Barbara Hepworth, Concentration of Hands II, 1948, Private Collection © Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Image courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert.
The Hospital Drawings offer a unique insight into a littleknown aspect of one of Britain’s best-loved sculptors - Hepworth’s skill as a draughtsperson - revealing how drawing was an important means of exploring forms that influenced her practice as a sculptor. In contrast to the pure abstract work for which Hepworth (1903 –1975) is celebrated, the drawings also reveal Hepworth’s aptitude for narrative realism. Like Henry Moore’s Underground shelter drawings, the series function as invaluable social documents, rendered with extraordinary emotional intensity.
The exhibition at Pallant House Gallery coincides with the 65th anniversary year of the launch of Britain’s pioneering National Health Service in 1948. A groundbreaking change within Post-War Britain society, the NHS was embraced by artists like Hepworth, who supported the broad left ideals behind the social reconstruction of Britain, to develop a fairer, more inclusive society.
Hepworth embarked the series of studies of the operating theatre at the invitation of her friend, the surgeon Norman Capener. Following the hospitalisation of their daughter Sarah in 1944, Hepworth and her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, struck up a friendship with Capener, the surgeon who treated Sarah at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter, who was himself an artist.
Hepworth was invited to witness a variety of surgical procedures at Exeter and the London Clinic, and over a two-year period (1947-49) she produced around 70 works within the series. As well as pencil, ink and chalk drawings, many were executed in both pencil and oil paint on board, and as such can be seen as both paintings and drawings.
Impressed by the close connection she felt between her art and the skilled craftsmanship of the surgeon, Hepworth was particularly fascinated by the rhythmic movement of hands during the medical procedures unfolding before her. Hepworth’s own hands are featured prominently in portraits throughout her career and between 1949 and 1950 she made a bronze sculpture of Norman Capener’s hand entitled Hand II (horizontal). This is included in the exhibition along with her earlier sculpture based on a cast of her own hand, ‘Barbara Hepworth’s Hand’ (c1943-4).
The artist explains in her previously unpublished lecture delivered to an audience of surgeons in the early 1950s, shortly after she completed the series: “There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors.”
Hepworth remained in regular contact with Capener until his death on 30 March 1975, within two months of her own. They met regularly in London, when her monthly visits to trustee meetings at Tate coincided with Capener’s trips to the Royal College of Surgeons.
Simon Martin, Head of Collections and Exhibition at Pallant House Gallery said: “‘Although Hepworth’s sculptures are widely known and admired, for many the Hospital Drawings will be a remarkable discovery. We are delighted to be bringing them to wider attention at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, and to be presenting a different view on the work of one of Britain’s most important modern artists.”