The sculptor's tragedy
BARBARA HEPWORTH: A LIFE OF FORMS Sally Festing Viking pounds 20
Saturday 20 May 1995
So it was brave of Sally Festing to press ahead with this unauthorised account, and decent of Bowness to give her permission to reproduce his mother-in-law's work and words. The result, although marred by stylistic lapses, is a revelation. Thanks largely to 70 interviews and a sympathetic sifting of many of the sculptor's letters, a moving portrait emerges of a driven, ultimately fulfilled but rarely happy woman, who decided early on it was best to "devote oneself to work quite ruthlessly. . . My idea is to play it hard."
Her family, studio assistants, dealers and friends had their admiration and affection for her stretched to breaking point: when, for example, she signed up with the dealers Gimpel Fils, she sent them an 11-page letter about the draft contract. Much of this philosophy came from her sternly ambitious but loving father, who became chief surveyor of Yorkshire at 40. He also helped inspire her lifelong love affair with landscape by taking her with him on trips around the country. At school, Barbara was exceptionally clever and diligent, excelling as much at the piano as at art. But she was solitary, aloof, a bit priggish and hard to get to know.
So, except to a small circle of resilient friends and collectors, she remained. Henry Moore, her fellow student at art college, became - to her lifelong chagrin - more famous, not just because his work made a stronger impact but because his outgoing personality complemented it so well. Comparing her to Moore at the Venice Biennale in 1950, the British Council's art supremo, Lilian Somerville, reckoned her reserve "made her a dead loss." Paradoxically, the fierceness of her determination always to put her work first helped slow its acceptance and the honours that eventually flowed. She was certainly too earnest and singled-minded for her first husband, the charming, talented but feckless fellow- sculptor, John Skeaping.
Of course it was tough being a woman in the very masculine world of sculpture. Hepworth once said she felt like a wounded gull being pecked to death by the healthy ones. Festing sees her as a feminist, which makes the Hepworth quote on the book's jacket - "The sculptor carves because he must" - seem odd. It was a cruel stroke of fate that made this unmaternal, work-obsessed woman bear triplets whose father was the parentally hopeless painter Ben Nicholson. In their early years in London, the triplets were farmed out to be looked after by others. When the whole family was forced to live together in wartime St Ives, where Hepworth remained, acute tensions resulted.
Nicholson finally moved out 10 years later, and for the rest of her life Hepworth deeply missed his presence and critical acumen. Festing is sensitive in her analysis of her subject's flawed human relationships, especially those with her son, Simon. Hepworth cut him out of her will, and he died of alcohol poisioning, aged 55. One of his sins was to want to sell a sculpture she had given him.
The author makes no pretensions to be an art critic (her last book was on the gardener Gertrude Jekyll), but she is good at conveying the qualities of Hepworth's work. It is all the more irritating that the book is not better edited. Festing suffers from a tendency to over-written bathos. At its worst - "Clusters of brown rabbits might have popped up as they passed through a patchwork of rain-rinsed farms and moors," - it shakes one's confidence, as does the too-frequent misuse of words. A deal with the Tate, for example, is described as bringing Barbara's ideas "to perfect eventuality." Hepworth the ruthless perfectionist would have winced.
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
elephant appealPrince William signs up for our charity appeal
elephant appealSo says man jailed for cutting off dead elephant's tusks
voicesPeople moan that Christmas is too commercial, the spirit lost. But it is a time to over-indulge, and always has been, says DJ Taylor
booksWe examine the best titles for teens
scienceResearchers teach border collie to understand sentences using more than 1,000 words
booksA Christmas story in six parts
travelWill high-value tourism help the workshops of this Renaissance city?
food + drinkA trifle without custard? Surely not! Nonsense – and here’s three to finish your festive meal that prove it
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Arts & Ents blogs
Heavy rain and years of 'benign neglect' may have caused Apollo Theatre roof collapse
Christmas TV guide 2013: Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
Justin Bieber isn't retiring from music after all
The publisher who played with fire: the battle for control of Larsson's £30m legacy
- 1 Top PR exec Justine Sacco under fire for sending racist tweet before flying to Africa
- 2 French pub fined €9,000 after customers returned empties to bar - because it's 'undeclared labour'
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 The publisher who played with fire: the battle for control of Larsson's £30m legacy
- 5 Police seize possessions of rough sleepers in crackdown on homelessness
- < Previous
- Next >