The Limit

Rosemary Hill

  • 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.

It was Hepworth’s son-in-law, Alan Bowness, who wrote (in The Conditions of Success: How the Modern Artist Rises to Fame) that ‘there is a general supposition even among the educated public that there is something arbitrary about artistic success.’ Neither Wood nor Hepworth suffered such illusions. Hepworth told her friend Margaret Gardiner that from an early age she had realised that the artist must ‘think out a policy, stick to it and then devote oneself to work quite ruthlessly’.

No one who thinks such worldly ambition unseemly in an artist will be disappointed by the story of these lives. Hepworth lived to enjoy her retrospective at the Tate and to be a Dame of the British Empire. Yet, Sally Festing tells us, many people felt sorry for her ‘at the end’, and the very end, her death alone in a fire at her studio in Cornwall, was pathetic. The less strong-minded Wood pursued his short, highly-coloured career along a butterfly zigzag from place to place and style to style, his suicide at 29 marking an even more unhappy failure of art to compensate for life.

By March 1921 Wood was in London, packing his bags for Paris. He had been invited to stay with Alphonse Kahn. ‘one of the greatest if not the best-known connoisseur of art in Paris’, as he explained to his mother. What he did not tell her was how he had landed such a grand invitation. Richard Ingleby cannot tell us either, but Kahn was the first of many men and women to be charmed by Wood. His good looks and ‘friendliness’, the quality that people singled out as the key to his appeal, enabled him to drift with apparent inevitability to the centre of the world he aspired to join.

These relationships, which advanced his career, providing introductions and removing any pressing need to earn money, were attributed by Anthony Powell, somewhat sourly, to Wood’s ‘convenient bisexuality’. Ingleby, too, subscribes to this judgment, but it seems unfair. Confused, perhaps, about his sexuality, as he was about many things, Wood was sincere in his love of glamour and of everything and anyone who could further his only unchanging desire – to become an artist.

The ambition was formed in his teens during long periods of ill-health, when he lay on a sofa concocting, with his devoted mother, the dream of a better life than Huyton could offer. At first he could judge his new world only by standards of provincial gentility. ‘You may wonder if I am meeting the right kind of friends over here,’ he wrote, a few months after his arrival in Paris. ‘Well, I am tremendously lucky as by some means or other I have met only the really nice people who figure very high in society over here... the very most “élite” to use a silly expression... People, or the likes of whom, seem to have totally disappeared from Liverpool.’ Wood’s letters to his mother are Ingleby’s main documentary source. They run through the book like the diary of an artistic nobody and would be funny if the story had a happy ending. As it is, they mark the pathetic distance between the persona of the carefree boy whom everyone wanted to pick up and the unformed creature behind it.

From the really nice people he graduated to the ‘lurid and fashionable’, as Augustus John described the artistic set in Twenties Paris. It was the world of the Train Bleu, of Diaghilev, Cocteau, opium and neurosis; a brittle atmosphere vulnerable to clumsy intrusions. Wood had to flee in embarrassment when his uncle and aunt turned up on a visit: then there was the astonishing episode when the Guinness family, worried by Wood’s courtship of their daughter Meraud, had him followed – by Mrs Patrick Campbell.

But he struggled on regardless. He met Picasso, he even worked at painting though he was dissatisfied with the results and his output was small. By 1926 he had made a name for himself, which was, as he told his mother, the important thing. The actual art could be done later:

The Duchess of Sutherland with whom I dined the other night wants to buy a picture but I will have to paint one first... it is important to me if I want to sell pictures while I am young that I make myself known as a painter, as now I know everybody who is worth knowing... The quantities of people who come up to me and say ‘Dear Mr Wood I think your paintings are too beautiful, I remember so well that charming landscape in your exhibition in Paris’... As you know I never had an exhibition.

When he did have one it was, inevitably, something of an anti-climax, despite Cocteau’s catalogue essay and some good reviews. Ingleby is not an indulgent biographer but he is sympathetic and young enough himself to respect the impatience of youth, the agony of waking up at 23 to find that you are still not world-famous. He makes us see Wood’s short career as a slow struggle towards the group of what turned out to be late paintings, shown only posthumously.

These pictures, even if they arc more arch and less free of influence than Ingleby suggests, are still sufficient to make Wood an interesting artist, one who belongs to an identifiable English tradition of domestic painting in a minor key. Whatever his style owed to European art (sometimes it owed far too much – to Modigliani, Picasso, Dufy, Vlaminck and many others), the mood in the best pictures is narrative and intimate. The small landscapes in Cornwall and Brittany, views through a window, still lives, succeed. The maturing style of the later paintings owed much to Wood’s friendship with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, who were devoted to him. They were perhaps more perceptive than his other friends, even his loyal protector/lover Tony Gandarillas. Certainly they took him seriously as a painter. Ben Nicholson’s work during their association owed much to Wood.

Yet the Nicholsons were as shocked as everyone else when, on 21 August 1930, Wood threw himself in front of a train at Salisbury station. Reluctant to believe it was suicide, they went so far as to engage a private detective to trace his movements during his last days. They went about this initially by visiting Scotland Yard and asking to hire a policeman. They were probably too unworldly to have any conception of the effects of bad opium, followed by withdrawal, which, Ingleby argues, is the most likely explanation for Wood’s paranoid delusions and the momentary desperation that led to his death.

It was, of course, the gesture that finally made him famous. ‘Christopher Wood’, artist and glittering but doomed youth, was the creation of hindsight, spun by friends and critics out of guilt, grief and sentiment. It is with a slightly cerie sensation that the reader of Ingleby’s biography realises that almost everything that was said about Wood, even references in private correspondence, as well as four of the five quotations on the dust-jacket, was said after his death – his reputation as much a conscious artefact as his life had been.

Ingleby rescues his subject from overpraise and myth-making, but he cannot save Wood from being frozen in the Twenties; ‘an essential figure of his period’, as Powell calls him. Wood stylised himself, and the changes in English art left the Twenties seeming disproportionately remote from the decade that followed. The Thirties saw Modernism take hold. It was a drama acted out in little, as Ingleby notices, within the Seven and Five Society with which Wood and the Nicholsons exhibited: in fifteen years their annual show evolved ‘from ... pictures with titles like... Where the Thrushes Sing... to a Ben Nicholson white relief’.

This was not the only drama to hit the 7&5, as it became, paring its name down to go with the work. As Wood left the scene Barbara Hep-worth made her entrance. She had come second in the competition for the Rome scholarship and married the man who came first, Jack Skeaping. Like Wood, Hepworth was accused of using her sexual relationships to advance her career, but was no more a cynic than he was, being as genuinely attracted to success as he was to glamour. She was slower, however, to pick up the zeitgeist, spending her art school vacations in Italy not Paris – an oversight that she later adjusted in her autobiographical writings. In 1931, having watched developments at the 7&5, she decided to join it and within a year Nicholson had left his wife to live with her. Together they dominated the group as it moved towards abstraction. The following year Hepworth found in Herbert Read a critical champion whose lasting support was invaluable in establishing her reputation.

It was the start of the rise to fame, but not the end of the struggle. Hepworth’s concern for her public standing kept her constantly on the watch for groups to join (or leave), the right moment to change dealers. She was unembarrassed about her resentment of Henry Moore. If Henry’s work was chosen for a Biennale then Barbara’s must go to the next one. If his prices went up so must hers. At the beleaguered British Council a certain Miss Nash annotated one of Hepworth’s letters: ‘She really is the limit. I don’t think we will answer this.’ Comparisons with Moore, whom Hepworth had known since they were students at Leeds in 1920, dogged her all her life. She was irked to be cast as his disciple. There were allegations of plagiarism and not only in relation to Moore. Seeing Hepworth’s Winged Figure, on the John Lewis building in Oxford Street, Naum Gabo is supposed to have shouted: ‘That’s mine!’

Hepworth herself, highly conscious of competing in the most masculine of art forms, attributed criticism of her work to male prejudice. It was, undoubtedly, a factor, but, looking now at the range of her work, I find it difficult not to see much, though by no means all of it, as complementary to, but dependent on, the mainstream. Too many pieces lack the clarity of which she was capable, remaining decorative in a pejorative sense, incomplete in themselves. The larger work that she produced as soon as she could afford the time and space, rarely succeeded. Pieces like Construction (Crucifixion) in St Ives are muddled, a Nicholson relief in Mondrian colours that aims at asymmetry but is only lopsided.

Hepworth was an uneven artist and a difficult woman. Nicholson, to her dismay, left her, relationships with her children were often fraught. In St Ives, where she remained alone, she quarrelled with nearly everyone, from Peter Lanyon to the local taxi firm. In her last years, finding herself not in Olympian isolation, merely lonely, she drank heavily. Perhaps she misunderstood herself – perhaps Wood did too. Neither was, by temperament, an artist in the high romantic cast they admired. Indeed it is axiomatic that anyone so concerned with the way they are perceived is too dependent on other people to find art a sustaining end in itself. It must be possible to write a sympathetic account of such a character. More could be said about Hepworth’s involvement with politics and her ambivalent relationship with Christian Science.

Unfortunately, Sally Festing is not up to the job. Her enthusiasm and diligence in interviewing those who remember Hepworth cannot compensate for her lack of perception and an extraordinary prose style that veers between cliché and unintelligibility. Thus she tells us that when Nicholson left his wife for Hepworth ‘Winifred was upset by this new turn of events,’ adding, after some thought, that ‘she didn’t like Barbara.’ To say that Naum Gabo ‘felt like a puppet shot against the volcanic conflagrations of history’ does not help the reader much, while to gesture towards the European context by explaining that ‘Mussolini was busy invading Abyssinia when Artists Against War opened’ makes it sound as if, had he not been otherwise engaged, Il Duce would have been at the private view. Festing’s life of Gertrude Jekyll was similarly weak. Why anyone should have commissioned another biography from her is, in her own words, ‘one of those riddles with which history is bursting’.

Hepworth has not fared well since her death. While Wood’s suicide was – as the old rock joke has it – a great career move, hers was not. Here, too, she might have complained of prejudice against women. The broken marriages, neglected children and empty bottles would be looked on with more indulgence in a man – as a concomitant of the artistic personality, albeit not the version Hepworth cultivated. But this is her first biography and Festing is predictably hopeless about the difficulties, apologising for them in a way that makes everything worse: ‘Barbara might not have been a very good mother, which is hardly uncommon.’

More circumspect biographers have probably been deterred by the fact that Alan Bowness holds the Hepworth archive and was thought to be writing a life. So far, however, though he produced the major catalogue of his mother-in-law’s work, he has published nothing about her since her death. Her work, too, has been somewhat less regarded since her death, her reputation, in Festing’s word, ‘dormant’. In the battle that continues to rage posthumously between Hepworth and Moore, Henry is getting the best of it at the moment. Indeed Alan Bowness is active on behalf of the Henry Moore Foundation. Barbara – who hasn’t got a foundation – would have been livid.