Sculpture queen

Picture by Tony Johnson
Picture by Tony Johnson
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Barbara Hepworth’s epic sculptures have undergone a major restoration at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Chris Bond reports.

BARBARA Hepworth is synonymous with Yorkshire.

Although she went on to spend much of her life in Cornwall, it was Wakefield, where she was born and grew up, that had a lasting effect on her. Hepworth is rightly considered one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th Century and it was the lush, rolling hills of God’s Own County that greatly informed her work.

It was Hepworth, too, who helped inspire Peter Murray to establish Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) back in 1977 and it’s fitting, given her affinity with the Yorkshire landscape, that one of her seminal pieces – The Family of Man (1970) – should be on display at the park.

Hepworth’s artworks have 
been a feature here for the past 36 years enduring all that the weather gods can throw at them. But while these pieces 
were always meant to be outside it was felt they had lost some of their lustre over the years and 
that the time was right to restore them to their former glory.

Comprising nine individual bronze sculptures, The Family 
of Man represents figures in 
the landscape and was one of the last major works Hepworth completed before her death in 1975.

The artwork was first exhibited at YSP as part of a major exhibition of the artist’s work in 1980 and has remained at the Park – on long-term loan from the Hepworth Estate – ever since.

Conservation work began in July this year with surface cleaning and repatination to help repair areas of abrasion and this week the sculptures were returned to their rightful home.

The artist’s granddaughter and custodian of the Hepworth Estate, Dr Sophie Bowness, is delighted by the results. “The conservation of The Family of Man has been revelatory. Based on newly-developed techniques and a deep knowledge of Hepworth’s practice, the conservators have rediscovered the original patinas, ranging from rich and varied greens and browns to burnished edges.”

The layer of wax put on to protect the sculptures had also dulled some of the original colours which have now returned. “They have been brought back to something close to the original bronze. It has brought out the textures which had been obscured a bit over the years,” she says.

“Hepworth’s first title for the work was Nine Figures on a Hill and she had a great desire to see her works in the landscape to be enjoyed by as wide a public as possible.”

Hepworth died a couple of years before the sculpture park opened but for Sophie this hillside setting is an ideal home for her sculptures. “It’s just two miles from where Barbara grew up and she always envisaged these works on a hillside and that’s what has been achieved,” she says.

“It’s been very much at the heart of the park over the years and it’s much loved. She had a very close affinity with Yorkshire and she said so herself and even though she spent a large part of her life in Cornwall, Yorkshire very much shaped her life – both the landscape and the people.”

Helen Pheby, a senior curator at YSP, believes visitors will notice the difference when they see the restored sculptures. “This is the first time they’ve had a full and thorough conservation and it’s taken them back to how Hepworth intended them to be and people will see them in a new light,” she says.

“They own that hillside. So when it’s very sunny they’re warm and welcoming and when it’s cold they’re very dark and a bit imposing – their personality actually changes depending on the light.”

She believes Hepworth would have been pleased with the results. “She campaigned for 
there to be a permanent sculpture park in Britain because she wanted her work to be in the 
open air, she said it could breathe in the open air and that people could interact with it who wouldn’t necessarily go to art galleries.”

The restoration project is also a timely opportunity to look again at her significance as an artist. “It’s easy from our position not to realise how radical she was. Not only was she a woman in what was very much a man’s world at the time, she also had to work harder.”

Hepworth also combined a blossoming career with raising a family (she had four children) at a time when female artistic role models were few and far between. Then there’s her rivalry with Henry Moore, although as Helen points out there was a mutual respect between these two titans. “They studied at Leeds College of Art at the same time and they were supportive of one another. There’s still a debate about who was the first to put a hole through a sculpture so you could see to the other side.

“This was a radical thing to do because it meant a sculpture wasn’t just a three-dimensional object but something you could see through that could also frame the landscape.”

One thing not in doubt is Hepworth’s lasting influence. “Her work still looks very contemporary and if you look at the 1930s through to the 50s, particularly in homewear and design, you can see that aesthetic coming through. Today it’s something very familiar to us but back then these anamorphic forms and having holes through things was pioneering.”

Hepworth continues to influence artists, sculptors and designers. “A lot of artists today, particularly female artists, find her work a point of inspiration and not just in this country, but all over the world.”