The hole story: Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield

I VISITED BARCELONA in the late 1960s. One of the sights I saw was a museum dedicated to Pablo Picasso. Before entering that place, the artist’s works somewhat puzzled me. In the museum, there were some of Picasso’s earliest paintings. They were straightforward rather than abstract, and extremely well executed. The artist’s talents were immediately obvious. As I moved from room to room, the works on display became increasingly abstract. By seeing his progression from figurative to abstract, I began to appreciate his greatness as an artist, and I began to understand why he is regarded as a brilliant creator by many people. By the time I had finished looking around the museum, I had been converted from being sceptical about Picasso to becoming yet one more of his fans. More recently, I saw an exhibition showing the artistic development of Roy Lichtenstein from his earliest to his latest creations. No longer was he just a creator of entertaining pictures based on American comic strips, but I could see that he was an artist of great competence. Like the foregoing examples, a visit to the Cartwright Hall Museum in Bradford and seeing some of David Hockney’s earliest works also enhanced my appreciation of this highly prolific visual artist.

Bradford in Yorkshire is not far from the city of Wakefield, where Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was born. She was baptised in the city’s fine cathedral. Until today, I had mixed feelings about Hepworth’s works. There are some that I like very much, including a Mondrian-like crucifix at Salisbury Cathedral and a Naum Gabo inspired work attached to the eastern side of the John Lewis shop on London’s Oxford Street. Also, I have enjoyed visits to Hepworth’s studio and garden in Cornwall’s St Ives. However, as beautifully executed as her works are, I did not become terribly keen on her artistic output until today, the 18th of September 2021.

What converted me and increased my appreciation of Hepworth as an artist was today’s visit to the Hepworth Wakefield Museum. We arrived to discover that for the time being the whole museum is filled with works by Hepworth, beginning with her earliest and ending with her latest. The temporary exhibition, “Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life”, continues until the 27th of February 2022, and should not be missed.

As with other abstract artists, such as Picasso, Hepworth began learning the basics of figurative representation. Her earliest carvings and drawings were created superbly competently but give no hint of which directions her creative output was soon to follow. Had she not developed any further, she would have been regarded as a skilled, if not too exciting, sculptor. However, Hepworth soon became involved artistically, and in one case maritally, with leading artists of the twentieth century. Contact with them and their ideas  can be detected in some of the works she created as she moved from purely representational to highly abstract. It was particularly interesting to see a small carving with a hole in it, the first of her many works to have holes in them. The idea of the holes is to allow light to flow through her sculptures. It was not only other artists who inspired Hepworth’s creation but also the forces of nature, which unconsciously sculpt rocks, trees, and other natural features in the landscape.

It was interesting to see the life-size prototypes of some of Hepworth’s works I have admired in the past. It was wonderful, for example, to be able to get close to the full-size model sculpture which is now high up on the wall of John Lewis in Oxford Street.

Once again, seeing a collection of works illustrating the progression of an artist’s output from student days until the achievement of fame and beyond has helped me to increase my appreciation of an artist about whom I had some reservations. Today’s visit to the Hepworth Wakefield has moved Barbara Hepworth a long way up my ladder of great artists and removed any doubts I had about her works.

Finally, here is something that intrigues me. Hepworth, like Picasso and also my late mother, had what might be described as traditional basic artistic training, just like the European and western artists who created during the many centuries before the 20th, yet all three of them (and many others) moved from expressing themselves with figurative works to abstract creations. However, unlike the artists who flourished before the latter parts of the 19th century and never strayed into the world of artistic abstraction, those who created during after the late 19th century (including the Impressionists) strayed away from the purely figurative/representational. Why this happened is no doubt the subject matter of much art historical literature, which I have yet to read. As I wrote the previous sentence, it occurred to me that the move towards abstraction (and other forms of art that do not appear to give the viewer a straightforward recreation of nature) coincided with the advent of photography. The photograph can give the illusion of being a true image of the world, leaving the artist to explore other more imaginative representations of what he or she has seen.

Packed with art in St Ives, Cornwall

THE TATE GALLERY has two branches in the picturesque fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall. The artworks displayed at Tate St Ives are contained in a building overlooking Porthmeor Beach, constructed between 1983 and 1993. It replaced a disused gasworks, but I feel that the gallery’s almost fascistic architecture neither does anything to enhance the town or to match the beauty of many of the items displayed within it. The other part of The Tate in St Ives is house and gardens of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A visit to her former home and its garden, filled with her sculptures, is a delightful experience.

 

Barbara Hepworth and her sculpture in the Penwith Gallery

Not far from the Tate St Ives, there is another ‘must-see’ attraction for lovers of modern and contemporary art. This is the Penwith Gallery on Back Road East. Less visited than the two Tate institutions in St Ives, the Penwith is the home of the Penwith Society of Arts, one of whose founders was Barbara Hepworth. The gallery contains one of the loveliest Hepworth sculptures that I have seen to date. Maybe I like it because it recalls the works of the Romanian born sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a sculptor whose works are much to my taste. To be frank, I am not a great lover of Hepworth’s sculpture and this piece in the Penwith is less typical of what I do not like about her work.

Returning to the gallery itself, its website reveals (https://penwithgallery.com/):

“The society was founded in 1949 by Barbara Hepworth,Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Sven Berlin and Wilhelmina Barns– Graham, amongst others. Later members have included Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Henry Moore (honorary member). This association with so many progressive and influential artists has given the Penwith Society a unique place in British art history.

Today the society continues to play a central role in the thriving and vibrant St. Ives art community, exhibiting contemporary art from Cornwall and beyond.”

The gallery is housed in a former pilchard packing factory. Its ceiling is supported with roughly hewn granite pillars, painted white. Part of the ceiling is glass-covered, allowing natural light into the largest of the three main display areas. The rest of the ceiling does not transmit light.

The gallery displays an ever-changing collection of artworks, which are on sale. Created by members of the Society or artists, who have worked in the Society’s studios, they include sculptures, prints, paintings, and ceramics. Some of the works are figurative and many of them are abstract. Some are halfway between the two extremes. I have enjoyed abstract art since my childhood. This is probably because my mother, who was a sculptor who enjoyed creating abstract pieces. The lovely Hepworth piece that stands next to a fine photograph of its sculptor, and several other works, form part of the Penwith’s permanent collection. A small range of books and cards are available for visitors to purchase.

Every time I visit the Penwith, I enjoy the gallery’s spaces and the works displayed within them.  Instead of being packed with pilchards, as it was in the past, and other tourists, as are the two Tate establishments, the Penwith is comfortably packed with pleasing works of art, which you can take home if you can afford them, and some of them are not excessively costly.

Artists in Hampstead: London’s Montmartre

JUST AS MONTMARTRE in Paris attracted artists, particularly painters, so did Hampstead in north London. Best known amongst these were John Constable (1776-1837) and Sir George Romney (1734-1802), who both resided in Hampstead. Constable lived in various parts of Hampstead including Well Walk and Lower Terrace. Reynolds had a fine house on Holly Hill. Since the 18th century, many painters and sculptors have either worked and/or lived in Hampstead.

Studio of the painter Mark Gertler in Hampstead

Although I have visited Hampstead often over a period of more than six decades, it was only yesterday in April 2021 that I first noticed what looks like a small industrial unit with two sloping roofs each with large skylights along one side of Well Road. This is not what it looks like but was formerly artists’ work places, named Well Mount Studios. A commemorative plaque affixed to the building records that the painter Mark Gertler (1891-1939) lived here. I first became aware of this artist when visiting an exhibition at Dulwich Art Gallery in 2013 (www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/about/press-media/press-releases/dulwich-picture-gallery-presents-nash-nevinson-spencer-gertler-carrington-bomberg-a-crisis-of-brilliance/) in which pictures painted by artists who had studied at London’s Slade School of Art were displayed. Amongst these artists was Dora Carrington (1893-1932), whose brief sexual relationship with Gertler was the inspiration for a novel, “Mendel”, by Gilbert Cannan.  Gertler painted Cannan in about 1916.

Gertler lived at several other addresses in Hampstead in addition to Well Road: The Vale of Health, 13a Rudall Crescent, and 53 Haverstock Hill (https://rosemaryhallart.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/artists-in-hampstead-part-iii/).  His parents were poor Jewish immigrants. Gertler was born in London’s Spitalfields in 1891. Soon after that, his parents and the family returned to Austria-Hungary in 1892, settling in Przemyśl in Austria-Hungary (now in Poland). Then, in 1896, the family returned to London. Mark displayed great artistic talent as a child and in 1906, after leaving school, he studied art first at the Regents Street Polytechnic and then, at the recommendation of the artist Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945), who lived in Hampstead between 1902 and 1912, he entered The Slade. Rothenstein lived at 12 Church Row, where he painted “Mother and Child” in 1903 (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rothenstein-mother-and-child-t05075).

While at the Slade, Mark was a contemporary of artists including Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, C. R. W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Isaac Rosenberg, and Morris Goldstein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Gertler_(artist)). During his time at the Slade, he met and became infatuated with Dora Carrington.

Mark moved to Hampstead in late 1914. According to Caroline Maclean in her book about the Hampstead Modernists, “Circles & Squares”, Mark moved into the studios near New End, i.e. Well Mount Studios, in 1915, and painted his well-known “Merry-Go-Round” in 1916. This painting that is in the collection held by the Tate Gallery was inspired by a special funfair that was held on Hampstead Heath in 1915 on behalf of wounded soldiers and sailors (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gertler-merry-go-round-t03846). The painting is believed to reflect that artist’s reaction to war. He was a conscientious objector. He had written to his patron, the art collector Edward Marsh (1852-1953):

“’I am I believe what you call a “passivist”. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I just hate the war”.

Well Mount Studios were built in the late 19th century (http://hughcullum.com/portfolio/well-mount-studios/). The building’s exterior is not particularly attractive but its interior was tastefully renewed in 2003.

Gertler contracted tuberculosis in 1920. He married Marjorie Greatorex Hodgkinson ten years later and they had a son in 1932. Both he and his wife suffered bad health and Mark’s mental stability deteriorated during the 1930s. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1939 in his studio which was by then at 5 Grove Terrace, Highgate Road (near Parliament Hill Fields), London (https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-genius-of-the-place-mark-gertler).

A relatively early 20th century artistic arrival in Hampstead, Gertler was followed by a host of other 20th century artists from all over Britain and elsewhere. These included well-known creators such as Barbara Hepworth, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, and many others. When I was at the Hall School at Swiss Cottage between 1960 and 1965, one of my fellow pupils was a son of the graphic designer Frederick Henri Kay Henrion (1914-1990) and his wife the sculptor Daphne Hardy Henrion (1917-2003), who was once a close friend of the writer Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). The Henrions lived in Pond Street for twenty years from about 1946 onwards. They had two sons, one of whom attended The Hall with me. I do not recall his first name because at that school everyone addressed each other by their surnames.

Far less well-known than any of the above-mentioned artists was my mother’s cousin Dolf Rieser (1898-1983; https://dolfrieser.com/biography/). Dolf, a fine etcher and engraver, lived in Sumatra Road, West Hampstead. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to attend his inspiring classes in the large studio in his house. Some examples of his prolific output are in important collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum, both in London. Apart from being a great judge of composition, my relative Dolf was highly inventive as his son Richard noted:

“Dolf was innovative, experimenting with plaster prints, silk scarf prints for Liberty’s, printing on leather, printing on plastic paper to be laminated table-tops and on fibre glass to create translucent panels. He even designed for the whole side of a building a ‘print’ to be sand blasted into the concrete, at a university Witwatersrand in the form of a Bushman cave painting. Dolf worked with a plastics expert, Richard Wood, to develop the laminated hand made prints and the prints on fibre glass. The prints went off to the factory to be laminated, but the fibre glass he rolled onto the plate which had been inked with specially prepared plastic pigments, then had resin spread on and then another layer of fibre glass. The resin warmed up and emitted a sweet smell, like honey, and when it was set it could be peeled off the plate. A light could be put behind to give a translucent image.” (https://dolfrieser.com/a-personal-memory/)

Working in Dolf’s studio once a week for a few years helped made me feel like I was involved in the Hampstead art scene at least a little bit.

During my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, when we often visited Hampstead, there used to be an annual summer fair of local artists’ works held on the wide pavement of Heath Street near to Whitestone Pond. Most of these artists were far less well-known than the likes of Gertler or even my relative Dolf Rieser, but seeing the exhibition helped to imprint Hampstead’s rich association with visual art firmly in my then young mind.