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Dame Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth DBE (10 January 1903 – 20 May 1975) was an English artist and sculptor. Her work exemplifies Modernism and in particular modern sculpture. She was one of the few female artists to achieve international prominence. Along with artists such as Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, Hepworth was a leading figure in the colony of artists who resided in St Ives during the Second World War. Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth was born on 10 January 1903 in Wakefield, West Riding of Yorkshire, the eldest child of Gertrude and Herbert Hepworth. Her father was a civil engineer for the West Riding County Council, who in 1921 became County Surveyor. An upwardly mobile family, and a dominant father determined her to exploit fully her natural talents. She attended Wakefield Girls' High School, where she was awarded music prizes at the age of twelve as noted by Sophie Bowness in "Rhythm of the Stones": Barbara Hepworth and Music and won a scholarship to and studied at the Leeds School of Art from 1920. It was there that she met her fellow student, Henry Moore.They became friends and established a friendly rivalry that lasted professionally for many years. Hepworth was the first to sculpt the pierced figures that are characteristic of works by both. They would lead in the path to modernism in sculpture.
She was a pioneer of her time and the first woman sculpture to achieve international prominence. Her diminutive frame belied her magnificent modernist sculptures. Her slender hands carving iconic pieces that grace the landscapes of Britain, America, Japan, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Barbara Hepworth’s unrelenting exploration of shape and texture, light and shade and most crucially space, make her award winning pieces both expansive and intimate, their physical density and visual focus simultaneously evoking vistas natural, personal and social.
Barbara Hepworth’s notable works are still studied and marvelled at today as they continue to reside in every national museum around the world. Nobody puts it better than Will Gompertz in the Guardian when describing his admiration for this great woman “Her capacity to create something so beguiling, so intelligent, so mesmerizingly coherent, from the most basic materials. It is genuinely amazing: a sort of alchemy.”
It was as a seven year old school girl growing up in Yorkshire that Barbara Hepworth was ‘fired off’ as a sculpture. From her year 3 class room at Wakefield High School she listened intently to a lecture on Egyptian sculpture and from that day on, Barbara Hepworth wrote in her biography “Everything was forms, shapes and textures.” Seated in the passage seat of her father’s motorcar as they crisscrossed the Yorkshire countryside, all she saw was sculpture, the car became her hands as she “felt and touched the contours of the hills.” Barbara Hepworth’s descriptions of nature take on a visionary clarity when she later cites “I, the sculptor, am the landscape.”
Barbara Hepworth’s talents were clearly evident and she won scholarships first to Leeds and then to the Royal College of Art, where Henry Moore; a fellow Yorkshire man, was a contemporary. She continued to be unremittingly hardworking and says she had at that time “An unreasonable and compelling urgency in me to carve.”
On a further scholarship she was later to travel to Italy, a place she saw as “the wonderful realm of light – light which transforms and revels, which intensifies the subtleties of form and contours and colours, and in which darkness – the darkness of window, door or arch – is set s an altogether new and tangible object.” It was in Florence during this year in Italy that she married her first husband, fellow sculpture John Skeaping.
It was on their return to England that Hepworth and Skeaping exhibited their first public show. Held in London in 1928, the exhibition included two doves huddled together, carved in Parian marble, the piece demonstrates the powerful calm one always finds in Barbara Hepworth’s work.
In 1929 Barbara Hepworth bore a Son, Paul. But her marriage was not to last. In 1931 Hepworth met Ben Nicholson, an artist whose intellectual weight was more equal to hers and who saw Barbara’s’ drive and ambition as an attraction rather than a ‘turn off’ as described by Skeaping in his biography. Together they forged a path to pure abstraction. Travelling to France, visiting Braque, Picasso and Brancusi, and viewing Jean Arp’s studio in Meudon, where Hepworth was impressed by Arp’s success in fusing landscape with the human form.
In 1947 Barbara Hepworth began to show a