Barbara Hepworth's post-war Hospital Drawings on show at The Hepworth Wakefield

By Ben Miller | 24 October 2012
An image of an abstract drawing of surgeons around an operating table in blue and green
Barbara Hepworth, Prelude 2 (1948)© Bowness, Hepworth Estate. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Exhibition Preview: Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings, The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield, October 27 2012 – February 3 2013

When Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s daughter, Sarah, fell ill in 1944, they became friends with Norman Capener, the surgeon overseeing her treatment at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter.

An image of a blue-scale pencil drawing of a surgeon working while wearing a mask
Tibia Graft (1949)© Bowness, Hepworth Estate. The Hepworth Wakefield
Between 1947 and 1949, Hepworth began studyiing Capener and his colleagues at work in Devon and The London Clinic, portraying their procedures in dozens of pencil, ink and chalk drawings, often adding a painterly element through the addition of oil paint on the boards.

This is the most extensive display of them to date, featuring more than 30 works in a snapshot of the pioneering work of the NHS in a post-war Britain experiencing social reconstruction, and their depiction of the nimble hands of skilled doctors is a constant feature.

“Barbara’s operation drawings and paintings show us the surprising beauty that can be found in an operating theatre,” says Paul Bowness, Hepworth’s grandson who, in a fitting twist, is a Professor of Experimental Rheumatology at the University of Oxford.

“Even for practising doctors like myself, who have assisted at many operations, she strikingly captures the intensity of concentration of hands and eyes, and the harmony of all the members of the operating team.”

Hepworth felt a close connection with the surgeons, and spoke of a “close affinity” between “the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, painters and sculptors.”

An image of a brown pencil drawing of a surgeon donning his overalls wearing a mask
Prevision (1948)© Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Courtesy British Council Collection
The resulting pieces are less well-known than her sculptures, but provide an important chance to explore some of the forms she would master.

“Hepworth’s detailed and heavily-worked drawings and paintings of surgeons seem to be at odds with an artist we know best as a sculptor of pure abstracted forms,” observes curator Nathaniel Hepburn, who has written an essay for a study of Hepworth’s drawings published to accompany the display.

“By bringing together so many of these works in one exhibition, we aim to re-evaluate their importance and show how Hepworth saw the operating theatre as a ready-made abstract sculpture.”

Frances Guy, the Head of Collections and Exhibitions at the Hepworth, says organisers are “hugely proud” to host the show, touring from Kent’s Mascalls Gallery in the culmination of years of research and planning.

“The Hospital Drawings show Hepworth rediscovering the role of figure drawing as a means of developing sculptural ideas at a time when materials and funds were in short supply,” she says.

“It’s exciting to showcase this wonderful series of drawing and paintings in the context of the sculpture displays we have here.”

  • Open 10am-5pm (9pm third Thursday of each month, 10am-3pm December 24 and 31, closed Monday except Bank Holidays, closed December 25-26). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @HepworthGallery.

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