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The sculptor's tragedy

BARBARA HEPWORTH: A LIFE OF FORMS Sally Festing Viking pounds 20
Towards the end of her life, when she was not very mobile and drinking heavily, Barbara Hepworth would take a sleeping pill and then light a last cigarette in bed. The pill took 15 minutes to knock her out, the cigarette 10 minutes to smoke. One night in May, 1975, the inevitable happened and she was burnt to death, aged 73. Since then, would-be biographers have been deterred from tackling the life of Britain's - arguably the world's - foremost woman sculptor by her Cerberus-like son-in-law, Sir Alan Bowness. The former Director of the Tate Gallery is not only married to one of her triplets, Sarah, but is her executor. Before her death Dame Barbara spoke to him about her biography, but for 20 years it has not been forthcoming.

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.