Barbara Hepworth, the first woman in Britain to become internationally acclaimed for her life’s work as a sculptor, died in a fire at her studio-home, Trewyn, at St Ives in Cornwall on 20 May 1975.
On the anniversary of that sudden and dramatic death, 20 May 2012, at the Dulwich Festival Fair in Dulwich Park, we will commemorate her work and her significance, inasmuch as we knew her locally by her sculpture, Two Forms (Divided Circle).
Inexorably it will be in the absence, not the presence of the piece; for forty years it was part of the park until it was stolen on 20 December 2011. Overnight it disappeared without trace but for two sawn off shapes fixed to the plinth like empty shoes. What can one say about the break-in except that it exposes an attitude to the public realm that beggars belief. There was a good article about whether we care by Zoe Williams in The Guardian on the day after the theft.
Since the sculpture was only 140 cm high (about as tall as the sculptor herself) and the two bronze parts were hollow with big portholes through them, its scrap metal value may have been as little as £300; its original cost at the height of Hepworth’s career was £15ooo, and it was insured for a great deal more in present money. Purchased by the Greater London Council in 1970 (see Studio International May 1971, ‘News and Notes: Hepworth Sculpture in Dulwich Park’) it was the fifth of an edition of six, cast at the Morris Singer Foundry in 1969. According to her Executors, Hepworth stipulated that no new cast could be taken if she did not personally supervise its completion. This means that the piece can never be replaced.
If you are missing it, and if you are already forgetting what a pleasure it was to make it the object of your walk in all seasons, all weathers, you might visit one of the others still displayed in Britain. All differ slightly in finish, patination and the way they reflect light, depending on how they are sited, in the Fellows’ Gardens of Clare College Cambridge (occasionally open to the public), on the campus of Bolton University (floodlit) or perhaps best, but dwarfed beside a dark yew at Hepworth’s own garden. Or take a virtual trip at kids.tate.org.uk/games/barbaras_garden/.
Now we have no Hepworth at Dulwich, what can we say about it? How did we like it? How did our children relate to it? Was it beautiful? Or pointless? Is a park the right place for sculpture? Did it enhance our perception of the natural world? Or make it too formal? Was it a special place of pilgrimage to anyone? Did we proudly show it to guests and visitors? What made us think it belonged?
For one day a small pavilion for remembrance and recollection will stand on the site Two Forms (Divided Circle) once occupied, focussing attention on the space it commanded and calmed. It wasn’t a monumental piece of sculpture; in fact it was rather slim, hunched slightly forward and pierced with those two big holes that children nested in and through which you could watch the changing colour of the London sky, swish of willow and flicker of light from the surface of the lake. Those are details you can still enjoy, but unframed, the experience of the landscape without any shape to it. So what do you think the Hepworth was doing there?
Artists and writers at the pavilion will be asking the public to ‘remember the Hepworth’ on 20 May, and to help along the debate about commissioning a new work or works of sculpture. Besides me, art historian and poet Kate Miller, you can talk to Katherine Waters who will be recording how people related to Two Forms, the painter Leonie Cronin whose research assesses public perception of the status and output of the woman artist, Heather Burrell, sculptor who works in cut steel and Pat Rae, sculptor in the broad tradition of Hepworth, who has assembled a collage of photographs of Trewyn studios and will show a selection of tools.
The pavilion is sponsored by Dulwich Park Friends and the event is a collaboration with their Chair, Trevor Moore, who has championed the outcry about the metal theft and become something of a Hepworth fanatic. Wonderful photographs of the piece by him and by others taken over several years will be on sale.
If you have memories or photographs that you would like to share before the event on Sunday 20 May, email email@example.com.