Were it not for an introduction to the lithographer Stanley Jones, Barbara Hepworth – grand dame of British sculpture – may never have left her legacy in print.
Barbara Hepworth at Curwen Studio
The printmaker Stanley Jones arrived with some trepidation in St Ives in 1958. The Cornish town was, he said, ‘an unknown quantity’ – and so was he, just 25 years old, dispatched by his employers at the newly established Curwen Studio to seek out partnerships in the artists colony.
The sculptor Barbara Hepworth was high on his list of potential collaborators. Stanley Jones was then in the very earliest days of his career: he had given up a promising apprenticeship in Montparnasse to help Curwen establish a competitor to the renowned lithography ateliers of Paris. Hepworth, on the other hand, was entering her last professional chapter, a fruitful period of late creativity that saw her introduction to the world of printmaking.
The 1950s had challenged the stability of all around her. In 1951 she had separated from her second husband Ben Nicholson, with whom she had helped turn St Ives into a post-war haven for avant-garde abstraction. Then in 1953 her first son Paul, from her marriage to the sculptor John Skeaping, died in an airplane crash over Thailand: a heartbreak for which there was no cure. A trip to the islands of Greece a year later provided momentary relief, where she raced ahead of the touring crowds to feel the sun and the wind beat round the marble ruins about her. Several years later she would revisit this time again with Stanley Jones in a series of lithographs celebrating the light and spirit of the region: the 1971 Aegean Suite.
But at their first encounter, in 1958, Jones was witness to the stubborn experimentalism Hepworth had summoned when teaching herself to carve direct some 30 years before. She arrived promptly at his temporary studio with the zinc plates he had given her days earlier, specially grained for printing. Curiosity had since got the better of her: she had ground down the surface of each plate so thoroughly that they were almost impossible to print from. To Stanley’s warning that they would not likely work, she asked: ‘Might we try anyway?’ An extremely scarce, likely unique colour proof (below) was one of only two successful prints from these plates; copies of the other, fainter and without colour, are held in the collections of the Tate and the Hepworth Wakefield museum.
A decade separated Stanley’s next visit. Timothy and Herbert Simon, directors at the Curwen Press, had suggested a series of collaborations with British sculptors, approaching Hepworth in 1966 (a year after her damehood). Two series of prints followed: the 1969 Twelve Lithographs series, drawing on themes ranging from her sculptural forms to the passage of the sun and moon, and the later Aegean Suite.
Larger and more complex than her first trials, these latter series demanded a more intense working rhythm in Hepworth’s Trewyn studio. Workspaces were cleared and her assistants told that under no circumstances was she to be disturbed while Jones was there. Stanley himself was welcomed, like other studio visitors, with a tumbler of whiskey the size of a mug of tea, while Barbara chain smoked cigarettes in the garden, staring out to sea. Jones remembered her rising ‘very early in the morning – around 2 or 3am’ to work on her transfer sheets, watching the sun climb over the horizon at daybreak, shine through the hollowed sculptures in the garden beyond and douse her worktop in light.
The summer of 1969 brought with it the moon landings, a new obsession for Hepworth. Ever since Paul had become a pilot, the idea of flight had joined her enduring theme of ‘the figure in the landscape’. Now she thought of the moon’s invisible pull on the tide, the celestial chart of the sun, and their eternal circling, which she said brought a ‘tension’ to her life (and which she has abstracted in images like Genesis and Cool Moon). On one return trip from America she managed the closest she would ever come to her own moonwalk, ‘[begging] permission to go into the cockpit and make a drawing of the sunrise…quite apart from the supernatural colours and shapes, and the sense of real flying, I think I was even more impressed by the utter ease of movement by pilot and co-pilot and navigator in such incredibly restricted space.’
But it was her own working surroundings that provided Hepworth’s richest source of inspiration, where ‘the sea, a flat diminishing plane, held within itself the capacity to radiate an infinitude of blues, greys, greens and even pinks of strange hues, the lighthouse and its strange rocky island was the eye: the Island of St Ives an arm, a hand, a face…’ In these prints, with Jones’ technical expertise, the colours and textures of stone, water and sunlight have been transcribed to the page. Toned surfaces sit beneath her hard geometry just as the landscape around her seemed to underlie all that she had done at St Ives: ‘The incoming and receding tides made strange and wonderful calligraphy on the pale granite sand that sparkled with feldspar and mica. The rich mineral deposits of Cornwall were apparent on the very surface of things; geology and prehistory – a thousand facts induced a thousand fantasies of form and purpose, structure and life which had gone into the making of what I saw and what I was.’
These signed lithographs come directly from Stanley Jones' personal archive. All sales will help Goldmark support the Curwen Print Study Centre.