Barbara Hepworth: Material Practice in Post-War British Sculpture (2020–22)

AHRC Grant, 2020-22: Department of History of Art, University of York and The Hepworth Wakefield

Collaboration: University of York and The Hepworth Wakefield

Funding: £23,975, AHRC

Duration: November 2020 to April 2022

Principal Investigator: Professor Michael White (University of York)

Co-Investigator: Dr Anneke Pettican (University of Huddersfield)


How did the major 20th century British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, transform her artistic ideas into physical reality? How did she manipulate tools and processes to shape resistant matter, and how do they shape the artist in turn? And how did she work with technicians and artisans to turn her models into finished sculptures?

These are fundamental questions to ask about the practice of Hepworth, or indeed any sculptor; yet they remain remarkably little explored. This project will seek to begin answering them by bringing together diverse sources of expertise to bear on the unique collection of the Hepworth Wakefield (THW), one of the north of England's most important museums of modern and contemporary art. While most other major holdings of Hepworth's work consist primarily of finished works, the core of THW's collection is the Hepworth Family Gift, is a unique archive of preparatory, technical and personal material. This includes plaster prototypes, bronze casts and carvings, prints and drawings, tools and materials, recipe books and notes/journals. There is further enriched by the loan of a significant portion of Hepworth's personal library.

At the moment, this remarkable collection remains poorly understood because of the lack of coordinated research into Hepworth's materials, techniques and processes. Much knowledge exists, but it is currently siloed among curators, conservators, practising artists, technical art historians, and academic art historians. The result is that THW finds it challenging to understand and present its rich holdings.

This research network will begin to address this situation by bringing together the diverse specialisms, skills and fields of expertise needed to understand Hepworth's material processes and their relation to her broader cultural aims and interests. It will enable academic art historians, curators at THW and elsewhere, practicing artists, conservators, technical art historians, technicians and engineers to pool and coordinate their methods and areas of expertise. In doing so they will generate substantial new knowledge and understanding of Hepworth's work. At the same time, they establish the basis for, and set the agenda for, further more targeted transdisciplinary research into Hepworth's material practice.
The network will have substantial impacts on the museum and gallery sector, on conservation practice and on the wide audience for Hepworth's work. It will feed directly into a forthcoming special retrospective - the largest Hepworth exhibition ever staged - and enable intervention into the permanent displays of Hepworth's work at THW. In doing so it will contribute to the cultural life and the wider regeneration of Wakefield.

No less significantly, it will also provide a model and foundation for collaborative research into material practice in the arts, essential if we are to gain a genuine grasp of the material aspects of artistic production. Art historians, while often enthusiastic participants in the 'material turn' in their discipline, have ironically tended to approach the material in highly theoretical ways. As a result, they have tended to prioritise phenomenological and socioeconomic approaches to materiality, while neglecting the immediate physical realities of artistic production. Practicing artists, technical art historians, engineers and art technicians are in direct contact with materials and processes. However, they are often remote from the questions that animate their art historical colleagues. Bringing together scholars and practitioners in the way envisaged by this project will bring these perspectives into dialogue, and show how detailed exploration of material evidence can transform our understanding of artistic production.


Planned Impact

Both the subject matter of the Hepworth Research Network, the combination of academic, museum-based collaborators and practitioners, and the plans for dissemination of the Network's activities and findings will ensure that it has exceptionally wide impacts beyond the academy.

The non-academic groups directly impacted by the research will include:

- the Hepworth Wakefield (THW)
- school groups and young visitors to THW and, in the longer term, other museums and galleries showing post-war British sculpture
- adult visitors to THW, including artists and Barbara Hepworth enthusiasts
- conservators in museums and private practice
- institutions with works by Hepworth in their collections
- owners of modern sculpture, especially public sculpture
- curators
- public and private sector museums and galleries concerned with authentication of works and assessing their condition
- residents of Wakefield and the surrounding area, including not only those directly visiting THW but benefiting from the wider economic impacts of THW, which the project will help support

The Hepworth Research Network will play a direct role in shaping the priorities of THW regarding the care and display of its permanent collection, as well as informing temporary exhibitions, such as the forthcoming Hepworth retrospective in 2021 and its accompanying publication.

By facilitating new interpretative frameworks and the development of temporary interventions into the permanent display of Hepworth's work, especially the important but challenging group of maquettes and models in the Hepworth Family Gift, the Hepworth Research Network will enhance the engagement of audiences with it, particularly in connection to themes of materials and making. Using the experience of contemporary artists to understand the interaction with material and technological processes in creative practice will bring the engagement of audiences with historical artistic practices to life.

By connecting curators, technicians and conservators, the project will have direct impacts far beyond the academy. It will assist in the identification and dissemination of best practice in the preventive and remedial conservation of Hepworth sculptures, not only to ensure that her sculptures are better cared for and presented in both public and private collections, but that works by her contemporaries are also better treated and appreciated.

By enhancing the public programmes of THW, the project will also contribute to the wider regeneration of the Wakefield area, one of England's 20% most deprived council areas.

Main image: Barbara Hepworth, 'Contrapuntal Forms', 1950-51 (on loan from Harlow Art Trust: presented by Harlow Development Corporation 1953) and Barbara Hepworth, 'Turning Forms', 1950-51 (on loan from Hertfordshire County Education Authority) installed in The Hepworth Wakefield Garden, May 2021. Photo © Jonty Wilde

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