Barbara Hepworth’s legacy beyond Google’s doodle

At the cutting edge of creativity, Barbara Hepworth was once again the name on everyone’s lips yesterday. It had been on the same date in 1939 that she arrived at St Ives in Cornwall to establish the studio that would be her lifelong home.

It was a minor anniversary marked by Google with one of its daily titlepiece artworks, produced in her style, to heightened interest.

But in her home town in West Yorkshire, a less ephemeral tribute was being unveiled to one of the most influential creative figures of the 20th century.

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An exhibition of her work, billed as the most expansive since her death in 1975, was announced at the arts museum that bears her name, The Hepworth Wakefield.

Stephanie Edwards, development assistant, looking at some of the Barbara Hepworth collection at The Hepworth Wakefield which will celebrate is 10th anniversary next May witha new exhibition of the artist's work. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Opening next May and running for five months, it will be the first to fill all 10 of the gallery spaces in the riverside centre and its launch will be accompanied by a book and an hour-long TV documentary about her life and work.

Its curator, Eleanor Clayton, said it was a tribute long overdue.

“Barbara Hepworth is one of the most important artists of the 20th century, with a unique artistic vision that demands to be looked at in-depth,” she said.

“We have more than 200 artworks from all sorts of different areas, which get subsumed in smaller shows and which I can’t wait to see in one place. It will be the first time since the 1970s that some of them have been seen in public.”

Stephanie Edwards, development assistant, looking at some of the Barbara Hepworth collection at The Hepworth Wakefield which will celebrate is 10th anniversary next May witha new exhibition of the artist's work. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Besides the public sculptures for which she is most famous, the collection includes designs she produced for post-war theatre and opera productions, amongst which were Sophocles’ Electra at the Old Vic, with Leo McKern and Peggy Ashcroft, for which she sculpted Apollo in wire.

The range also encompasses her celebrated oil paintings based on sketches she made in operating theatres in the earliest days of the NHS – with which as a Labour supporter she enthusiastically enfranchised.

“She saw in them abstract forms which she then used as sculptures,” said Ms Clayton, who characterises Hepworth’s body of work as “deeply spiritual and passionately engaged with political, social and technological debates in the 20th century”.

The Wakefield gallery, whose 10th anniversary the exhibition will celebrate, already has one of the largest Hepworth collections in the world but has expanded the scope of the new exhibition by borrowing from the Tate, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and several private collections.

“It’s been fascinating tracking down objects that show particular sides to her work that haven’t been tapped into because they haven’t been readily available,” Ms Clayton said.

The rarities include some of her first sculptures in colour, produced in St Ives during the war, at a time when the stone and wood she was accustomed to using were hard to find.

“These were pieces produced at a time when she was bringing up six-year-old triplets and doing war work by day, and carving in a bedroom at night,” said Ms Clayton, who is also writing the accompanying book about Hepworth.

It was her subject’s belief that sculpture should be “an act of praise and an affirmation of life” that had made her work endure, she added.

“Those universal and timeless ideals are as powerful now as they were in her day,” she said.

Barbara Hepworth is said to have been driven by an obsession with the way a physical encounter with sculpture could alter her viewers’ perception of the world. It led her to create more than 600 pieces of art, and in addition to showcasing many under one roof, next year’s exhibition will include new commissions by contemporary artists whom she influenced.

Among the exhibits will be the modern abstract carvings that launched her career in the 1920s and her famous strung sculptures of the post-war era.

Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth Wakefield, said the event would “continue to build on the legacy and influence of a true pioneer of modern sculpture”.

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James Mitchinson