Barbara Hepworth was keen on carving. So was her close friend, Adrian Stokes, who, unlike Hepworth, was arguably influenced in this by his psychoanalytic treatment by Melanie Klein. As for Hepworth, she was influenced, she said, by her experience, as a postgraduate student, of being taught in Rome by a sculptor, Giovanni Ardini, that ‘stone takes on a different colour under the hand of different sculptor’ this making her realise that everything ‘depends upon an artist’s personal touch’. This decided her, she said, ‘that it was not dominance which one had to attain over material, but an understanding’ springing ‘from a factual and tactile approach to the object – whether it be the feeling of landscape which one feels beneath one’s feet or the sensitivity of the hand in carving’.
From Italy she returned in November 1926 with her sculptor husband, Jack Skeaping, to London. Here her first stone carvings included a pair of Parian marble Doves (1927) and an Irish fossil marble Torso (1927). In 1928 she moved with Skeaping to 7 The Mall Studios off Parkhill Road in Belsize Park, near Hampstead, and the following year she gave birth on 3 August to their son, Paul, of whom she carved from Burmese wood his likeness as can be seen from the accompanying picture.
By the end of 1931 her marriage to Skeaping was over and she began living and working with the painter, Ben Nicholson. This was accompanied by her carvings becoming more abstract, such as a green marble Profile (1932). It was perhaps included in a joint exhibition with Nicholson in November and December 1932 – an exhibition which the art critic, Herbert Read, praised for the organisation of ‘masses in expressive relation’ in her carving so as to reveal ‘the potentialities of [her] sculpted material’.
‘The sculptor carves because he must,’ she said. ‘He needs the concrete form of stone and wood for the expression of his idea and experience’ she added in an interview illustrated with her rosewood caving, Kneeling Figure (1932). ‘I have always preferred direct carving to modelling because I like the resistance of the hard material and feel happier working that way,’ she added. ‘[A]lso,’ she pointed out, ‘there are all the beauties of several hundreds of different stones and woods, and the [sculptor’s] idea must be in harmony with the qualities of each one carved’.
Carving in Italy had influenced her. So did carving in Paris where she went in April 1933 with Nicholson with whom she joined the Paris-based international group, Abstraction Création, which promoted their revolutionary abstract aesthetic via shared exhibitions of their work. She also took to Paris photos of her carving Pierced Form of which she said she ‘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’.
By then, through a close friend, Margaret Gardiner, she had met Adrian Stokes. Born a couple of months before Hepworth on 27 October 1902, he had studied philosophy at Oxford and spent time, after Oxford, studying fifteenth century architecture, sculpture, and painting in Italy. He also suffered at this time with the ill-effects of his ‘love of bullying’. It alienated others, including his close friend, Edward Sackville-West, who, in a novel depicted a Stokes-like Oxford student as determined to enslave and have ‘complete ascendancy’ over others, and as in thrall to an inner ‘daemon’ which ‘possessed him and urged him in his turn to possess others’.
‘I have quarrelled with the few I knew,’ he told Gardiner’s brother, Rolf, in indicating that he was nevertheless not alone that month, March 1927. ‘Not knowing one’s own being yet, one fills in the waiting by helping others,’ he explained, having sought to help his writer friend, Osbert Sitwell, by accompanying him in Sicily. He was, nevertheless, very miserable.
‘I think on the whole though, whereas there is not much hope for me anyhow, perhaps a psycho-analist [sic] might relieve some of my agony,’ he told Sackville-West some months later. ‘Are you still in torment as am I?’ he asked a close friend. Then, through this friend’s psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones, he was referred for treatment with Melanie Klein which began in early January 1930.
Through Klein he came to understand the daemon which possessed him as constituted by a ‘bad’ mother figure in his super-ego. ‘[I]f I can pin it down, there is always immediate comfort. To find that it can be defined, limited and therefore countered, this terrible force,’ he wrote. ‘And by giving its inhuman cruelty … a raison d’être I am limiting it and its power to frighten’.
He also noted Klein’s psychoanalysis of his dominance over others as initially directed against his middle brother, Geoffrey. It was the failure of his attempts to atone for his dominance over him which, said Klein, caused the ills bringing Stokes into treatment with her. She also depicted Stokes as defending against depression by trying ‘to master and control’ others and by disparaging and showing ‘contempt’ for them.
Meanwhile, perhaps influenced not only by Klein but also by Hepworth, Stokes had begun criticizing artists in so far as they dominated over the physical material of their art in modeling it in terms of their preconceived ideas. Hepworth had, by contrast, been praised for conveying with her ‘carvings’ the sense that they had been ‘found’ by her in the material from which they were made.
‘Whatever its plastic value, a figure carved in stone is fine carving when one feels that not the figure, but the stone through the medium of the figure, has come to life,’ Stokes now wrote in an article published in October 1933. ‘The communion with a material, the mode of eliciting the plastic shape, are the essence of carving. And the profundity of such communion … provide[s] the chief source of interest and pleasure in carved objects,’ he went on.
This is the point at which to emphasize the pre-eminence of stone as the material to be carved. I am not thinking of its durability, nor even of the shape it will allow. I am thinking of the equal diffusion of light, compared to most objects, that even the hardest and darkest stones possess: I am thinking of the hand-polished marble’s glow that can only be compared to the light on flesh-and-blood. The sculptor is led to woo the marble. Into the solidity of stone solidity yet capable of suffused light, the fantasies of bodily vigour, of energy in every form, can be projected, set out and made permanent. … Polishing stone is also like slapping the new-born infant to make it breathe. For polishing gives the stone a major light and life.
Or, as he also put it, ‘[c]arving is an articulation of something that already exists in the block’.
Mindful perhaps of others characterising him as bullying and enslaving others, and tyrannising over them with his sadism, as Klein put it, he criticised artists who, instead of carving their material and according it ‘rights’ of its own, dominated and modelled it in terms of their preconceived ideas. ‘[M]odell[ed] forms … are without restraint … untrammelled by … that reverence for objects as solid space inspires,’ he went on in contrasting this with carving showing ‘dependence, imaginative as well as actual, upon the material that is worked’.
‘[F]rom stone’s suffused or equal or slightly luminous light, all successful sculpture in whatever material has borrowed a vital steadiness, a solid and vital repose,’ he wrote in reviewing carving by Hepworth included in a joint exhibition with Nicholson in October and November 1933. From this exhibition he singled out for particular praise an abstract Composition (1933) carved by Hepworth from grey Cumberland alabaster stone of which he said
The stone is beautifully rubbed: it is continuous as an enlarging snowball on the run; yet part of the matrix is detached as a subtly flattened pebble. This is the child which the mother owns with all her weight, a child that is of the block yet separate, beyond her womb yet of her being. So poignant are these shapes of stone, that in spite of the degree in which a more representational aim and treatment have been avoided, no one could mistake the underlying subject of the group. In this case at least the abstractions employed enforce a vast certainty. It is not a matter of a mother and child group represented in stone. Miss Hepworth’s stone is a mother, her huge pebble its child.
Then, after further psychoanalytic treatment by Klein in 1938 and again in 1946, Stokes incorporated her ideas in characterising modelling as drawing on infantile fantasies of destroying parts of the mother’s body (her breast and insides, for instance) and carving as drawing on experience of the mother as intact, separate, and whole.
As illustration he quoted the destruction involved in artistic creation indicated by Michelangelo’s sonnet beginning:
The best of artists hath no thought to show
Which the rough stone in its superfluous shell
Doth not include: to break the marble spell
Is all the hand that serves the brain can do.
Obvious examples of this destructive breaking into marble, arguably analogous to infantile fantasies of breaking into the mother’s body, include Michelangelo’s unfinished carvings in the Accademia in Florence.
‘[Michelangelo] valued in sculpture parts of the rough stone that … collaborate in revealing the particular nude; uncover the emotional process of searching the block … allow the worked forms to suggest both emergence and shelter,’ Stokes said of such carvings. We can perhaps see similar roughness and smoothness – tactile elements Stokes associated with Klein’s theory of destructive fantasy and its constructive repair – in Hepworth’s Doves, which now grace this month’s nearly ended Hepworth exhibition at the Tate.
About the Author
After leaving Dartington Hall School (where Stokes spent time in the 1930s), and after studying philosophy and psychology at Cambridge, and clinical psychology at the Tavistock Clinic in London, Janet Sayers (née Toulson) moved to Canterbury where she works for the NHS and teaches, as emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology, at the University of Kent. Her book, Art, Psychoanalysis, and Adrian Stokes: A Biography, has recently been published by Karnac Books.
A major exhibition of Barbara Hepworth’s work is currently on show at Britain, London (24 June – 25 October 2015), featuring some of her most significant sculptures in wood, stone, and bronze alongside rarely-seen works. For more information visit Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World.