BOOKS BIOGRAPHY; Hard art of a tough mother

BARBARA HEPWORTH: A Life of Formsby Sally Festing, Viking £20
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SALLY FESTING's biography of Barbara Hepworth was written without access to the family archives. The authorised biography is being written by Alan Bowness, Hepworth's son-in-law and the former Director of the Tate. In her Foreword, Festing says Bowness's "withholding the archives has deterred outsider views, though his book has not appeared. I have no doubt that it will be worthy, yet it is difficult to avoid the implication that it is Barbara Hepworth's final word."

What does that ambiguous "worthy" mean? Is Festing ingenuous or sly? And how can a writer whose appreciation of Hepworth's work is as intense and on the whole clearly-expressed as Festing's think that an artist has a "final word" anywhere but within his art?

Hepworth regarded the four words of this book's subtitle as a talisman. They expressed something of her discovery of a language she could make solid with her hands and have understood at a level that was both profound and popular. Hepworth's self-discipline and rigid control of her oeuvre, her increasingly vigilant concern for how she was perceived as a sculptor, and her frozen loneliness, which increased with age, fill out other layers of the title's meaning. More than we mostly expect of an artist, she had a lifelong regard for "good form", in the sense of what should be done and how one should behave.

Among the epigraphs to the book is a typically careful sentence of Hepworth's own: "It is difficult to describe in words the meaning of forms because it is precisely this emotion which is conveyed by sculpture alone." Cagey, categorical, stubborn and specific, the words are a bracing introduction to a book whose inspiration has clearly been a preoccupation with form coupled with some ability to "describe in words the meaning of forms". Sally Festing was brought up, she tells us, "in a home scattered with modern painting and modern sculpture". This shows to advantage in her vivid account of the surface and plasticity of Hepworth's work.

When it comes to the more internalised skill of biography, however, Festing begins to flounder. Her imagination, that has responded with some aplomb to the exegesis of the "meaning", or suggestion, of the holes that were so important in Hepworth's work, cannot reach inside the mind within the hard Yorkshire head of the sculptor. It is frustrating to read so external a life of so internal a woman, and makes one hungry for a better biography.

Sally Festing's style doesn't help. The best bio- graphies, regardless of length or weight, are enriched by some interplay between writer and subject which emerges not so much from the material itself as from the way it has been absorbed and marshalled. It seems indecorous for so pared-back a character as Hepworth to be written about in a manner quite so artlessly unpoised as Festing's. Inapposite schoolgirl tropes and crashing adiposities of expression here festoon the uncompromising artist, the mistress of the scoured space and the emptied room. In spite of the diligently collated facts, these compound infelicities blur the severe lines of Hepworth's life.

With unpromising modishness Sally Festing begins at the end - with an account of what everyone knows about Hepworth, her death by burning in her studio while drunk on the night of 20 May 1975. To be fair, Festing is perfectly sober about the drunkenness. Hepworth had cancer and preferred whisky and cigarettes to food at the end of her life. But Festing cannot resist the tabloid note of phoney atmosphere: "Midnight phone calls jarred chasms of silence." A flashback to Hepworth's girlhood follows: "a fortune teller had refused to tell her what her hand revealed. Puzzled, Barbara had insisted; still the woman declined. 'If she'd only told me,' Barbara said, 'then I could have laughed it off.' " This elicits from Festing the coltish "Like a line of fate. But oh, how dire."

The disparity between the biographer's mushiness and her subject's steel is most painful when Hepworth's own words are quoted. It is difficult, even if one disagrees, not to admire the precise economy of her language: "You don't look back along time, but look through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away." But those carefully considered prepositions provoke Festing into ever more maddening banalities: "The sands haven't changed in St Ives, nor have the faades of the boarding-houses. Seagulls go on pecking in the sand." It's hard not to wonder what the woman whose control pushed high aptitude and intransigent character through into genius would have thought of such stuff.

Barbara Hepworth was the daughter of a religious, thrifty Yorkshire couple. "We were poor," wrote Hep-worth in her Pictorial Autobiography. Festing suggests intelligently: "The Hepworths felt poor ... Years after she was comfortably off, she found it difficult to spend, and always she was niggardly about small sums."

Hepworth wrote: "Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one's life is spent trying to say it." Terrain, rock, seaweed and paint were her early passions, and she kept to them all her life. She was a prizewinner in every subject at school, but never satisfied. Throughout her life she worked like one in debt. Even at the Royal College of Art, after Leeds Art School, she remained, in Festing's plausible view, "a strange mixture of dedicated woman and sanctimonious child".

At Leeds, she had met the slightly older Henry Moore. All her life, Hepworth reserved her most intense admiration for men. Moore, together with Naum Gabo and her two husbands, John Skeaping and Ben Nicholson, were her peers, stimuli and rivals. Skeaping, by whom she had a son, and Hepworth parted just as her career was coming into force. The account of her relationship with Ben Nicholson, already married to the painter Winifred Nicholson and a father, is chilling, at first for its single-minded ardour and, after his departure, for its single-hearted longing. At the beginning of the affair, Hepworth behaved with a cold grandeur, sidelining her pre- decessor and expecting her to acquiesce to her obliteration for the sake of art.

By now the mother of triplets by Nicholson, Hepworth took her family to St Ives to escape war in London. She never left St Ives. The colony of artists there, a subject of both artistic and lay interest, is treated by Festing with more descriptive flight than anecdotal grit. When Nicholson left, the community was torn. Hepworth did not recover; to the end of her life, she awaited his return. Work brought money, honours, power, reputation, but not that. Both her sons died tragically. Her sister Elizabeth, married to the distinguished art historian and long-serving curator of the Soane Museum, John Summerson, also had triplets. Making was clearly in their genes. Driven by guilt at her parents' sacrifices and perhaps by the disengaged upbringing she had given her children, Hepworth worked more than she did anything else. Among her most affecting works are sculptures achieved by a hard approach and made out of hard stuff that express a mother's feeling for her child.