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Barbara Hepworth

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Barbara Hepworth

by Barbara Hepworth
oil and pencil on board, 1950
12 in. x 10 1/2 in. (305 mm x 267 mm)
Bequeathed by Dr Priaulx Rainier, 1987
Primary Collection
NPG 5919

Sitterback to top

  • Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Sculptor; second wife of Ben Nicholson. Sitter in 30 portraits, Artist of 1 portrait.

Artistback to top

  • Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Sculptor; second wife of Ben Nicholson. Artist of 1 portrait, Sitter in 30 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Hepworth was not a prolific draughtsman but two groups of drawings in her oeuvre stand out, the first for the War Artists' Advisory Committee recording hospital operations in wartime, and the second to which this self-portrait belongs. In the late 40s, when her marriage to Ben Nicholson had disintegrated and she was on her own in St Ives, the sculptor developed a routine of drawing from models in the evenings after the day's carving had ended.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Bond; Anthony; Woodall, Joanna, Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, 2005 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October - 29 January 2006), p. 47
  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 21 Read entry

    It is with St Ives in Cornwall, where she moved at the beginning of the Second World War, that the sculptor Barbara Hepworth will always be associated. There she and her second husband, Ben Nicholson, pioneers of the abstract movement in British art, were at the heart of a group of artists collectively inspired by the Cornish landscape. Like her close colleague and contemporary, Henry Moore, Hepworth made extensive use of the 'hole' in abstract sculpture, often developing the interior space it created through subtle use of colour and strings.

    Hepworth's self-portrait, unique in her œuvre, was given by the sculptor to her friend the composer Priaulx Rainier who in turn bequeathed it to the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait reveals the artist in front of her raw material at the point of creative inspiration, 'the moment of vision before the first blow of the chisel’ as Dr Rainier described it in a letter to the Gallery. Nicholson's semi-abstract self-portrait with Barbara Hepworth, entitled St Rémy Provence, is also unusual in his work, marking a brief period when he concentrated on the human profile.

  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 89 Read entry

    Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, where her father was a civil engineer. She won a scholarship to Leeds School of Art in 1919 and there met fellow student Henry Moore, who was five years her senior. She won another scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) was Principal. She left with a diploma in 1924 and then travelled with a scholarship to Tuscany. In Italy she married the sculptor John Skeaping (1901-80) and they returned to England in November 1926.

    In 1931 Hepworth joined the Seven and Five Society whose members included Moore and Ben Nicholson, to whom Hepworth was married between 1933 and 1951. Her large sculptures were part of the British modern movement (she was especially known for her subtle use of the hole) and with them she achieved international recognition. Her work is represented in more than one hundred collections throughout the world and her studio in St Ives is now a museum. Hepworth was a pioneering sculptor in stone and wood, who thought that '... there is a whole range of formal perception belonging to feminine experience. So many ideas spring from an inside response to form.' (Quoted in P. Curtis and A. G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, 1994-5.)

    The board on which Hepworth has drawn has a thin coating of gesso. Into this the artist has made brisk pencil marks indicating the figure's hand (her own) holding the board: a classic method of self-portrayal. The surface texture is full of scratches and indentations, giving it a three-dimensional quality. In places the white is rubbed down and orange paint glows around the edges. A soft shadow is created by mixing water with the pencil on plaster. A tint of brown ink gives her hair a darker tone, while the brush strokes give it direction. These are enhanced by heavy, rhythmic swirling pencil marks to suggest individual hairs. The eyes are determinedly marked out and there is a strong highlight to the nose. The whole is a vivid, confident sketch: lively, vigorous, informal but in control.

  • Rideal, Liz, Insights: Self-portraits, 2005, p. 99 Read entry

    Barbara Hepworth’s elegant but intense self-portrait belongs to a small group of figurative works from the late 1940s to the early 1950s. Like the preceding group of Expressionist self-portraits, she also sees herself in terms of her own, albeit very different, graphic style, literally incising her pencil into the pre-prepared gesso board.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 297

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1950back to top

Current affairs

Princess Anne is born at Clarence house, the only daughter of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Art and science

C.S. Lewis publishes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Lewis was an Oxford Don, specialising in Medieval Literature and its use of allegory. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is often seen as an allegory of the Christian struggle between good and evil.


Following the Soviet and American withdrawal from the occupation of North and South Korea respectively, the Korean War breaks out as each side seeks to unify Korea under its own political system. While the U.S.A., U.K and other UN nations came to the defence of South Korea, North Korea had support from the Soviet Union and China. The war continued until 1953.

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