Family of Man

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The Family of Man, a group of 9 individual bronze sculptures was one of Barbara Hepworth’s final works, completed in 1970, not long before her death in 1975.

With bronze sculptures, there are usually several castings. In the case of The Family of Man there are 6 editions. Of these there are two complete sets, one displayed at the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Garden at PepsiCo, at Purchase, New York while the other is sited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. The remaining pieces are scattered between various locations; in most cases several figures being displayed together. There is a group of three figures from the family outside the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, only a few miles from the YSP.

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Group of figures from “The Family of Man” outside the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield

Although she spent most of her life in London and St Ives, Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield.  In 1980, only a few years after her tragic death, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park staged an exhibition devoted to her work. After it had finished a number of works, including The Family of Man were retained on long term loan.

The Family consists of 9 separate pieces – individuals starting with a young girl and finishing with ancestors and an “Ultimate form”. In between they cover the various ages of man. They are abstract, but clearly represent people, becoming more sophisticated as they mature.

Hepworth once said that:

I kept on thinking of large works in a landscape: this has always been a dream in my mind. (in A. Bowness, The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth)

They are well sited at the YSP on a slope, with the smaller members of the family on the lower reaches, increasing in size towards the top of the slope. Approaching them from the path at the bottom of the hill they make an impressive sight – a photograph can’t do them justice.

We always go to look at The Family whenever we visit the park. They are one of our favourite works in their permanent collection. However, there is very little information on the work available at the park. (This is my one main criticism of what is otherwise a superb arts venue). I was curious to know what the individual pieces represented. I checked through various books on Hepworth from my own collection and in the local library without much success and an internet search left me none the wiser. So I decided to contact the YSP. I sent them an e-mail and received a response with the information I was after within the hour! I was impressed. Well done YSP!

So now I know what the individual pieces represent.

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Young girl

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Youth

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The Bride

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Bridegroom

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Parent 1

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Parent 2

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Ancestor 1

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Ancestor 2

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Ultimate Form

The “Ultimate Form” intrigues me. What does it represent? Hepworth was a Christian Scientist and, as far as I can ascertain, was quite a religious person. To me, this figure represents her deity.

There’s a video of an interview with Hepworth about The Family of Man on the Pathé newsreel website where she explains what she was attempting to represent with the different individuals within the group

BARBARA HEPWORTH SCULPTRESS

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In this interview, at very the end, she talks about the “Ultimate Form”.

We all have an aspiration which we share. They may be different aspirations but they are still hopes for the future, belief in the  future, belief in the children that are yet to be born, and the Ultimate Form has the kind of serenity saying “go on working – here I am”

I’m not entirely clear at what she’s trying to say – but I think this confirms my view. The “Ultimate Form” represents an aspiration of perfection, of God.