Barbara Hepworth

Writings and Conversations

“It is the mystery that makes such loveliness and I want to project my feeling about it into sculpture—not words.”

Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903 – 1975) 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.

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

I do not like drama in sculpture. To me drama has its fulfilment 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.

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.2

"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.

When I visited Greece and the islands of the Aegean I was greatly moved by the extraordinary power of the vertical in a landscape which was surrounded by the curved horizon of the sea. In the similar clear brilliant light of West Penwith—this last twenty miles of England thrusting out into the Atlantic and enclosed by sea on three sides.

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. She also knew that the human form must be part of the experience.

In this pure light the solitary human figure, standing on a hill or cliff, sand or rock, becomes a strong column, a thrust out of the land, as strong as the rock itself and powerfully rooted; but the impression overall is one of the growth and expansion, a rising form which reaches outwards and upwards.

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 she felt 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 unknown, for the Divine? 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.”

In my opinion there have not been any ’empty spaces’! Space is an active & tangibly appreciated, dynamic—it is a reality asking for the relationship of the human figure or sculpture to perpetuate its dynamic.

Writings and Conversations’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.

Supplement Hepworth’s thoughts on emotion and structure 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.