhaps something was missing, yet undiscovered?

Photo of Barbara Hepworth in her studio. Featured in "Writings and Conversations, 1933-1975" in The Examined Life Library.
Barbara Hepworth in her St. Ives Studio.

I like to think she leaves space for wonder, for some divine unknown. A quest that has stirred many artists like Hermann Hesse and Mary Oliver). Or for, in the words of E.F. Schumacher, “the X element that makes us human.”

I do not like drama in sculpture. To me drama has its fulfillment in time and space – not in being arrested in concrete material. I want to achieve a ‘presence’ in my sculptures of such a kind that they remain true and valid in all moods. The sense of humanity and compassion, perhaps one could call it the religious apprehension, seems far more important in giving a sculpture this special countenance which can remain eternal.”

‘The Sculptor Speaks’, recorded talk for the British Council, 1961

Writings and Conversation’s carefully curated essays and interviews offer essential personal insight into an artist who was driven by the contemplation of the mystery that propels us through imagination and into art.

Close-up of "Pierced Form" by Barbara Hepworth, 1962.
“Pierced Form” by Barbara Hepworth, 1960. Carved from Nigerian guarea wood. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Hepworth is my favorite sculptor. Her love of materiality, respect of space and raw emotional presence are so meaningful (more so after I saw her St. Ives studio). This book is a gift, so is she.

Supplement Hepworth’s sublime insights with Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a work that mixes poetics, illusion, and imagery to localize some of our most abstract self-concepts. Or read alongside the poetry of Ocean Vuong, which arrests abstract concepts like love, pain, and loss in physical spaces like bodies, skies, and seas.