Barbara Hepworth’s Sculpture Records | Animating the Archives


Barbara Hepworth is really one of the preeminent artists of the 20th Century. The Tate archive actually contains part of Hepworth’s personal and private correspondence. One of the key parts of the Hepworth archive here at the Tate is the sculpture records with a document, a page devoted to each of her works that she produced. So there was an image, details like the name of the work, the material, the sculpture. It’s interesting, in some of the sculpture records we might just have a single photograph of a work but other ones you might have some of the ways in which it was made, so you can both see how Hepworth thought about the work or, in fact, see it in its studio setting when it had just been completed, for instance. They not only give us a deeper understanding of her artwork and how her ideas developed as an artist over the course of her career, but also something of an insight into her personality, I suppose, and how that changed similarly as she grew older. Hepworth was very much a sculptor who believed in doing work and large commissions that would be seen by people, engage with people, in the public realm on a daily basis, so, nowhere more busy than Oxford Street in London where Winged Figure is on John Lewis. This sculpture record is particularly brilliant because it has the making of the sculpture at its various stages and you see her at her very large studio, the Palais de Danse studio in St Ives, working with her assistants on the frame and different parts, so we get to see that through the records, see these fabulous photographs. The Barbara Hepworth sculpture, Two Forms (Divided Circle), this was a work which I suppose was made by Hepworth when she was interested in environmental art in the 1960s. She produced a number of casts, one of which was in Dulwich Park which was sadly stolen in 2011. This record of the sculpture is particularly interesting perhaps for those people who perhaps knew that sculpture and can then look up its history through this document, but the record as well is also interesting because it’s got lots of additions in biro as the sculpture has been exhibited more and more. But we’ve also got photographs of it in its plaster when it’s in the studio as well, which is also particularly interesting. Hepworth would consistently say throughout her career that her sculpture was there to be touched and that you had to engage with it with your body. One quite telling thing that we know is that Barbara Hepworth donated one of her sculptures to a school for visually impaired children. Hepworth wrote to the schoolteacher about donating this particular work. He’d asked, what is the sculpture about? She had written, in 1965, ‘Even if you think you’re a philistine, I think you will appreciate that when I made it I was very keen to make something which was equivalent to, say, a flower or a crystal or a shell. Not a copy as such, but an equivalent of radiance. I think the children will know what I’m talking about.’ A touch tour is an opportunity for a visually impaired person to engage with some of the sculptures from the Tate collection. When we approach Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, particularly the bronze patinated sculptures, it’s very hard to imagine by looking at them what they’d feel like. They look quite lumpy, they look quite rough, they almost look like the texture of tree bark in some instances, but there’s something about the bronze casting process that actually combines rough with smooth surfaces. So, to put on a pair of art handling gloves and to run your hand across the surface of one of these sculptures is a very sensual experience, it’s like stroking a cat almost, you feel every single ripple. Also, the lovely thing is engaging with the hand of the artist because the way Barbara Hepworth worked was to make these objects into plaster and then smooth them into the shapes she wanted using cutting, gouging and sanding implements. I think the Barbara Hepworth papers and sculpture records in the archive give you a behind the scenes take on Hepworth’s work and they also give you something more personal, they talk about her ideas and the way that her ideas actually changed. What you get from looking at the letters between artists and the people that she was actually corresponding with is a sense of an incredibly well-informed and well-rounded artist and someone who was excited by new ideas generally. That’s something that you don’t necessarily get from looking at the works alone, it’s something that’s found in the archive. The fact that these Hepworth sculpture records have now been digitised and are now available online and easily searchable on the Tate website I think is incredibly valuable, and then you can actually access that primary evidence of how the sculptures were documented, how Hepworth thought about them and presented them at that time, seeing early photograph or photographs of them. I think that kind of accessibility of those documents is incredibly interesting and useful.

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