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ART / Thinking through the sense of touch: Lynn MacRitchie applauds Barbara Hepworth's eventual resolution of apparently irreconcilable sculptural traditions

Carving - cutting with hammer and chisel directly into stone or wood - is a demanding discipline. Fingers bruise and bleed, arms ache. Surveying Barbara Hepworth's sculptures - arranged in elegant variety at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, in the first retrospective since her death nearly 20 years ago - it is difficult to comprehend that these serene objects could be the product of hard, physical labour. But a careful look into the heart of wooden pieces such as Oval Form (Penwith Landscape) (1955-56) for example, reveals some of the hundreds of careful chisel strokes needed to realise each form.

To Hepworth, who knew from childhood that she wanted to be a sculptor, the noise of the hammer was 'like music' and she could tell how well a piece was going just by its sound. As a young artist in the 1920s, with her first husband John Skeaping and their friend Henry Moore (her fellow student at Leeds and London), she pioneered the 'direct carving' technique, revolutionary in an age when sculptors were taught only to model in clay. Doves (1927) in which curves of wing and breast emerge gently from the marble block, combines accuracy of drawing with supreme delicacy of touch; it's hard to resist handling it.

In the subsequent decade, Hepworth was part of a group of British artists including Moore, her second husband Ben Nicholson, and the critic Herbert Read, who were in touch with the abstract experiments of Gabo, Brancusi, Arp and Picasso. Hepworth's own move into abstraction was prefigured in a statement of 1930 in which she describes herself as being 'sure that I could respond to all the varieties of wood growth or stone structure and texture' and ready to move beyond the block to 'rebuild and make my own order'. By 1931 she had made the Pierced Form, and describes her 'most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space'.

By the mid-1930s she had built up a repertoire of themes she was to continue to explore for the rest of her career. These were amplified in 1939 when she moved to Cornwall with her family. There, her response to the landscape and the shifting sea and sky extended her vocabulary to incorporate colour and stringed forms, with which she had already experimented, to express a heightened response to light and space, resulting in exquisite pieces such as Pelagos (1946) a harmony of rich, curved wood, interior space and delicate colour.

Fame found her after the war, when she undertook many large public commissions. Eager to fulfil her long-cherished dream of working on a grand scale, she was nevertheless aware that the consequent loss of complete control over all stages of the working-process techniques (such as bronze casting) was fraught with danger for an artist who so obviously 'thought' through her sense of touch - Hepworth hated to make maquettes.

Her reputation was eclipsed by that of Moore in her later years, an injustice she felt acutely. This exhibition demonstrates clearly that, at the time of her death in 1975 in a fire at her studio, she was, despite old age and poor health, once again grouping forms with power and grace. Fallen Images (1974-5) in her beloved marble, is a work which can be defined most readily in her own words as '. . . so essentially sculpture that it can exist in no other way'.

'Barbara Hepworth - a Retrospective' is at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool, until 4 Dec. See page 24 for details

(Photograph omitted)