Saturday, 17 January 2009

Barbara Hepworth: a life of forms by Sally Festing

Shortly after reading Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition, in which Barbara Hepworth has a cameo role, I spotted this in a second-hand bookshop and was inspired to find out more about the real woman. I’m not entirely sure that I did discover the real Barbara Hepworth, but there was certainly a great deal of more. Festing’s biography is thorough, tracing Hepworth’s development as an artist throughout her life and emphasising how her relationship with the landscape – in Yorkshire during her childhood, in Italy as a young woman, and most enduringly in west Cornwall – fed her creative drive and the evolution of her aesthetic. In parts the book is more of a monograph, describing key Hepworth works in detail; more photographs to support these descriptions would have greatly enhanced this aspect of the book. Hepworth displayed an extraordinary singularity of purpose which enabled her to be celebrated as the first truly great female sculptor. However, she was not a monomaniac; she also pursued a personal life. Festing attributes the failure of both of Hepworth’s marriages partly to Barbara’s resolute prioritisation of her work and partly to her choices of fellow artists as husbands; more blame is perhaps attached to the failure of her relationship with her younger son. Gale’s Hepworth character is something of a monster, a capricious grande dame whose influence over the artists working around her in St Ives can be profound and malign. Festing’s Hepworth certainly plays the grande dame when it benefits her, but is also vulnerable and insecure about her work, its aesthetic and monetary value, and her status as its creator. This insecurity must underpin her reluctance to acknowledge the work of her assistants in interviews, her squabbles with critics, galleries and agents, and Festing suggests it was fostered by the endless and negative comparison she endured with her friend and contemporary, Henry Moore. There is relatively little here about her relationship with the St Ives artistic community; passing references to her involvement on the committee of the Penwith art society suggest that, like most of her relationships, it was a difficult one. Certainly the book is peppered with quarrels with other artists in St Ives and beyond.

Like many pioneering women of her generation, Barbara’s relationship with feminism seems to be ambivalent; she strives for independence and recognition, but relies heavily on male opinion, and makes few female friends. Contemporary art critics certainly seem to have treated her unfairly because of her gender, particularly in comparison to the way in which they reviewed the work of Moore. While this biography was interesting and stimulating, it was not an enjoyable read. Festing is a poet as well as a biographer and there are frequent episodes of imaginative insights into Barbara’s state of mind expressed in poetic language; my preference is for biography more rooted in evidence. Sometimes Festing’s poetic style deserts her, resulting in such inelegant phrasing such as: “In Japan and Australia, moreover, both, as it happens, male-dominated societies, her work is most highly acclaimed of all” (293). What is that “moreover” doing in there? Why all the commas? Do Japan and Australia acclaim her work more than other countries do, or more than the work of other sculptors? Despite infelicities of prose, the book has made me want to seek out more of Hepworth’s work, and know it better. For three years, I saw a Hepworth almost every day, outside the library at the University of Nottingham; I remember it even more fondly now that I understand some of the ideas and the effort that went into its creation.


  1. Barbara Hepworth sounds like an interesting subject, but like yourself I dislike too much supposition in biographies. I also don't know about Japan, but I don't think Australia is a male-dominated society, at least not more so than the UK, USA etc.

  2. I don't suppose that art criticism, and the art world in general, is any more or less male-dominated in Australia than in England! I've been spoilt by reading critical biographies where there is evidence for every assertion, so now a lack of footnotes makes me twitchy ...

  3. I thought it was a poorly written book without much original research but the story is intriguing - Festing didn't seem to like Hepworth at all. Go to the new Hepworth Wakefield opening in September 2010 to get a fuller picture of her achievements and influence on contemporary art or visit my blog for further information on her.