Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms by Sally Festing - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

Paving the Way in a Man’s World

Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms


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When I first came to west Cornwall in the 1960s Barbara Hepworth’s small, dark, intense figure seemed as much part of the landscape of St Ives as the sculptures she made to adorn it. Her decision to stay there after the war was a major factor in the transformation of a small fishing town into an important centre of modern art, and in the nineteen years since her death her influence on St Ives has become even more prominent and numinous than it seemed in her lifetime.

Born in Yorkshire, Barbara had grown up in a household where ‘a boy and girl were equal’, but she wanted to please and resemble her industrious, serious father, the County Surveyor to the West Riding, rather than her socialite mother. Barbara was a lifelong ‘man’s woman’, respecting and preferring men while determined to prove that practically and intellectually she was a match for any one of them. After Wakefield High School she went to Leeds School of Art, already believing ‘you have to have a passion, an obsession to do something’. Her passion was sculpture. Barbara and her lifelong friend and rival, Henry Moore, won scholarships to the Royal College of Art in London. Another scholarship paid for her to study in Italy, where she met her first husband, John Skeaping. After a year in Rome they settled in north London and a son was born. The Skeapings were hailed as a brilliant pair of young artists, but soon Jack fell in love with a woman who would devote herself to his creative needs, and Barbara with the artist Ben Nicholson.

Expecting his baby in 1934, Barbara produced triplets. She had little money or help, so her son and two daughters were looked after at a nurses’ training college while she created increasingly abstract sculptures. She did not consider giving up work; she had long since decided it was best ‘to think out a policy, tick to it and then devote oneself to work quite ruthlessly’. The Hepworth-Nicholsons went to Cornwall in 1939, when they had to get their family out of London in a hurry and a friend offered them refuge. Like many evacuees, they shared too small a house, and the first years of the war were the only period in her whole life Barbara could not sculpt or carve. A lively, quarrelsome artists’ community congregated in St Ives, but Barbara bad to cook, child-mind and grow vegetables. Then the children went to boarding school and it was back to work and the familiar heartbeat tap of mallet on chisel and chisel on stone.

Ben left Barbara and she pined for him. Paul Skeaping died in a flying accident and she was estranged from her first son, Simon. ‘Her personal life seemed a reprimand’ and if she stopped working the bogies crept in. Work was the remedy. Unremittingly ambitious, competitive, abstracted from everyday life, Barbara seemed ‘a heavy presence with a weight in her mind, moody and humourless’. As one friend remarked, ‘She just worked so bloody hard.’

Her sculptures took on ‘the permanent forms of pristine nature: the heavenly bodies, the hills, waves, currents and bay, transmuting personal emotion into abstract beauty as if the seething universe were a beast in chains’. They were exhibited and bought for public sites all over the world. Honours were heaped on Barbara. Awarded a DBE when Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson got Orders of Merit, she felt a damehood was a woman’s niche; if she had been male, would she not have got an OM too? Yet at the same time she was proud of this first public recognition that a woman could excel as a sculptor, for ‘at every waking moment Barbara Hepworth was aware of herself as a woman paving the way in a man’s world’. As such, her life was triumphant. I think she was lucky to be born a middle-class girl in 1903. Any earlier and she would have had to fight for her rights. Any later and she would have been consumed by Bowlby-induced maternal guilts. As it was, she was sent to a good school, studied her chosen subject, decided for herself whether and whom to marry, and followed her generation’s accepted practice of paying for child care while she worked. The same could be said of many of her successful contemporaries, women who supposed the feminist battle had been won after the First World War, but whose own daughters retreated after the Second to the kitchen and nursery until the next wave of women’s lib bounced them out to compete again.

It is by demonstrations of Hepworth’s feminism and selfconscious femininity that the author justifies her assertion that this book needed to be written by a woman. Without access to the archives, since the artist’s son-in-law, Sir Alan Bowness, is writing the authorised biography, Sally Festing could only speak to friends and use the mass of published material. Some of her inferences seem dubious – were Hepworth’s last years really so unhappy? – and some names are given incorrectly, but the narrative and art criticism (or adulation) are neatly combined. This is a fascinating book about a great and public-spirited woman and her great art.

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