Dame Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth, born in Wakefield, England in 1903, was a sculptor whose works were among the earliest abstract sculptures produced in England. Her lyrical forms and feeling for material made her one of the most influential sculptors of the mid-20th century.
Fascinated from early childhood with natural forms and textures, Hepworth decided at age fifteen to become a sculptor. In 1919, she enrolled in the Leeds School of Art, where she befriended fellow student Henry Moore. Their life-long friendship and reciprocal influence were important factors in the parallel development of their careers.
Hepworth’s earliest works were naturalistic with simplified features. Purely formal elements gradually gained greater importance for her until, by the early 1930’s, her sculpture was entirely abstract. Works resembled rounded biomorphic forms and natural stones; they seem to be the fruit of long weathering instead of hard work with a chisel. After the end of her marriage to sculptor John Skeaping, Hepworth married the English abstract painter Ben Nicholson is 1933. It was under his influence that she began to make severe, geometric pieces with straight edges and immaculate surfaces.
As Hepworth’s sculpture matured during the late 1930’s and 1940’s she concentrated on the problem of the counterplay between mass and space. Her works became increasingly open, hollowed out, and perforated, so that the interior space is as important as the mass surrounding it. Her practice, increasingly frequent in her mature pieces, of painting works’ concave interiors further heightened this effect, while she accented and defined the sculptural voids by stretching strings taut across their openings.
During the 1950’s, Hepworth produced an experimental series called Groups, clusters of small anthropomorphic forms in marble, so thin that their translucence creates a magical sense of inner life. In the next decade, she was commissioned to do a series of sculptures approximately 6 metres high.
Hepworth was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1965. She died in a fire in her home at St. Ives, Cornwall in 1975. Her home was preserved as the Barbara Hepworth Home and Sculpture Garden and is run by the Tate St. Ives.