This month, Dr Sophie Bowness, art historian and Trustee of The Hepworth Estate, explores the work of Barbara Hepworth, whose work, Icon, 1957 features in the latest Arts Council Collection touring exhibition, Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women since 1945.
Hepworth had a special feeling for wood. She preferred hardwoods such as African guarea and mahogany, from which Icon is carved, for the resistance they offered. Icon is characterised by a rich, warm, reddish brown colouring, a high polish and a marked grain that lends a particular life to the work. It was carved at a pivotal moment in Hepworth’s career, immediately after the remarkable series of guarea wood sculptures of 1954–56, and early in her adoption of sheet metal and bronze. Icon was bought by the Arts Council of Great Britain from the first exhibition it was shown in, which was held at the Gimpel Fils gallery in London in 1958.
Hepworth made fifteen carvings in mahogany, ceasing to use it after 1957. She worked in Honduras, Spanish and West African mahogany. Icon is closely related to two contemporary mahogany carvings, which are both stringed - Wood and Strings (Fugue), in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and Pierced Form (Toledo). In Icon interior and exterior are in harmonious counterpoint, while there is a bold asymmetry to the form.
‘Icon’ is the Greek word for ‘image’ and is one of a number of Greek titles found in Hepworth’s work. Her visit to Greece in 1954 marked her deeply. She was particular about her choice of words and enjoyed finding the right titles for works.