(The Artist, quoted in J.P.Hodin, 'Barbara Hepworth and the Mediterranean Spirit', Marmo, no.3, December 1964, p.59)
Quiet Form was carved especially by Hepworth for Miss Margaret Knott, Headmistresses at her old school, the Wakefield Girls' High School, from 1949 - 1973. Hepworth was approached by the Parent and School Association to carve the sculpture as a retirement gift for Miss Knott in special recognition of her contribution and long-standing service to the school. Hepworth generously waived her sculptor's fee, and the correspondence between Hepworth, the school and Miss Knott shows the time and consideration that she gave to creating this very personal sculpture. Hepworth suggested that she carve a marble form, ‘in the mood of one or two Miss Knott said she specially liked in my book … a sort of white shell-like form … it will be 12-14 inches high which would enable it to go on a piece of furniture with a turn-table to enable her to touch it. Marble looks very ethereal; but it is, of course, very heavy and I was anxious to keep it within the right size for a living room…’ (The Artist, private correspondence, 1973). There followed several letters from Hepworth reporting on the progress of the work. The creation of the sculpture took longer than expected and ended up being too late for the presentation ceremony. When it was completed in January 1974, she sent it directly to Miss Knott’s retirement home in Godalming with fond wishes:
‘“QUIET FORM” in white marble, is setting off on its journey to London and I hope it reaches you safely in Godalming, and that you like it. With it comes all my respect and admiration’ (The Artist, letter to Margaret Knott, 3rd January 1974).
The elegance and poise of this magnificent work demonstrate the mastery of Hepworth's mature carvings which, refined over the previous decades, have become instantly recognisable icons of her oeuvre. It was whilst in Italy as a student during the 1920s that she was drawn to the material qualities of the white Seravezza marble she would use for the rest of her life. She took lessons from the master carver Giovanni Ardini, becoming, alongside Henry Moore, one of the main exponents of ‘direct carving’ in the 1920s. The importance of the hand of the artist in the making of a sculpture was to continue to be a crucial component in her work and she was known for forbidding the use of any mechanical tools in her studio. It was the carved wood, marble and stone sculptures she produced on her return from Italy which first brought her to the attention of serious collectors. She stated her passion for carving as early as 1932: ‘The sculptor carves because he must. He needs the concrete form of stone and wood for the expression of his idea and experience’ (The Artist, ‘The Sculptor Carves Because He Must’, The Studio, London, vol.104, 1932, p.332).
Central to the impact of Hepworth’s carved sculptures is the balance between the chosen material and the form of the work, as she explained: ‘In sculpture there must be a complete realisation of the structure and quality of the stone or wood which is being carved. But I do not think that this alone supplies the life and vitality of the sculpture. I believe that the understanding of the material and the meaning of the form being carved must be in perfect equilibrium’ (The Artist quoted in Barbara Hepworth Retrospective Exhibition 1927-1954, (exh. cat.), Whitechapel Gallery, London, 1954, p.10). This perfect equilibrium between form and material creates the subtle power of this work. The title, Quiet Form, invites a contemplative response, reflected in the tranquillity of the gentle organic oval outline: the smooth white marble shows off both the crisp lines of the outer edge of the form and also the softer curves of the turns and spirals within.
The piercing of the form challenges the solidity of the marble so that the radiance of whiteness not only envelopes the outside of the sculpture, but also enters the mass of the stone itself. Hepworth’s use of non-objective piercing in her sculpture was central to her position in the history of European modernism and is evident in her work as early as 1932 (Barbara Hepworth, Pierced Form, 1932 (BH35)). Her introduction of piercing in her sculptural vocabulary greatly enriched the possibilities of abstract sculpture by abolishing the concept of a closed, and thus entire, form and brought the individual sculpture firmly into the environment within which it was placed. Hepworth spoke frankly about what she hoped to achieve: ‘I have always been interested in oval or ovoid shapes … the weight, poise, and curvature of the ovoid as a basic form. The carving and piercing of such a form seems to open up an infinite variety of continuous curves in the third dimension …’ (The Artist, ‘Approach to Sculpture’, The Studio, vol. 132, no. 643, October 1946). The pierced oval form, as exemplified by Quiet Form, perfectly balances the concerns that the artist felt were so crucial to her sculpture: the beauty (and flaws) of the natural material, the process of making and the hand of the artist, the solidity of lightness, the modernist tradition, and the allusions in the choice of material to the classical sculpture of the Mediterranean. This work, executed in the last decade of her life, explores old concerns anew and is reflective of the freshness and vitality of her carvings.
Quiet Form was gifted by Miss Knott back to Wakefield Girls’ High School in 2003 and the proceeds from the sale will be used for the long term benefit and education of pupils at Wakefield Girls’ High School to ensure continued access to the best educational facilities and support widening participation through bursaries.
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