Barbara Hepworth's new exhibition at St Albans Museum + Gallery
PUBLISHED: 11:37 11 June 2019
Hans Wild, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness
Inspired by the links between Barbara Hepworth and Herts, a new show at St Albans Museum + Gallery brings together sculptures, drawings and archive material for the first time to explore her vision
If you were asked to name the most successful female sculptors of the 20th century, chances are you might only be able to name one or two at best. But as one of the most influential artists of her generation, Barbara Hepworth is very likely to be one of them.
Her pioneering work can be seen at a major new exhibition at St Albans Museum + Gallery until September. Barbara Hepworth: artist in society 1948-53 brings together material from the middle of her career, just after the Second World War, which hasn't been seen together since it was created. Comprised of figure drawings, sculptures and archive material, the exhibition offers the chance to see pieces on loan from the Tate, the British Council, Hertfordshire County Council and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, to name just a few, plus works from private collections.
The show celebrates a short but pivotal period in her career as she began to receive wide appreciation for her Modernist works and secured monumental public commissions. At this time Hepworth's focus had shifted from landscape to the human form and the exploration of relationships between people, especially men and women and the mother and child.
With more than 100 objects on display, the exhibition focuses on how the artist captured and interpreted movement and interaction, inspired by watching figures congregating in St Mark's Square in Venice, dancers she commissioned to move around her St Ives studio, and medical teams she watched perform operations in London and Exeter.
Though Hepworth is lesser-known for her drawings than her sculptures, she moved seamlessly between the two, and her representations of the dancers and surgeons are exquisitely detailed. The unity portrayed in the drawings and her sculptured figures represents Hepworth's interpretation of an ideal, unified society.
Housed in the intimate Weston Gallery in the converted town hall building, the collection highlights an important but little-known relationship between Hepworth and Hertfordshire, bringing together notable pieces from across the county. This relationship started in 1949 when Hepworth's desire to make art for public places - she described herself as an 'artist in society' - drew the attention of a Hertfordshire programme for the construction of new schools with a budget for original artworks. The inspired aim of the scheme was to give school children the opportunity of seeing, playing and studying alongside works by leading contemporary artists.
Hepworth's mother and child sculpture Eocene was purchased by Hertfordshire Education Authority in 1950 for display at St Albans Girls' Grammar School (now St Albans Girls' School). The striking light grey Portland stone sculpture, on show in the exhibition, depicts a mother and child as separate but involved entities - an abstract version of a theme often seen in the artist's work. Vertical Forms continues the motif of two or more figures blended into one. This carving was commissioned in 1951 by the authority for Hatfield Technical College (now University of Hertfordshire). It was removed from the campus and conserved before going on display in the exhibition. A preliminary drawing of the sculpture is exhibited alongside it for the first time. It will go on permanent display in a new location inside the university after the exhibition.
Although not in the show, there are other major pieces with local links, principally Hepworth's commissions for the Festival of Britain which took place on London's south bank in 1951. The abstract Turning Forms, made of reinforced concrete, painted white, is installed at The Marlborough Science Academy, St Albans. It was initially motor driven, revolving every two minutes, but hasn't moved since its relocation.
Contrapuntal Forms is two figures carved from Irish blue limestone. It was also shown on the south bank, where it stood outside the festival's Dome of Discovery under the famous Skylon. It now stands in a residential street, Glebelands, in Harlow on the Herts-Essex border after it was purchased by Harlow Arts Trust for the new town.
The St Albans exhibition is curated by Annabel Lucas, head of UHArts at the University of Hertfordshire and Dr Sophie Bowness, trustee of the Barbara Hepworth Estate, who is also the artist's granddaughter.
'Barbara Hepworth had a major impact on British art and was a leading figure of her generation, despite the challenge of working within a male-dominated environment,' Annabel says. 'Interestingly, her drawings were rarely preparatory sketches for sculptures, but stand-alone works in their own right. These works and others in the exhibition reflect Hepworth's interest in the human form during the period, after a decade preoccupied with landscape.'
She adds that the 20 borrowed works in the show demonstrate how Hepworth moved naturally between figurative works and abstraction - from the carefully observed drawings made in operating theatres to fluid forms carved in wood and limestone.
'We feel honoured to have such a significant collection of works by Hepworth in St Albans that can be shared with a wide audience.'
Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903, Hepworth studied at Leeds School of Art where she met Henry Moore, a life-long friend and artistic rival. The pair would go on to define Modernism in sculpture. At the outbreak of war Hepworth and her family moved to St Ives.
So did her granddaughter watch her at work in Cornwall? Smiling, Sophie says, 'We used to spend a lot of time in St Ives when we were younger, but we never saw her carving as we always used to visit after she had finished her work.
'I am proud to be able to curate my grandmother's work. This exhibition is very personal to me, not just because of my relationship to her, but because we have been able to bring together pieces for the first time in over half a century, some of which are from her private collection, so that makes it incredibly special. I do hope that everyone can come along.'
Barbara Hepworth: artist in society 1948-53 is on at St Albans Museum + Gallery until September 8. Admission is free.
There are a host of events and activities associated with the exhibition, including workshops, lectures, a museum late opening and family friendly activities and trails.
- In relation: the significance of Hepworth's work 1948-53
June 20, 7.30-8.30pm, £10
Join Tate Britain curator Rachel Rose Smith as she focuses on what can be learnt from the groupings on display.
- Sculptor at work
July 4, 2-5pm, free
Meet sculptor Ben Twiston-Davies as he preps a large-scale clay sculpture inspired by Hepworth's work.
- Museum late: Make, Do & Draw
July 4, 7-9.30pm, £5
A party to celebrate all things Hepworth with live performances, art workshops, exclusive tours and drinks.
- Movement focused drawing
July 13, 2-4.30pm, £35
Live model drawing workshop for all ages and abilities inspired by Hepworth's drawings.
- Life drawing class inspired by Barbara Hepworth
July 18, 7-9.30pm, £45
Live nude model drawing in the Courtroom.
- Shape your own mini-sculpture
July 30, 10.30am, 10.30am-12.30 & 2-4pm, £2 per child
Be inspired by the form and shapes of Hepworth's work to create mini sculptures.
- Hands on with Hepworth
August 8 & 21, 10.30am-12.30 & 2-4pm, £2 per child
As a family, create Hepworth-inspired crafty masterpieces to take home.
- Make a giant junk sculpture
August 15, 10.30am-12.30 & 2-4pm, free family activity
Work with artist Jo Hammond to create a giant collaborative junk sculpture inspired by Hepworth.
- Create your own Hepworth inspired soap sculpture
August 28, 10.15-11.30am & 11.30-12.30pm, £5 per child
Inspired by nature and Hepworth's artworks make sculptures out of soap.