Thursday, 13 January 2022

Book review - Barbara Hepworth Art & Life





Barbara Hepworth – Art & Life    

by Eleanor Clayton

ISBN 978 0500 0942 59


 A book so good, I thought it needed it's own post...


I received this book for my birthday and waited until the holidays to read it as I knew I would not want to put it down once started. It really didn’t disappoint! I have long been a fan of Hepworth and spent many happy visits at the museum (her garden and studio) at St. Ives whilst I studied at Falmouth College of Arts and during later visits to Cornwall. I am reminded of her work with every hagstone that I pick up of the beaches of Dorset and share her attraction to the mystery of holes in things.


‘So much depends, in sculpture, on what one wants to see through a hole! Maybe, in a big work I want to see a sun or moon. In a smaller work I may want to lean into the hole.’   Barbara Hepworth


I see parallels between her work and Georgia O’Keeffe’s, whom I also enjoy, for the spaces in between and weight of their work. I think she is to sculpture what O’Keeffe is to painting in many ways.


This book has been a joy to read, Clayton has done a wonderful job her style is at once warm, accessible and intimately knowledgeable. She is, after all, the curator of The Hepworth Wakefield which I hope to visit in the not too distant future. (For now I am satisfying my interest looking through the gallery via google arts and culture here.) Clayton has also curated Hepworth’s work at the Tate Liverpool and co-founded The Hepworth Research Network, so who really would be better placed to write such a book?


Throughout there are illustrations of her work, both the sculptures and also the two-dimensional pieces explored further when materials and money were in shorter supply. The drawings are a large body of work in their own right but they are also presented here in relation to the sculptures they inform.  Most books I have read previously have shown them more in isolation. Also worth noting is that whilst, of course, Hepworth’s husbands are mentioned within the context of her life they don’t get to take over as ‘famous husbands’ can be wont to do in other books and are shown as being equally influential to her work as other friends, acquaintances and contemporaries in different fields.


There was so much within the book, reading excerpts from her writing and letters to enjoy and provide further insight to the art; the integrity, determination and professionalism about her work, her empathy, her political outlook in some cases. I think what I enjoyed most was how Clayton’s writing shows the human and likeable qualities of, in my opinion, a truly great sculptor and artist. I felt the balance between writing and illustration, 259 of them, was good and was impressed they were in colour for the most part where possible. Whilst not something I would normally mention, the layout with wide margins toward the spine is most useful for jotting down notes if you are so inclined. I will be exploring further titles mentioned in the bibliography too.


One thing that did strike me whilst I read this book was how many parallels I could see between Hepworth’s life during motherhood and the war years and how life has been during the pandemic with, ‘…her increasing frustration with juggling the traditionally feminine domestic labour with her own artistic practise.  Despite this Hepworth wrote in a letter:


‘I’ve always felt that if I renounced my responsibilities, I should lose something. I have always believed in doing everything.’  Hepworth


How many parents have felt that pressure within the context of everyday life and then increased tenfold with the added responsibility of home school during lockdowns (In Hepworth’s case the second world war.)? I think, to her credit she managed this wonderfully, bringing up four children (she had triplets after her first child), at times single-handed and furthering her career to international acclaim. The book shows a formidable character, strong willed and with a marvellous energy but also the struggle, sacrifice and frustrations that come with a life well lived.


Whether you are already a fan or are new to Hepworth’s work I would highly recommend this book both for its insights into her work, the person behind them and also for the social history context surrounding the making of the work. For me this book is a keeper for my bookshelf and will be returned to in the future, there are many aspects to enjoy and I would rate it as the best book I read in 2021.


 To visit the Hepworth - Wakefield website click here.

To visit the Barbara Hepworth St. Ives Museum and Sculpture Garden website click here.

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