The incredibly beautiful series of paintings and drawings that Barbara Hepworth made of surgeons at work have always featured in wider accounts of her work. Yet it wasn’t until 2013 that they were properly brought together, in the wonderful exhibition at The Hepworth, Wakefield (which subsequently toured to Pallant House, Chichester). Seen as a group, the true lyrical beauty of these works was immediately apparent. Seeing a sculptor work in two dimensions is always intriguing: the way they establish weight and bulk through the most economic of means and, despite best intentions, the way form always dominates over line and colour, which inevitably lends sculptors’ paintings the feel of early Italian Renaissance art. Hepworth’s Smith-Peterson Pin is no exception and to see it through a lens of Giotto or Masaccio is perhaps the best way to appreciate its quiet beauty and its subtle humanism, as a very emotive tenderness is expressed through serious, scientific endeavour.
Following the hospitalisation of her young daughter Sarah in 1944, Hepworth struck up a friendship with her surgeon Norman Capener. It was Capener who first suggested Hepworth observe some of their procedures at the hospital and whilst she was initially horrified by the idea, Hepworth was eventually persuaded. As the project progressed, the sculptor was struck by the atmosphere of calm concentration she experienced in the operating theatre, something she felt was akin to what happened in the studio, especially when a work was progressing well: particularly the exquisite combination of rhythm and precision, of unthinking movement executed through the intensive practise of skill.
As Hepworth herself wrote: 'From the very first moment I was entirely enthralled by the classic beauty of what I saw there; classic in the sense that architecture and function were perfectly blended and purity of idea and grace of execution were in complete harmony… The medical profession…seeks to restore and to maintain the beauty and grace of the human mind and body; whatever illness a doctor sees before him, he never loses sight of the ideal, or state of perfection, of the human mind and body and spirit towards which he is working. The artist…seeks to make concrete ideas of beauty which are spiritually affirmative, and which if he succeeds becomes a link in the long chain of human endeavours which enriches man’s vitality and understanding, helping him to surmount his difficulties and gain a deeper respect for life.' (Barbara Hepworth, The Artist's View of Surgery, 1953, quoted in Nathanial Hepburn, Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings, Tate Publishing, London, 2012, p.81).
Hepworth’s hospital drawings are also significant given they were produced in the very early years of Britain’s pioneering National Health System (NHS) which was launched in 1948. A ground-breaking initiative, the NHS spoke of hopes for a fairer, more inclusive society in post-war Britain. Its cause was something that spoke to Hepworth’s own ideas and so her ‘hospital drawings’ constitute a personal investigation into the possibilities of an egalitarian system, where a team works together towards a common cause, and all of us are equal at that moment - on the operating table, sedated, our bodies opened up - in front of God. As she wrote specifically of the Smith-Peterson Pin procedure: ‘In this operation I was more aware of the figure of the patient – with whole thing had a feeling of magic about it!’ (the Artist, quoted in Hepburn, ibid.,p.109).
Smith-Petersen Pin was originally owned by Wilfrid Evill, a collector with a remarkable passion for and understanding of contemporary British art during the inter-war period. It was part of the extraordinary Evill/Frost Collection, which was sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 2011 and which remains one of the most significant auctions of Modern British art. Often given the pick of an artist’s latest output, Evill’s collection was defined by works of excellence and rarity, reflecting his innate eye for quality; Smith-Peterson Pin is certainly one such example.
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