Next to Antony Gormley, Barbara Hepworth is probably the sculptor most people will have heard of, or could name if asked. They would also be likely to be able to say something about her abstract style, even if that was accompanied by a confession of being unable to understand it. Reading this paragraph back, I realise I’ve omitted Henry Moore and, you know what, I’m sticking to that. I think the person in the street might get to Gormley and Hepworth before they got to Moore.
There has been no shortage of books about Hepworth, but this is perhaps the most comprehensive and is certainly timely, coinciding with a major retrospective at the eponymous gallery in Wakefield – the town is rightly proud of its daughter. One review I have seen expresses disappointment that the book extends to only 250 pages, including plenty of illustrations. I’m not sure how much more would be required, or whether that reviewer was looking for something more than a book which can be managed by the general reader. Full artistic analyses are available elsewhere and there is a limit to how much domestic and diurnal detail is required, even in a book avowedly for the specialist. This is concise and readable, and let’s be grateful for that.
In fact, there’s a good spread of material here, from Hepworth’s beginnings and examples of early work – good, even promising, one might say, but not hugely exceptional. This is often the case with great artists, who take a while to find their mature voice and vision. The blurb also tells us that the book “reflects for the first time the artist’s multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach, bringing together as never before her interests in dance, music, poetry, contemporary politics, science and technology”. There is a hint to this in one of the early illustrations: a photograph, commissioned by her, of the Cow & Calf Rocks above Ilkley in Yorkshire and hinting at her later interaction with landforms.
Eleanor Clayton also quotes extensively from Hepworth’s own writings. Although this rightly gives a voice to the artist, one might cavil at that idea and think that it perhaps supplants authorial analysis. Nevertheless, it does help to present its subjects as more than just The Artist and as a person in her own right which, ultimately, is what this book is about. There is a humanity to these extracts that feeds directly into the artworks and gives them extra depth and warmth.
Biographical books can often suffer either (or both) from a lack of illustrations or a lack of quality in them. Book paper tends to swallow colour, but Thames & Hudson have become adept at countering this and it would be entirely fair to describe this as an illustrated biography rather than simply a biography with illustrations.
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