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 Barbara (Dame) Hepworth  (1903 - 1975)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: direct carving abstract sculpture

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Figure for Landscape
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Barbara Hepworth was one of the most prominent early 20th-Century British sculptors.  She transitioned from Classical to abstract styles, which were organic and geometric. At first, her approach was startling to the public, but by the 1950s, she was well accepted and was receiving both national and international recognition including participation in the 1950 Venice Biennale and the 1959 Biennial exhibition in Sao Paulo, where she won the Grand Prix award. The Universities of Birmingham (1960) and Leeds (1961) awarded her honorary doctorates, and in 1965, she received from the British government a highest honor, Dame of the Order of the British Empire.  Many of her works are relatively small scale, but in her later years, she did increasingly larger pieces including Meridian for the State House in London, and the Hammerskjöld Memorial for the United Nations Building in New York City.

Regarding tactile handling of materials as a necessary part of being a sculptor, she did her own carving rather than pursuing the traditional method of creating the mock up in clay and then turning it over to a professional carver.  She seldom used power tools, and working in marble and alabaster, usually did her own polishing of her abstract forms.  Many of her pieces had open spaces or pierced areas that created intriguing affects of shadowing, contrasts of light and dark, and volume and void.  In 1955, she added bronze sculpture to her output and began making clay models, which then were sent to the foundry.

Throughout her career, Hepworth did sculpture that reflected the geography where she was rooted---“the rugged Yorkshire countryside in which she grew up, and the Cornish coast, where she lived as an adult . . ." (Heller) She spent most of her adult life on the north coast of Cornwell, living at St. Ives from 1939.

Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England.  Her father was an engineer who worked in West Riding, and she was the eldest of four children.  She had her father’s interest in mathematics, and they had close companionship, with her often looking at his engineering drawings.  Her art talent was apparent during her childhood, and in 1920, when she was 16, she enrolled at the Leeds School of Art.  There one of her fellow students was Henry Moore, who, like herself, would become one of England’s most famous 20th Century sculptors.

Two years later, she received a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, and graduated in 1924.  She then went to Italy where she worked with master stone carvers in Rome.  There she received training she could not get at London’s Royal Academy since modeling and not direct carving was considered academically correct.  She learned from master carver Ardini that the coloration of marble changed depending upon the carver.  In other words, body chemistry affected the aesthetics. This, she said, made her 'decide immediately that it was not dominance which one had to obtain over material, but an understanding, almost a kind of persuasion, and above all a kind of coordination between head and hand.' (Lucie-Smith)

She married John Skeaping, British sculptor, whom she met in Italy, and who had ‘bested’ her for the Prix de Rome, which he won over her as runner up.  They married in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and returning to England, they had a joint exhibition in London in 1927 in their studio in St. John’s Wood.  The next year they had a second joint exhibition, this one at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London. In 1929, the couple had a son named Paul.  

They associated with many like-minded artists from Europe as well as England including Hans Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, George Braque and Naum Gabo.  And Hepworth had increasing association with her former classmate, Henry Moore.  In 1930, they organized a holiday group to the coast of Norfolk, and in 1931 at Norfolk with Moore and other friends, Hepworth met Ben Nicholson, a modernist English painter.  This encounter led to her divorcing John Skeaping and marrying Ben Nicholson in 1933. The next year, she gave birth to triplets, which, of course, complicated her career as a sculptor and also caused the couple much financial stress.  In 1938, feeling it was difficult to earn enough money in London, they moved to the Cornish village of St. Ives and lived in a home owned by art critic and friend, Adrian Stokes.

Her work, especially influenced by Nicholson, became increasingly abstract, with her arriving at the free forms with open areas that became her signature style.  It was "a sensuous kind of organic abstraction, sometimes incorporating strings, wires, colored paint, or holes piercing the sculptured form." (Heller) During World War II, she ran a nursery school, which meant she had no time for carving, but she did do drawing at night.  Conditions improved for the couple in 1942, as they moved into a larger home.  Seven years later, Hepworth was able to open a studio where she could carve out doors year round.

Although her professional life strengthened, her personal life was troubled.  She and Nicholson divorced in 1951, and Paul Skeaping, her son from her first marriage, was killed in Siam in an air crash.  Suffering much emotional turmoil over this loss, she found comfort only in the affirmation of her sculpture.  As stated earlier, she turned away from carving to working in clay and bronze, and the size of her pieces increased.

In her later years, she had ill health and was confined to a wheelchair.  She lived simply at St. Ives in the home she had shared with Nicholson, and died in 1975 from a studio fire, likely caused by a cigarette igniting her bedclothes.  The next year, her studio became a museum for her work.


Nancy Heller, Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Phaidon: Dictionary of Twentieth Century Art

Edward Lucie-Smith, Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists,

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