- Christopher Wood: An English Painter by Richard Ingleby
Allison and Busby, 295 pp, £25.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 85031 849 1
- Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms by Sally Festing
Viking, 343 pp, £20.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 670 84203 6
The lives of Christopher Wood and Barbara Hepworth are case-studies, each in its way unhappy, of the artist as a product of his own creation. For both the idea of art, the lure of fame, the wish to escape from the stolid Northern middle class into which they were born, were motivating forces as powerful as the desire to express a vision through painting or sculpture. Hepworth was born in 1903, the daughter of a Wakefield surveyor. Wood, the older by two years, was the son of a doctor in Huyton, outside Liverpool. From these remarkably similar starting-points they set off in pursuit of the same, ultimately elusive, ideal.
Vol. 17 No. 22 · 16 November 1995
In her review (LRB, 2 November) of Sally Festing’s Barbara Hepworth, Rosemary Hill implies that Barbara Hepworth, like Christopher Wood, committed suicide. Can I make it absolutely clear that this is not true? At the inquest after her death it was accepted that the sculptor fell asleep while smoking a cigarette and set fire to her bed. Her death was accidental. In her last years Hepworth had become a committed Anglican, and suicide would have been totally against her principles. She lived surrounded by her sculptures and by the paintings of Ben Nicholson, and she would never have put such works of art at risk.
I am afraid that although your reviewer recognises the weaknesses of the book she nevertheless seems to accept Sally Festing’s portrayal of Hepworth in her later years as a true one. Mrs Festing did not know Hepworth, and she does not give a picture of the artist as her family and friends remember her. She did not ‘quarrrel with nearly everyone’ in St Ives, neither was she the lonely person painted by Mrs Festing. She admittedly suffered severe ill health in the last ten years of her life, and began to drink whisky in the evenings to assuage the pain of cancer of the mouth. Her work was the most important thing in her life: like most artists she felt she had a God-given talent which she was obliged to express to the best of her ability, and she continued to work to the end. After a long struggle when her art met almost complete indifference and hostility she took a natural satisfaction in late recognition and had a proper pride in her own achievement.
The reputation of artists usually suffers in the years immediately after death, and Hepworth is no exception. The warm reception that the recent retrospective exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Yale and Toronto has received suggests that this is changing.
Your reviewer talks about ‘the battle that continues to rage posthumously between Hepworth and Moore’, forgetting that for most of their careers they were allies as much as rivals, and that each recognised the essential differences of the other’s art. I was fortunate to be close to both of them, and now that the Henry Moore Foundation is well established I am no longer its director but am working full time on my book on Hepworth.
Vol. 17 No. 23 · 30 November 1995
It was never my intention to imply, nor does Sally Festing suggest in her book, that Barbara Hepworth committed suicide. In contrasting her posthumous reputation with that of Wood – who did kill himself – I wrote a sentence that lent itself to this construction. It was careless and I apologise. Of Festing’s accuracy it is difficult in many instances to judge, without, as Alan Bowness points out (Letters, 16 November), his own advantages of personal knowledge and access to the archives. As I said, a better, more sympathetic biography could and should be written. I hope he will write it.