1903 to 1975
Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield in 1903. She trained in sculpture at Leeds School of Art (1920-1) and, on a county scholarship, at the Royal College of Art (1921-4), meeting the painters Raymond Coxon and Edna Ginesi and the sculptor Henry Moore.
Hepworth and her second husband Nicholson revealed their move towards abstraction in joint exhibitions in 1932 (Tooth’s) and 1933 (Lefevre). This became the abiding direction of her work, epitomised by the pioneering piercing of the block, and coincided with experiments in collage, photograms and prints. Establishing links with the continental avant garde, the couple visited the Parisian studios of Arp, Brancusi, Mondrian, Braque and Picasso. In 1935 they were instrumental in restricting the 7&5 to abstract work, thus paving the way for a fertile period of constructivism enhanced by artist refugees from totalitarian Europe (Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, Gabo).
Such utopianism was curtailed by the war, and Hepworth and Nicholson evacuated to St Ives, Cornwall. They stayed with Margaret Mellis and Adrian Stokes at Little Park Owles, Carbis Bay. Domestic demands and lack of space restricted Hepworth to small sculpture and painting until, on moving to Chy-an-Kerris, Carbis Bay in 1942, she secured a studio. Her first major solo exhibition (Temple Newsam, Leeds 1943) was followed by a monograph by William Gibson (Barbara Hepworth: Sculptress, 1946). She was prominent amongst St Ives artists, forming a focus in 1949 for the establishment of the Penwith Society of Artists with Nicholson, Peter Lanyon and others, and helping to attract international attention to the group’s exhibitions. Although Hepworth’s contribution to the 1950 Venice Biennale was dogged by comparisons with Moore, two retrospectives – in Wakefield (1951) and London (Whitechapel 1954) – and Read’s monograph (1952) confirmed her post-war reputation. She bought Trewyn Studio, St Ives in 1949, where she lived after her divorce from Nicholson two years later. She visited Greece in 1954 in an effort to recover from the sudden death of Paul Skeaping (1953).
Hepworth was especially active within, and on behalf of, the modernist artistic community in St Ives during its period of post-war international prominence. Her experience of the Cornish landscape was acknowledged in her choice of titles. In a wider context, Hepworth also represented a link with pre-war ideals in a climate of social and physical reconstruction; this was exemplified by her two sculptures for the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain (1951). Public commissions and greater demand encouraged her to employ assistants for preliminary work – including Denis Mitchell and Dicon Nance – and to produce bronze editions.