Dames Done Wrong: Barbara Hepworth

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Sexism and misogyny were rampant throughout the 20th century in basically every industry except the baby-making one and womankind just couldn’t catch a break. This was no different for Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth dealt with colleagues making similar art to hers and getting literally all of the fame for it and critics (ahem Jonathan Jones) saying, “She is not in the same class [as] Brâncuși, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko or Richard Serra.” She had to fight for every bit of recognition that she got in her life. It’s a wonder that any woman got anything done with that much adversity. It sounds exhausting.

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But if anyone could do it, it was Barbara. She had a baby head start from her father who gave a hoot about her education. He would take her for long car rides around the Yorkshire countryside, which later became the inspiration for much of her sculpture. At school, she proved to be such a promising artist that she was, “Allowed by her headmistress at Wakefield Girls' high school to draw and paint while the other girls were on the playing fields.” Then she earned a scholarship to study at the Leeds School of Art in 1920, where she met her arch nemesis, Henry Moore. The two were kinda friends, but mostly frenemies. This was the beginning of a long life of people thinking that she was one of his followers, instead of the original genius. Moore was “more famous, not just because his work made a stronger impact but because his outgoing personality complemented it so well.” This made life and success rather difficult for Barbara.

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But she wasn’t one to complain and she stuck to her work and earned a spot at the Royal College of Art, where she could finally get away from Moore and do her own thing. Except for one thing… Moore went too and their rivalry continued. There was just no escaping him. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that Moore followed Hepworth through school because he knew that all he had to do was copy her work and then outshine her socially in order to become famous. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist so that’s a ridiculous idea…

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Ok, so Hepworth made it through the Royal College of Art without murdering Henry Moore. She stayed an extra year to compete for the Prix de Rome but, shocker, she lost to John Skeaping, who would later become her husband, because why not marry someone who is your artistic competition? She bore him a son and then they got a divorce. Then she took up with Ben Nicholson, a man she was sure would stay with her to the bitter end. The two lived together for six year before they were married in 1938 and in that time fate dealt Hepworth the most intense of cards. In 1934, Hepworth was pregnant with not one, not two, but three babies. Roger Berthoud at The Independent put it best saying, “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.” Can you imagine trying to be a successful sculptor with triplets and a four year old? The cards were heavily stacked against her. I mean who is going to take care of the children? It’s either Hepworth or nobody since Ben certainly wasn’t going to do it. He has his career to think about for goodness sake. The kids ended up going to boarding school, so it was fine, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.

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World War II rolled around and in 1939 the family moved to St. Ives, Cornwall on the northern coast of England. They brought all the babies with them so quarters were tight, to say the least. Hepworth resorted to drawing and making small plaster sculptures at night and didn't make any significant sculptures until 1943. Despite all of this her life was actually going pretty well. She was getting exhibitions, her family had survived the war, and after they moved to a bigger house, she had time and space to make art. Things soon took a turn for the worse, which seems to be a theme in Hepworth’s life. She wrote in her journal, “In 1951, after 20 years of family life, everything fell apart.” Ben Nicholson, to her great detriment, left her and the kids. He just couldn’t take small town life. In Hepworth’s biography, Sally Festing wrote that “Hepworth spent the rest of her life hoping he would return, even after he remarried and moved abroad.”

Below is actual footage of Hepworth’s mental state:

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And the hits just kept on coming when her oldest son, Paul died in a plane crash in 1953 over Thailand. All she had left was her art (and I guess her triplets) so that’s what she did. She made art, got plenty of exhibitions, and somewhere in there she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which makes this whole “Dames Done Wrong” blog post highly accurate.

Here she is with Naum Gabo and Henry Moore at the Tate's 1968 Herbert Read Memorial exhibition.

There was a film made and books written about her life but, as I’m sure you know by now, disaster was to strike Barbara Hepworth one last time and this time for good. On May 20, 1975, Hepworth took a sleeping pill and lit a cigarette. “The pill took 15 minutes to knock her out, the cigarette 10 minutes to smoke.” But something went awry in those few minutes and Hepworth’s house caught on fire. This was the last of Hepworth’s adversities and it was tragic, but at least it wasn’t a man that brought her down.

And now that you're thoroughly depressed, here’s Bob Ross:

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  1. Souter, Anna. "Barbara Hepworth's Life And Legacy." The Art Story. N.p., 2018. Web. 29 Aug. 2018.
  2. Jones, Jonathan. "The Stone-Cold Truth: Barbara Hepworth And Henry Moore Are Not In The Premier League." the Guardian. N.p., 2015. Web. 28 Aug. 2018.
  3. MacCarthy, Fiona. "The Ambition Of Barbara Hepworth." the Guardian. N.p., 2003. Web. 28 Aug. 2018.
  4. Crompton, Sarah. "Barbara Hepworth Finally Gets Her Due." the Guardian. N.p., 2015. Web. 29 Aug. 2018.
  5. Berthoud, Roger. "The Sculptor's Tragedy." The Independent. N.p., 1995. Web. 29 Aug. 2018.
  6. "Biography | Barbara Hepworth." N.p., 2018. Web. 29 Aug. 2018.
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Emily Browne


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