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St Albans rediscovers its own Barbara Hepworth: The Artist in Society

a black and white photo of a woman sculpting a large block in a light and airy studio

Hepworth in Trewyn Studio, October 1949. Photograph: Studio St Ives. Copyright Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

St Albans Museum + Gallery is hosting a Barbara Hepworth exhibition that draws on the values the artist explored in the 1950s when she produced three public artworks for the Hertfordshire town

The phrase which forms the title of this exhibition is taken from Barbara Hepworth’s own writings and reflects her interest in social relations and groupings. The Artist in Society comes from a time when she was outward looking – both in term of her integration into the community of St Ives and her growing national reputation.

The years between 1948 and 1953, were an important period in Hepworth’s career immediately after the Second World War, when she began to receive wide recognition. Following a decade in which she had been preoccupied with landscape, she  now moved naturally between abstraction and the figure, finding inspiration in the movement of people in various settings.


This was the period of the famous hospital drawings and this exhibition in St Albans showcases this fertile period and explores Hepworth’s new found interest in exploring and capturing the human form: from medical teams performing operations at hospitals in Exeter and London to figures congregating in Venice’s St Mark’s Square and dancers in her new Trewyn studio in St Ives.

It was also a time when she really developed her public sculpture, including three for St Albans, one of which provided the seed of inspiration for this exhibition.

a photo showing three carved wood figures

Maquettes for the Unknown Political Prisoner

black and white photo of a woman sculpting in a garden

Hepworth at work on ‘Contrapuntal Forms’ in the yard at Trewyn Studio, St Ives, October 1950. Copyright: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

an abstract wood sculpture

Dyad, National Galleries of Scotland. Copyright: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

The University of Hertfordshire has a Barbara Hepworth sculpture called Vertical Forms, which was commissioned in 1951 for the Technical College. It has remained there, built into the actual fabric of the building, which is now part of the University of Hertfordshire, for the last 70 years.

Co-curators Annabel Lucas, who is Head of Arts at the University and Dr Sophie Bowness who is an art historian and granddaughter of Barbara Hepworth, then discovered two other pieces by Hepworth in educational institutions within Hertfordshire made at around the same period. The sculpture Eocene is at St Albans Girls’ School and belongs to Hertfordshire County Council, and Turning Forms is at Marlborough Science Academy in St Albans.

“So we had these three artworks actually created within a few years of each other within St Albans in Hertfordshire,” continues Lucas, “and that was interesting in itself, but when we looked at that period of time there were other things happening that were very significant in terms of her work. This was a time when she was very interested in the role that artists had to play in society and how groups of people could work together as a community to some kind of common purpose.

“As well as the Hepworth connection to Hertfordshire, this exhibition will be the first to exhibit the sketch Three Figures – Project for Sculpture. This piece was drawn ahead of the creation of Vertical Forms and adds a new dimension to what we know about Hepworth’s process as an artist.”

a black and white frm of relied sculpture showing three human forms

Vertical Forms’ in the workshop in St Ives, September 1951. Photograph: Studio St Ives Copyright: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

a black abstract figurative form

Bicentric Form 1949 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Purchased 1950. : © Tate, London 2019. Copyright: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

As to Vertical Forms itself, the monumental work has been carefully craned and shipped from its University wall into the museum for the exhibition, as part of planned conservation work that will eventually see it permanently moved to a new purpose-built, indoor gallery at the University where it will be protected from the elements.

It joins over 100 fascinating objects, showcasing 20 significant works of different media, each shining new light on Hepworth’s craft and her renewed focus on the human form during these pivotal five years.

“As well works reflecting the human form and which had this sense of cooperative endeavour, you also find in this period a really interesting group of sculptures and other figurative drawings where there’s a duality of two forms, often a male and a female form coming together as one form,” adds Lucas.

““We also explore this connection between the surgeon and the art of the sculptor and it’s perhaps little known that Barbara Hepworth wrote eloquently about these ideas – about sculpture, about her practice and the human condition – often putting difficult things into words quite beautifully.”

And with such a tight focus on a fruitful five year period, many of the works in the exhibition haven’t been together since they were made or exhibited in the 1950s; like the maquette made up of three distinct figures called The Unknown Political Prisoner, or the series of life size sculptures, the figurative drawings and six of the hospital drawings.

back and white photo of an abstract figurative sculpture

‘Bicentric Form’ in the carving yard at St Ives, January 1950. Photograph: Studio St Ives. Copyright: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

a group maquette of white figures

Group III (Evocation) 1952, Photograph David Lambert/Rod Tidnam, Courtesy of the Pier Arts Centre Collection. Copyright: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

There is also a sequence of photographs from the Barbara Hepworth archive of her creating some of the artworks on display.

“The archive belonged to Barbara Hepworth herself, and we’ve got images relating to every sculpture in the exhibition,” says Lucas. “So there are photographs of Barbara making and creating sculptures, of the sculptures in development, a couple of the sculptures in the original site where they were commissioned, as well as exhibition catalogues, newspaper articles – a real wealth of information to support the exhibition.”

Reflecting this post war spirit that strove to give young people and children in Hertfordshire exposure to the best contemporary artists of the time, (it is said Hepworth took a reduced fee for her Hertfordshire commissions) the exhibition is free of charge.

“At the time of Vertical Forms the university was a technical college, it wasn’t even an art college,” adds Lucas, “but the belief that it would instil that idea that art had real value even within a technical college was something seen as being important to students, staff and visitors alike.

“So it was really important to us that this exhibition was be free of charge – to make these works accessible to Hertfordshire in the same way as Barbara Hepworth did.”

Barbara Hepworth: Artist in Society 1948-53 is at St Albans Museum + Gallery from March 23 – September 28. Admission is free.  


St Albans Museum + Gallery

St Albans, Hertfordshire

St Albans Museum + Gallery opened to the public on Friday 8 June 2018 and looks to be a leading centre for arts and culture at the heart of one of Britain’s most historic cities. Set over three floors, the newly created state-of-the-art gallery spaces showcase over 2,000 years of…

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