Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings

Barbara Hepworth was one of the most important 20th Century British sculptors, producing a large oeuvre of abstract works. It’s less known that, like her friend and contemporary, Henry Moore, she was a talented draughtsperson creating a fairly significant number of drawings. One of the highlights of our visit to the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield on New Year’s Day was the exhibition of drawings she produced in hospitals over a two-year period between 1947 and 1949.

Barbara Hepworth, Concentration of Hands II, 1948 ©Bowness, Hepworth Estate (Picture source: Hepworth website)

The drawings came about when she was invited to observe procedures in the operating theatre at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter and at a London clinic by the surgeon Norman Capener who had treated her daughter when Sarah in 1944, for osteomyelitis of the thigh. She created over 70 drawings, and a large number were on display at the Hepworth together with contextual materials including extracts from her sketchbooks. Many of the individual works are from private collections, so this was a very rare opportunity to see so many collected together.

There’s a good selection of pictures from the exhibition shown on the Guardian website.

Although some of the drawings are chalk, ink or pencil sketches on paper, many of them were created by incising pencil marks and applying oil paint on a pseudo-gesso ground of roughly applied Ripolin paint. Her technique is described  on the Tate website discussing another drawing, Two Figures (Heroes) 1954, that they own and is on display in her former studio in St Ives:

A thick white oil ground – probably of household paint – was brushed on to the smooth face of the hardboard to give a hard, textured surface. A thin glaze of brown oil paint was applied and then scraped down, in areas to the white ground. The main design was drawn over the paint in black pencil, probably with the aid of a ruler; sections of the resulting grid were filled in with strong colours – red, black, blue, grey – and a pale grey was washed over some areas.

Detail from Reconstruction 1947 (Picture source: Hepworth website)

Hepworth is best known as an abstract artist, but these drawings, taking people as their subject, are clearly figurative. Yet there is an abstract quality to them. She concentrates very much on the eyes and hands of the surgeons and other hospital staff. These are the only parts of the body that can be seen when the staff are gowned up. The rest of the bodies are portrayed in much less detail, in an almost abstract style. And the patients hardly feature at all in the pictures.

It’s the hands and the eyes that clearly interested her.  The eyes reveal the intense concentration and the hands are finely manipulating the tools and surgical instruments. In most of the pictures, such as the one above, the surgeons could almost be sculptors carving wood or stone. Hepworth acknowledged that she saw the methods and approach of  the surgeons she observed as being very similar to those of sculptors. In a lecture delivered to an audience of surgeons in the early 1950s, shortly after she completed the series Hepworth observed that:

“There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors.”

And writing elsewhere of her experience of observing the surgeons at work

I expected that I should dislike it; but from the moment when I entered the operating theatre I became completely absorbed by two things: first, the co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of a life, and the way that unity of idea and purpose dictated a perfection of concentration, movement, and gesture, and secondly by the way this special grace (grace of mind and body), induce a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work.

Some critics seem to detect similarities to religious paintings in the composition of the drawings, like those she saw in Italy during her time studying there in her early twenties. But to me the main theme of these works is the “nobility of work” and in that I see a very close affinity with the drawings by Henry Moore of coal miners

The exhibition finishes at the Hepworth on 3rd February. However there will be an opportunity to see it at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichecter and Mascall’s Gallery, Paddock Wood, Kent later this year.