Emma West discovered Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture, Spring, 1965, at the beginning of what would become a pilgrimage of the sculptor’s work around the UK. Here, she reflects on Hepworth’s sculptures in situ, the importance of touch and having hope for life after lockdown.
At the present moment we are building up a new mythology which is more easily understood when the things we care for are seen.
— Barbara Hepworth, 1934
In my spare room there is a wall of postcards, collected from museums and galleries and friends and relatives over the past twenty years. Mostly, they are reproductions of paintings I’ve seen in galleries, from Berlin to Washington to Bourges. Each postcard is a window onto a time, a place, a feeling.
The postcard that stands out is just off-centre. It’s a photograph not of a painting but of a sculpture: Spring (1965), by Barbara Hepworth. It’s made from bronze with strings strung across the middle. They stretch and overlap like the strings on a bag of marbles.
It’s not a small sculpture, but it looks quite small in the postcard. In fact, the whole card is rather strange. It looks more like a polaroid than a postcard, with fat white margins above and below the photograph. These margins made me hesitate when buying it. I thought it would look messy on my wall – I like neatness, and order. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to modernism, especially abstraction. But it’s those margins which make the postcard stand out on my wall. It looks like a holiday photo, one that I’ve taken.
I bought the postcard while visiting St. Ives with my family last year. I didn’t know it then but I was at the beginning of a Hepworth pilgrimage. I spent 2019 following Hepworth’s work round the country. I saw her studio and garden in St. Ives. At Yorkshire Sculpture Park I marvelled at the monumental The Family of Man (1970), in brilliant sunshine during the heatwave. In the basement of St. Albans Museum & Art Gallery I saw her sculptures for Hertfordshire, brightly lit and transcendent. In London, Leeds, Birmingham, Cardiff, Swansea, I saw Barbara Hepworths. I went to the Hepworth Wakefield and spent a fortune in the gift shop.
St. Ives was the first step in this odyssey. It’s a magical place. The best thing about the postcard is that it isn’t just a picture of Spring. It’s a picture of Spring in the landscape. Next to it is a tall, bushy bamboo. Its pointy green fronds fall in front of Spring’s cold, glossy bronze. To the left are trees in alpine shades of green and lush, tropical foliage. I don’t know all the plant names. But the effect is mesmerising. When I look at it, I feel a great sense of quiet, of rightness, but also of strength. Spring appears to glow, to pulse with colour and energy. The turquoise interior is startling. Lit by the sun overhead, and dappled by shadow, it appears celestial, like the heavenly break in the clouds you see in Christian art.
Hepworth wrote many beautiful things about sculpture and its place in the landscape. Here’s one of my favourites.
I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breath.
Spring is a sculpture that breathes. It changes, with the seasons. When we saw it – in spring – it was crowned by cherry blossoms. It’s this promise of the natural world which draws me to this postcard during lockdown. In meditation, we are taught to imagine our mind is a blue sky, with thoughts and emotions drifting over it. Spring is the blue sky. The light and shadows change, but the sculpture remains. There’s something very reassuring about that.
Matthew Gale writes that, in conjunction with its title, ‘the ovoid form of Spring suggests Hepworth’s long-standing concerns with the cycles of nature and the promise of rebirth.’ I can see that. Spring looks heavy and full like an egg. It reminds me of a passage from Hepworth’s autobiography, in which she remembers moving across the West Riding landscape in her father’s car as a child:
Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me. I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour.
The way she writes floors me.
As I look at Spring, I wonder what the strings mean. She uses them in a lot of her work. On some days they seem to me very tense and tight and taught. The thought of one snapping makes me recoil. On other days they seem less fraught. The strings look more like lines of communication, efforts to reach out, to connect, to make it to the other side. Together, all these crossing wires cover the hollow at its centre. There’s danger here, but also safety. That feels about right for now.
There is so much about Barbara Hepworth and her work which captivates me. Above all, her sculptures remind me of the power of touch. When we visited St. Ives, we ran our hands over these undulating shapes, tracing her marks with our fingertips. In a 1959 interview Hepworth said that ‘touch gives us a sense of living contact and security’. There’s something so poignant about this statement. I recently spoke to a friend over Skype and he observed that the thing he was missing was touch. He hadn’t touched another person for weeks. It’s in crises like these that we realise what’s truly important. Simple things. Touch. Human contact. Our bodies together, in the landscape.
The good thing about bronze is its permanence. When all of this is over – and it will be over – Spring will still be there, waiting, thrumming, in Hepworth’s garden. When you touch it, its cool surface will be as refreshing as a long glass of water.
Notes & Further Reading on Barbara Hepworth
Statement by Hepworth in Unit 1: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, reproduced in Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, ed. by Sophie Bowness (London: Tate, 2017), 22.
‘Artist’s notes on technique’ (1962), in Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, 163.
J. P. Hodin, ‘Two Conversations with Barbara Hepworth’ (August 1959), in Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, 127.
About Emma West
Emma West is a researcher and writer with a passion for modern art, design, literature and performance. After completing her PhD at Cardiff University she was awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Birmingham. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Modernist Cultures, Modernism/modernity, Decorating Dissidence and The Modernist Review. She is currently writing her first book, Art for the People: Everyday Encounters with the Arts in Modern Britain. When she’s not writing or researching she spends her time painting flowers or animals, or sometimes both. She tweets @emmagenevieve and shares her research at https://emmawest.art.blog.
This piece was commissioned for Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts now wants to open the series up to other writers. Is there a postcard or a work of art that speaks to you at this time? If so, send your submissions to Rochelle via firstname.lastname@example.org and see here for more information.