Barbara Hepworth Single Form

This article is reproduced from issue 52 (summer 2001) of The Review. It was written by Friends member Jeffrey Frost.

Dame Barbara Hepworth made the sculpture on the south shore of the lake as a personal memorial to her friend, and then United Nations Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjold, who died in an air crash in 1961. Before his untimely death, they had discussed a scheme for the new United Nations building in New York. His successor as Secretary General, U Thant, had also talked of these plans; together they had walked around the pond in front of the UN, and Hammarskjold had discussed the project enthusiastically and in detail. U Thant invited Hepworth to New York to view the site. It became clear that while the Battersea Park piece was exactly the right scale for the lakeside site it was far too small for New York and the surrounding skyline.

Our sculpture is 10 feet 6 inches high, about the largest piece of bronze casting you can do. The New York version, Single Form, is nearly three time that, and was cast in seven pieces. “When I know that I would have to dissect it in order to cast it at all”, said Hepworth, “I decided to use the divisions as an inherent part of the composition. I did not want to cover up the joints. As it is, you can see how all the pieces lock together and each part balances the other”.

Though Single form would look enormous in most cities it doesn’t look large in New York. Hepworth again: “It’s the right scale for human beings to relate to. They’ve left behind enormous buildings, and now there’s this vast façade of glass, but the sculpture is still on a human scale. A person walking round can encompass it as part of their life. And when you look down on it from the 38th floor, it’s like an old friend standing there below. I don’t believe in heroic sculpture – I want to get the human relationship right. When I’m working big, what concerns me most is first the perspective in relation to the height of man, and then the movement – which has to take place if you’re going to look at it, and finally I like to try and give an emphasis of quietude and draw out what I hope is some poetry”.

Just so. It is perhaps that Hepworths genius as a sculptor is based above all on her sense of humanity as an integral part of a much wider landscape, and the hands-on experience of supplementing the feeding during the war of her few small children (including girl triplets) with the produce from her St. Ives allotment made her feel part of that landscape. “All landscape needs a figure… working in the abstract way seems to release one’s personality and sharpen the perceptions so that in observation of humanity as landscape it is the wholeness of inner initiation which moves one so profoundly. The components fall into place and one is no longer aware of the detail except as the necessary significance of wholeness and unity…. A rhythm of form which has its roots in earth but reaches outwards towards the unknown experiences of the future. The thought underlying this form is, for me, the delicate balance the spirit of man maintains between his knowledge and the laws of the universe”.