Surgical precision

Barbara Hepworth, and the work of Barbara Hepworth, below.
Barbara Hepworth, and the work of Barbara Hepworth, below.
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Barbara Hepworth did a series of drawings of surgical teams at work. Sheena Hastings looks at their significance.

Dame Barbara Hepworth was not the kind of grandma who babysat, although she was interested in her grandchildren and did write to them regularly, says Paul Bowness. The son of Sarah, one of the triplets born to the world-renowned sculptor and her second husband, painter Ben Nicholson, Bowness recalls family trips to Cornwall to visit Barbara and Ben.

“I don’t remember feeling any great awareness of her fame,” he says. “You just accepted her as your grandmother and that her job was what it was. It didn’t seem unusual. She had a seriousness and gravity about her. As a child I once made work with her in the studio, helped by her assistants – although I wasn’t planning to go down that route. I remember realising that the work was very physical.”

Barbara Hepworth died in 1975 when Paul Bowness was 13. He went on to take a very different path to everyone else in his family by studying medicine at Cambridge and specialising in rheumatology.

Today he’s a consultant and professor of experimental rheumatology at Oxford University. It was while he was still at medical school that he first became aware of how his grandmother’s artistic world and the profession he had chosen had overlapped for a few years in the austere period following the Second World War.

In August 1939, Wakefield-born Hepworth and Nicholson took their young family (including her son Paul from her first marriage to sculptor John Skeaping) to live in the Cornish artists’ colony of St Ives because of the imminence of war and the probability of air raids on the capital.

They continued to live in Cornwall after the war, and in the wake of the conflict there continued to be a shortage of the kind of materials Hepworth had been used to working with in her artistic practice. She returned to drawing.

In this period her daughter Sarah – later to become Paul Bowness’s mother – fell ill with osteomyelitis, a serious infection of the bones. Sarah was treated at the local hospital and at one point almost her entire body was encased in plaster of Paris.

Her care later passed into the hands of a surgeon called Norman Capener in Exeter.

Sarah gradually improved, and in the meantime her parents and her surgeon, an amateur painter with a great interest in modern art, became friends. All the while, in this era before the NHS, the couple had difficulty paying Sarah’s hospital bills.

Friends rallied round financially, a debt or two was cancelled, and Capener himself waived his fees at one point and was later sold one of Hepworth’s paintings at a knockdown rate as an offering of thanks.

In 1947, the surgeon visited the family in St Ives, and was given work to do in Hepworth’s studio. It was during this stay that the idea of Barbara Hepworth visiting an operating theatre was mooted.

She said that at first she had found the idea repellent, but was persuaded.

What she found, when she and her pencil and notebook were admitted to see the work of an orthopaedic team at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter and later at The London Clinic, astounded her. She produced her first hospital drawing in November 1947, and went on to witness scores of surgical procedures in Exeter and London over two years. Her fascination with the operating theatre led to the creation of more than 80 works in ink, chalk or pencil on paper and pencil and paint on board.

She witnessed a wide array of work including the pioneering fenestration of the ear, a series of operations performed by Garnett Passe, from which the artist drew a succession of works.

The uniformity of the background and surgical gowns, masks and cloths in each picture serve to highlight the intensity concentrated in the eyes and hands of the team performing the operation on the unknown patient beneath the drapes.

Impressed by the connection she felt between her art and the skilled craftsmanship of the surgeon, Hepworth was particularly fascinated by the rhythmic movement of hands during the medical procedures unfolding before her.

As she explained in an unpublished lecture she gave to surgeons later: “There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work of both physicians and surgeons and painters and sculptors.”

Orthopaedic surgeons, she had noted, used many similar tools to aid their precision and craft. Norman Capener went on to adapt one of the implements Hepworth used in her studio for his work.

While inside the operating theatre the artist only took notes. The drawings were done from memory immediately after the operation, which could last up to 10 hours.

Dame Barbara wrote of her experience: “When I entered the operating theatre I became completely absorbed by two things: the extraordinary beauty of purpose and co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life, and the way that unity of idea and purpose dictated a perfection of concentration on movement and gesture; and secondly, by the way this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I have been seeking in my own work.”

Hepworth was known to hold socialist beliefs and principles, and would, Prof Bowness confirms, have been a staunch supporter of the idea of the NHS.

But her interest in the life of the hospital operating theatre was not about politics; nor was it some form of therapy following the difficult experiences the family had endured through Sarah’s illness.

Her inspiration was, she said, purely artistic: she was excited by human interaction, a fascination that underpinned her lifelong interest in figures in landscape.

Many of The Hospital Drawings, as they became known, sold through exhibitions in the years after they were made. Many are in private collections and others are in the public sphere, in galleries from Edinburgh to New York and Melbourne.

Now The Hepworth Wakefield, the gallery named for the city’s famous daughter, is hosting an exhibition of more than 30 of The Hospital Drawings, the most significant presentation of this series of works to date. Paul Bowness had not been aware of the drawings until, as a medical student, he first saw a reproduction of one of the images and then spotted another on a wall at the headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.

He went on to write an article about the series for the British Medical Journal in 1985. In it he said that the drawings had received little critical attention “...because they stand curiously apart from her work as an abstract sculptor”.

Nathaniel Heburn, curator at the Mascalls Gallery in Kent which put together the touring exhibition now premiering at The Hepworth, says the drawings “...seem to be at odds with an artist we know best as a sculptor of pure abstracted forms. By bringing together so many of these works in one exhibition we aim to re-evaluate their importance, and to show how Hepworth saw the operating theatre as a ready-made abstract sculpture.”

In some of the drawings Hepworth consciously introduces the recognisable squareish heft of later sculptures to the arms and shoulders of the surgeons.

Paul Bowness believes this series of works, born out of excitement, curiosity and perhaps the lack of sculptural materials in post-war Britain, were very important to his grandmother’s artistic development.

“Up to that point her work had concentrated exclusively on single or two related forms. But after these drawings she went on to make multi-form abstract sculptures. You can see the relationship between her representation of the surgical teams and important later works like The Family of Man.”

Hepworth seems to have been particularly fascinated by hands: the sterile surgeon’s hands held almost in a prayer pose or pulling on gloves, and (in Prof Bowness’s words) “...the anatomy of the unconscious patient’s hand, exposed and manipulated by the conscious hand with the scalpel.”

From a doctor’s point of view the drawings hold a special importance, he says. “(They) are especially exciting to all of us who have helped in operations, because she depicts with an aesthetic eye the arrangement of operating team, its dress, posture and action – things that we are trained to see with a professional eye.”

Barbara Hepworth The Hospital Drawings is at The Hepworth Wakefield until February 3. Admission free. Information: or 01924 247360.