Mother and Child: A Recurring Theme in the Work of Barbara Hepworth

A recurring theme in the work of Dame Barbara Hepworth is that of mother and child. Hepworth had four children herself: Paul Skeaping (whose father was John Skeaping – Hepworth’s first husband), born in 1929; and the triplets – Simon, Rachel and Sarah Hepworth-Nicholson (the product of Hepworth’s marriage to second husband Ben Nicholson), born in 1934. No doubt Hepworth’s own experiences of motherhood inspired her work. It is a theme that has universal appeal: some of us are mothers, but all of us have/had mothers.

Through an examination of some of Hepworth’s sculptures, which explore this theme, it is possible to see her gradual movement towards abstraction.

Barbara Hepworth
Mother and Child
Hoptonwood stone
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

The sculpture pictured below (Mother and Child, 1934), is currently on display in Gallery 3 at The Hepworth Wakefield and is one of my favourite pieces in this gallery (my other favourite is John Skeaping’s Woman and Bird).

The two smooth pebbles that make up this sculpture have been carved from the same block of pink ancaster stone, and yet here Hepworth decided to separate the ‘mother’ from the ‘child’ – emphasising that the mother and child are of one flesh and, at the same time, each is an independent individual.

What I particularly love about this sculpture is that Hepworth, perhaps at this point not entirely comfortable with whole-heartedly embracing the purely abstract, is still attempting to cling on to the figurative – seen through her decision to place two tiny eyeholes, which look as though they were poked into the stone with a pencil, in the mother’s “head”.

Barbara Hepworth
Mother and Child
Pink ancaster stone
The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield

Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, 1936 (currently on display at Tate Britain as part of the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition) possesses a similar crudely-carved “eye” as well as a navel – both recall the type of naive graffiti often etched into school desks with a compass.

Henry Moore
Reclining Figure
The Wakefield Art Collection

Barbara Hepworth
Large and Small Form
White alabaster
Pier Art Centre, Stromness, Orkney

According to Tate’s website, Hepworth carved the sculpture below while she was pregnant with the triplets.

Barbara Hepworth
Mother and Child
Cumberland alabaster

Two Forms, 1937, also currently resides in Gallery 3 at The Hepworth Wakefield. Although perhaps not a direct reference to the mother and child theme, I still interpret the larger of the two beautiful pieces of Serravezza marble as “mother” and the smaller as “child”.

Barbara Hepworth
Two Forms
Serravezza marble
Private collection, on loan to The Hepworth Wakefield

Child with Mother, 1972, illustrates Hepworth’s departure from the figurative in her later work. This sculpture was created just three years before her death in 1975 – in an accidental fire at Trewyn Studio. She was aged 72.

Barbara Hepworth
Child with Mother
White marble
Hepworth Estate

There are many examples of Hepworth’s work that can be seen to be a celebration of motherhood, however, whenever I see these works, I am always reminded that Hepworth’s personal experience of motherhood was tainted by the death of her first son, Paul, who died in 1953 in a plane crash while serving with the Royal Air Force in Thailand. After Paul’s death, Hepworth carved a memorial to him entitled Madonna and Child, which can be found in St Ives parish church:

Barbara Hepworth
Madonna and Child
St Ives Parish Church

I dedicate this post to my best friend Sarah Williams and her gorgeous daughter Annabelle Grace Williams (born 15th July 2011). Together, in my opinion, they are prettier than any of Barbara’s masterpieces.


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