Barbara Hepworth: A Collector's Story

Barbara Hepworth: A Collector's Story

I n the summer of 1963 as part of the annual Bath Festival scientist Lawrence Ogilvie lent paintings and sculptures from his small but impressive collection. His artists were a ‘who’s who’ of the 20th-century Britain and Europe art world, with Modigliani rubbing shoulders with John Tunnard, and William Scott and Raoul Dufy sitting by Ben Nicholson and Keith Vaughan.

Also included in the exhibition was Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining figures – a highlight of Sotheby’s 19th November sale of Modern & Post-War British Art. It appears for the first time in public in thirty years and the first time out of the Ogilvie family ownership since its 1952 purchase from Barbara Hepworth in her St Ives studio.

Dame Barbara Hepworth, 1968. Photograph by Jorge Lewinski. © The Lewinski Archive at Chatsworth. Bridgeman Art Library.

The plant pathologist Lawrence Ogilvie made a name for himself in the 1920s working in Bermuda, where in his 20s (earning a Nature magazine article) he diagnosed and eliminated the virus that had collapsed the island’s then economically vital lily-bulb enormous export business to New York. He also identified and documented over 300 different Bermuda insects – and more importantly met his wife-to-be landscape architect Doris.

A note from Hepworth to Ogilvie, 21st October 1952.

In many ways the pair were typical collectors of mid-century British paintings and sculpture, in that they bought works because they liked them, and indeed lived their entire lives with them on the walls of their Somerset cottage. They had both watercolour painted since childhood and together enjoyed painting across Europe and visiting its art galleries.

When back in Britain, Ogilvie developed his passion for the arts, becoming a founding member and later chairman of the Friends of the Bristol Art Gallery (to where he later gifted a cast of Jacob Epstein’s Kathleen, which remains on view to this day). He was also on the founding committee of Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery, which became recognised as one of the country’s leading contemporary exhibition spaces.

Lawrence Ogilvie with Reg Butler at the unveiling of his sculpture at Bristol Art Gallery.
Lawrence Ogilvie with Reg Butler at the unveiling of his sculpture in Bristol, following its acquisition by the Friends of the Bristol Art Gallery.

The Ogilvies built up close friendships with many of the leading artists of the day – including Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth whose studio they visited in the early 1950s. Lawrence began a series of correspondence with the artist (who was keen for the city of Bristol to acquire a large-scale bronze by her for its collection), discussing everything from upcoming shows, to articles she had spotted in Apollo magazine.

"I wonder if you are both coming St Ives way this summer? If you are please let me know & come to have lunch with me at Trewyn … I wonder if you liked (or will like) the bronzes. After not wanting to touch bronze all these years I suddenly wanted to do several!"
Dame Barbara Hepworth, promoting her bronzes to the Ogilvies, 5th July 1958

In one 1952 note card (the year she painted Reclining figures) Hepworth discussed having just given a painting to her daughter Sarah upon her engagement. These very personal insights offer a fascinating glimpse into the British art scene of the early 1950s, and really highlight the importance of patronage for artists such as Hepworth. They will be included alongside the painting in the Modern & Post-War British Art Evening Sale on the 19th November.

Letter from Barbara Hepworth to Lawrence Ogilvie
A note from Hepworth to Ogilvie, 5th July 1958.

The beautifully detailed and worked painting Reclining figures emphasises the importance of painting and drawing in Hepworth’s work. Often using nude dancers as models, the series of drawings she made during the late 1940s and early ‘50s formed a key reason she was accepted in the 1950 Venice Biennale, as well as for her 1954 Whitechapel Gallery Retrospective (in which the present work was included at the specific request of the artist).

Reclining figures displays the artist’s continued search for inspiration in the human form, and the letters that accompany the work offer a fascinating insight into Hepworth’s life and work.

Join us at 1pm on Sunday 17th November when celebrated art historian Alan Wilkinson will lead a free talk in the galleries, looking at Hepworth’s drawing, including Reclining figures. Contact us now to reserve your place modbrit@sothebys.com or 0207 293 6424.

Modern British & Irish Art

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