Sunday, 16 December 2012

Barbara Hepworth

You may have noticed I’ve been playing truant from serious stuff over the last couple of days; its Christmas and we all need a break.

I’ve built up a stack of stuff for the blog - stuff relating to the strange practise we have of leaving the most inexperienced Doctors to deal with serious emergencies they have no experience of. I’ve got stuff about the dangers of falling ill at the weekend and a few terrible tales about St Peters.

Its time to go back to the beginning and remind ourselves just what it meant to people when the National Health Service was created.

Barbara Hepworth was a sculptor, whose childhood was spent around the time of the First World War and was learning her trade during the 1930’s.  She was remarkably gifted, and as a woman in that time, she needed to be. Quite simply, women didn’t get opportunities to be artists then; many people feel they still don’t. In the world of sculpture it was hardest of all.

Despite this she won scholarships in Leeds and London, then a highly prestigious award of a year studying in Italy. This was won against fierce opposition from the artistic establishment which felt that a woman could not be trusted with such an award.

All her life, rival artists with less talent like her friend  Henry Moore, benefited from lucrative commissions which were denied to her.

Despite all this, she produced a wide range of modern masterpieces, which are now beginning to be appreciated in a way they weren’t during her life.

In 1947, she took a two year break from sculpture, which probably meant she missed out on work for public bodies in the post war reconstruction.

She had become friends with Norman Capener, an orthopaedic surgeon and amateur artist who had operated on her daughter and during the two years she produced some 80 pencil, chalk and pastel pictures of surgeons and nurses, in the operating theatres of hospitals in Exeter and London.

Her change of direction was intended to record and celebrate the birth of the new National Health Service.

Now a large selection of the pictures is on exhibition in Wakefield, some shown for the first time. They capture the idealism and hope of a very special time in our history; when for the first time ever ordinary people had some financial security and a right to adequate medical treatment when they needed it.

All of that hope jumps out of the pictures – they were completed very quickly, in the midst of all the rush and concentration of complex operations. These glimpses from over shoulders capture the eyes and hands of skilled people engrossed in their work.

Hepworth gave a lecture to a group of surgeons in the 50’s where she said: “There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors.”

It was a time which still brought the best out in people, who realised that they were present at the beginning of something important. The artist felt an overwhelming need to capture this moment and luckily the medical staff realised how important it was for that record to be kept.

I’m not going to be getting to Wakefield but luckily I’ve seen some of the pictures before. If you get a chance, go.  That the pictures are now getting the recognition they deserve is good and comes at a time when what they stood for is under threat.


Neil Harris

(a don’t stop till you drop production)


  1. Neil, You have really make me feel happy. I love her paintings and quite impressed with her bio and paintings.

    Offer Waterman & Co.

  2. This post was such a long time ago! I was thinking about St. Ives when I wrote it- if you ever get a chance go there (there's a wonderful campsite where you can stay very cheaply at this very expensive place) - go to her workshop which is now a museum - the garden is full of statues and you can see how she worked too. Then have a look at the church - there's a beautiful statue she carved in memory of her son who died, very intimate.

    These (green pictures) were part of a special series and they turn up once in a while, they were a very political statement at the time and perhaps they still are.