Past is Present: Barbara Hepworth and the Mên-an-Tol

Barbara Hepworth with her cat Nicholas and her sculpture 'Reclining Form (Rosewall)'
by Ida Kar, 1961. Source.

Whether they be of wood, stone or bronze, the sculptures of British artist Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) are frequently pierced with holes.

Barbara Hepworth, Two Figures (Menhirs), 1964. Slate on wooden base, H: 82.5 cm / 34 in. Source.

Like many early modernists Hepworth was influenced by art from pre-Renaissance cultures, and as a long-time resident of St Ives in Cornwall, Britain’s Neolithic monuments were close at hand. She made this reference explicit in the title for Two Figures (Menhirs), from 1964, referencing the ancient standing stones found through Britain.

Mên-an-Tol, Cornwall, circa 1500 BCE. Source.

Cornwall has a number of megalithic monuments, but Mên-an-Tol near Penzance, from around 1500 BCE, clearly resonated deeply with the Hepworth’s aesthetic.

In Dudley Shaw Ashton’s 1953 film, Figures in a Landscape, Hepworth’s sculpture Forms in Echelon is positioned near the three stones that make up this mysterious formation.

Possibly once part of a stone circle, Mên-an-Tol, known locally as the Crick Stone, is reputed to cure back pain, rickets, tuberculosis and be an aid to fertility (seen from the perspective above, the latter symbolism is pretty obvious.) Those wishing to be cured have to pass through the hole, with the direction, number of times and point during the lunar cycle chosen according to the desired outcome.

Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, St Ives, Cornwall. Source.

Barbara Hepworth, Pierced Hemisphere II, 1937-8. Hoptonwood stone on Portland stone, H: 43.5 cm. Tate.

Although one can’t pop through the apertures in Hepworth’s sculptures (unless one happens to be a faerie), her combination of modernist reductive form and timeless material produces its own particular magic. We may not have to worry much about rickets these days, but for many people the stress of contemporary life is reaching epic proportions. Contemplating one of Hepworth's elemental forms can provide a much-needed point of calm within the modern maelstrom.