Barbara Hepworth by Barbara Hepworth

by Dame Barbara Hepworth, oil and pencil on board, 1950
Barbara Hepworth, Self-portrait, 1950 (oil and pencil on board)

For those who enjoyed the recent Dame Barbara Hepworth retrospective at Tate Britain, here is a self-portrait which she produced in 1950, done in oil and pencil on board.

The beauty of this portrait lies in its simplicity. In what is little more than an elaborate sketch, Hepworth has rendered a representation of herself as sculptor, her eye focused on her hand which is resting on a block of material, possibly of marble, and she has such an intense gaze that we can imagine that she is trying to discover the shape which is hidden within the material, or perhaps trying to decide whether the idea or shape she has in her mind will find its form within the medium she is touching. Touch to her was paramount, as she stated:

“I think every sculpture must be touched, it’s part of the way you make it and it’s really our first sensibility, it is the sense of feeling, it is first one we have when we’re born. I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ram rod and stare at it, with a sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it and walk away from it.”

The sketch itself can be seen as a preliminary study for a sculpture, the theme of which, is not so much the individual person but the art itself, the vocation of sculptor. The form is stripped down to the essentials as it would or could be if rendered in stone or bronze.

It is not an abstract but it does demonstrate how the great abstracts were produced through a process of reduction, of paring away of unnecessary detail to maximize the impact of the essential shape, which is to say, the essential space that the sculpture displaces. The portrait captures the texture and smoothness of stone and at the same time proposes an eventual transfer of energy, of breath from one medium to another, a process which lies at the heart of all artistic activity.


Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903. She was a leading modernist figure in the international art scene throughout a career spanning five decades until her death in 1975. The self-portrait can be seen at the National Portrait Galley off Charing Cross Road.


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