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Cutting edge Barbara Hepworth paintings capture the art of surgery

PUBLISHED: 00:24 08 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:01 20 February 2013

Hepworth with one of the dramatic sculptures she is most commonly known for

Hepworth with one of the dramatic sculptures she is most commonly known for

Cutting edge Barbara Hepworth paintings capture the art of surgery

Sculptors are no strangers to surgical precision. The nature of their work demands skilful coordination and pinpoint accuracy, though few would claim their calling has life or death implications.

But when Barbara Hepworth was given a rare opportunity to study surgical procedures in close proximity, she eschewed her sculpting tools and opted for pencil, ink, oil and chalk instead.

The remarkable results The Hospital Drawings are now being assembled at The Hepworth Wakefield for viewing from October 27th to February 13th, offering Yorkshire art enthusiasts the first view of what will be a national touring exhibition.

Following the hospitalisation of their daughter Sarah in 1944, Hepworth and her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, struck up a friendship with surgeon Norman Capener that led to an invitation to witness a variety of surgical procedures in Exeter and London.

Hepworth produced around 80 works from 1947-49, capturing life in the operating theatre using pencil, ink, oil and chalk on paper and board.
With more than 30 images on display, as well as Hepworths sketchbook, the new Wakefield exhibition is the most significant presentation of this extraordinary series to date, comprising key loans from national, public and private collections, some of which have never been exhibited before.

The Hospital Drawings give new insight into less well-known aspects of the Yorkshire artists skills and can also be viewed as a tribute to the launch of Britains pioneering National Health Service in 1948 a ground-breaking change embraced by Hepworth, who supported the broadly left ideals of social restructuring to develop a fairer, more inclusive society.

Impressed by the close connection she felt between her art and the skilled craftsmanship of the surgeon, she was particularly fascinated by the rhythmic movement of hands during the procedures.

There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors, she told an audience of surgeons in the early 1950s.

A new publication the first to focus specifically on this area of Hepworths work is being published to accompany the exhibition. It includes a new essay by Nathaniel Hepburn, curator at Mascalls Gallery which has organised the touring exhibition, a foreword by Dr Chris Stephens of Tate Britain, and an introduction by Frances Guy, head of collection and exhibitions at The Hepworth Wakefield.

This exhibition is an exciting opportunity to showcase this wonderful series of drawings and paintings in the context of the sculpture displays here in Wakefield, said Frances. The Hospital Drawings series shows 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.

We are hugely proud to be the first venue to present this exhibition and illuminate this different aspect of her art.

Art critics will undoubtedly have their say on the exhibition, but who could be better placed to have the last word than the artists grandson Paul Bowness, professor of experimental rheumatology at Oxford University.

Barbaras operation drawings and paintings show us the surprising beauty that can be found in an operating theatre, he said.


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 members of the operating team.

For more details about this and all the other exhibitions, events and family-friendly programmes at The Hepworth Wakefield, visit the gallery online at hepworthwakefield.org or call 01924 247360.

Hepworth highlights

Among the fascinating exhibitions on the packed programme at The Hepworth Wakefield for the coming season are:


Louisa Fennells Wakefield
Works by Wakefield-born Victorian artist Louisa Fennell (1847-1930) from the Wakefield Permanent Art Collection featuring paintings of the citys Cathedral and Chantry Chapel. September 2012 to March 2013.


To Hope, To Tremble, To Live
The gallerys first exhibition in collaboration with a private art collection brings together a selection of outstanding contemporary works from the David Roberts Collection, including pieces by artists Huma Bhabha, Lucian Freud, Eduardo Paolozzi and Rebecca Warren. October 27th 2012 to February 3rd 2013.


Alice Channer, Jessica Jackson-Hutchings & Linder
Three dynamic exhibitions from three dynamic and diverse artists featuring all-new works produced specifically for The Hepworth Wakefield. February 16th to June 2nd 2013.

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