height: 5 ½ inches / 14 cm (excluding base)
base: 1 ½ x 10 ¾ x 8 ¼ inches / 3.75 x 27.25 x 21 cm
Barbara Hepworth’s career spanned half a century and during this time she created more than six hundred sculptures. From around seventy sculptures carved in alabaster, Small Stone with Black Strings, 1952, is the only sculpture in this medium to include string and further, it is the only sculpture from Hepworth’s entire oeuvre which makes use of black string, making it a unique and rare object.
Hepworth learnt to carve from the ‘marmista’ Giovanni Ardini, when she was a student in Rome in her early twenties, and she remained committed to this classical practice throughout her career. As early as 1932, Hepworth declared her passion for carving;
‘The sculptor carves because he must. He needs the concrete form of stone and wood for the expression of his idea and experience, and when the idea forms the material is found at once. [...] I have always preferred direct carving to modelling because I like the resistance of the hard material and feel happier working that way. Carving is more adapted to the expression of the accumulative idea of experience and clay to the visual attitude. An idea for carving must be clearly formed before starting and sustained during the long process of working; also, there are all the beauties of several hundreds of different stones and woods, and the idea must be in harmony with the qualities of each one carved; that harmony comes with the discovery of the most direct way of carving each material according to its nature.’ (Barbara Hepworth, ‘The Sculptor carves because he must’, The Studio, London, vol. 104, December 1932, p332).
The nature of carving encourages an intimacy with material that is not present in other sculptural processes such as casting or welding. The artist must respond directly to the material and as such, their artistic vision is dictated by the tensions and rhythms particular to their chosen medium. Carving necessitates a process guided by intuition and an adherence to the ‘truth to material’, the result of which is an object which articulates a singular and organic sculptural life. Further, carving encourages the sculptor to explore the unique make-up of a vast range of materials, as Hepworth explained,
‘Carving to me is more interesting than modelling, because there is an unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration. Each material demands a particular treatment and there are an infinite number of subjects in life each to be re-created in a particular material. In fact, it would be possible to carve the same subject in a different stone each time, throughout life, without a repetition of form.
If a pebble or an egg can be enjoyed for the sake of its shape only, it is one step towards a true appreciation of sculpture. A tree trunk, with its changing axis, swellings and varied sections, fully understood, takes us a step further. Then finally it is realised that abstract form, the relation of masses and planes, is that which gives sculptural life; this, then, admits that a piece of sculpture can be purely abstract or non-representational.’ (Extract from Hepworth's statement in the series 'Contemporary English Sculptors', The Architectural Association Journal, London, vol. XLV, no. 518, April 1930, p384)
Hepworth favoured alabaster for its softness, a characteristic which allowed her to create a fluid sense of rhythm and mass in her forms and to finish them with a high level of detail. In earlier works such as, Musician, Alabaster, 1929–30 (BH 19), this was exploited in order to include figurative elements, as we can see in the delicately incised features and intricately modelled hands of the female musician.
At the beginning of 1930s when Hepworth first began experimenting with more abstract forms, alabaster allowed her to fully realise the tensions and movements contained within the more organic shapes she had begun to experiment with. Pushing this experimentation further, in 1931 she introduced the ‘hole’ into her sculpture in her carving Pierced Form. On creating this sculpture, Hepworth wrote that she ‘...had felt the most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space; quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism.’ (Kosme de Baranano, ‘Barbara Hepworth, magical landscape’, Barbara Hepworth exh. cat., Institut Valencia d’Art Modern, Valencia, 2004, unpaginated).
This formal intervention would become one of the most significant formal developments in her career. In her essay ‘The Hole of Life’, Jeannette Winterson discusses how this negative space becomes a positive entity, equal to the mass of the sculpture itself in Hepworth’s work. Treated in this way, space becomes the signifier for everything that cannot be seen or expressed in words and something that points towards those things that exist beyond the human eye. As Winterson states,
‘Look into a Hepworth hole and you are looking at what matter normally conceals- everything that matter cannot express. A Hepworth hole is not only a connection between different kinds of form, or a way of giving space its own form- it is a relationship with the invisible.’ (Winterson, ‘The Hole of Life’, Barbara Hepworth, Centenary, exh. cat., Tate Publishing, 2003, p6)
The treatment of this ‘hole’ in Small Stone with Black Strings marks a development from Hepworth’s first pierced form. Rather than just perforating the sculpture from front to back, the hole appears to grow and expand, as it travels up through the interior of the form, creating an irregular ovoid-shape in the top of the sculpture’s surface. To the side Hepworth’s carves another ovoid shape as a shallow recess which tricks the viewer by suggesting a second hole. In Small Stone with Black Strings, we are offered a complex range of planes and shapes as the viewer’s gaze travels over the form. One of the most striking characteristics of this piece is its iridescent quality, an effect of both the openness of the form and the material from which it has been created. The delicate variations and hues of the alabaster, as well as its translucent quality, quite literally come to life as light reflects from both the interior and exterior planes. The effect of this, as well as the sculpture’s small scale, is a luminous, treasure-like object, which recalls sea and sand-weathered pebbles and shells.
Small Stone with Black String’s small size permits a closeness with the object that is often missing with larger forms. As such we are able to take in the entirety of the sculpture; it recesses and shadows, the curved, softened edges that give an impression of roundness to this uniquely shaped form, and the sense of contained energy and tension suggested by the single piece of string pulled tight across the holes. In the late thirties, Hepworth began to use string in her sculpture in order to explore the tensions created by this now all important ‘space’ and this is exemplified in Small Stone with Black Strings. The formal impact of the string is born out of contrasts; it is dark where the alabaster is light, pulled taut where the alabaster’s edges are soft, and it cuts through the space, in finite lines, where the alabaster is characterised by more organic rhythms.
Hepworth’s use of string relates directly to an interest in mathematical models, which she began to look to, at the beginning of the 1930s, alongside other artists such as Henry Moore and Naum Gabo. The appropriation of these forms for artistic purposes reflected a desire for a modernist synthesis of science and art as reflected in the publication of Circle, edited by Gabo, Nicholson and Leslie Martin in 1937. Yet ultimately, this scientific approach would always be fused with a more organic approach to form and an intrinsic relationship to landscape in Hepworth’s work. As she commented, ‘The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills.’ (A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, Thames and Hudson, London, 1968, p92)
Small Stone with Black Strings has an intriguing collection history. It was owned at one time by Henry Morris (1889–1961) a well- known, revolutionary educator who founded the village colleges in the 1930s. His Impington Village College, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry, and later described by Antoine Pevsner as one of the best buildings of its date in England, has housed, at different times, the work of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and a number of other prominent artists. After Morris’ death in 1961, this sculpture was bought from Sotheby’s by Sydney Box, a film producer and screenwriter, and Muriel Box, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director. The couple divorced in 1969 and the sculpture remained in Muriel’s collection, after she married Baron Gerald Gardiner, becoming Lady Gardiner in 1970. More recently, it belonged to Los Angeles based collectors Nathan and Marion Smooke, before finally being acquired by its most recent owner in 2001. Offer Waterman acquired it in 2015 and placed it with a British collector.
Barbara Hepworth created more than 600 sculptures over the course of her career. From around 70 carved from alabaster, this work is the only sculpture in this medium to include string, and is also the only sculpture from Hepworth's entire oeuvre that makes use of black string, marking it as a unique and rare object.
Hepworth first introduced the 'hole' into her sculpture in Pierced Form, 1931. On creating this, the artist wrote that she '…had felt the most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space; quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism.'  The treatment of the hole in Small Stone with Black Strings demonstrates a marked development from Hepworth's first pierced form. More than simply perforating the sculpture from front to back, the hole appears to grow and expand as it travels up through the interior of the form, creating an irregular ovoid-shape in the top of the sculpture's surface, which is echoed in a similarly shaped recess to the side. In the late 1930s, inspired by an interest in mathematical models, Hepworth began incorporating string into her sculpture in order to explore the tensions created by this now all-important 'space.' We see this wonderfully in Small Stone, where the impact of its inclusion is born out of contrasts; it is dark where the alabaster is light, pulled taut where the sculpture's edges are soft, and it cuts through the space, in finite lines, where the form is characterised by organic rhythms. Ultimately, for Hepworth, the string was a reflection of her response to the landscape. 'The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills.' 2
One of the most striking characteristics of this piece is its iridescent quality, an effect of both the openness of the form and the material from which it has been made. The wonderful hues of the alabaster, as well as its translucency, come to life as light reflects from both the interior and exterior walls, creating the effect of a luminous, treasure-like object that recalls the sea and sand-weathered pebbles and shells.
1 Kosme de Baranano, 'Barbara Hepworth, magical landscape', Barbara Hepworth, Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Valencia, 2004, unpaginated
2 A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, Thames and Hudson, London, 1968, p92
Lady Gardiner (née Muriel Box)
Nathan and Marion Smooke, California
Private Collection, USA
Offer Waterman, London
Private Collection, UK
London, Lefevre Gallery, Barbara Hepworth, October 1952, cat no.14, not illus
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Degas to Picasso: Modern Masters from the Smooke Collection, 16 April-28 June 1987, p51, illus colour
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Lund Humphries, London, 1961, cat no.185, not illus
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