Harlow’s Hidden Hepworth Sculpture

3 min read  ·  28 Feb 2024

HENI Talks presents Harlow’s Hidden Hepworth Sculpture

The latest film from HENI Talks, Harlow’s Hidden Hepworth Sculpture, explores a moving public artwork by Barbara Hepworth, one of the most influential British sculptors, found in a surprising location. At over 10 feet tall, the dual monoliths of Barbara Hepworth’s stone sculpture ‘Contrapuntal Forms’ (1950–51) tower over a residential area in the post-war new town of Harlow, Essex. Purchased by the Harlow Art Trust with the aim of beautifying this newly built town and bringing art into residents’ everyday lives, the abstract sculpture exemplifies both the visionary aims of the trust and the oeuvre of modernist icon Barbara Hepworth.

Who was Barbara Hepworth?

Barbara Hepworth (1903–75) was born and raised in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, where the Hepworth Wakefield Museum built in her memory now stands. She quickly became an influential figure in the modern art scene of the 1930s, creating some of Britain’s first abstract sculptures. Hepworth was a leading artist of the St Ives School, a colony of British artists that settled and worked from the Cornish town during WWII, developing Modernist practices together. One of Hepworth’s colleagues at St Ives was famed British sculptor Henry Moore, her fellow Yorkshireman and friendly rival. The two artists were deeply inspired and challenged by one another: in fact, the pierced forms for which Moore became known were first sculpted by Hepworth. This misplaced credit towards Moore for an innovation of Modernist sculpture which Barbara Hepworth developed is indicative of the challenges she experienced due to her gender. Working at a time when female artists faced great prejudice, Hepworth’s success as one of the only woman sculptors to gain international renown in the mid-20th century speaks to both her talent and impact on abstract sculpture.

Contrapuntal Forms

‘Contrapuntal Forms’ embodies Hepworth’s Modernist work, with its organic shapes, unique production method, and nontraditional context. At the time one of the largest sculptures Hepworth had ever created, ‘Contrapuntal Forms’ is a monumental example of the direct stone carving method that Hepworth popularised. Rejecting the more mechanical ‘pointing technique’ that dominated sculpting at the time, Hepworth carved this sculpture by hand from two monumental blocks of Irish blue limestone. This direct carving method contributes to the fluidity and connection to material for which Hepworth’s abstract sculptures are known.

It also contributes a sense of intimacy and immediacy to 'Contrapuntal Forms’ that continues to inspire audiences today, such as film narrator Irena Posner, an artist in residence at Harlow. The sculpture’s curving forms evoke two abstract human figures facing one another. Hepworth's choice of material and the solidity of the organic forms gives them a groundedness crucial to Harlow’s aims of building a sense of place among its residents. However, the mouldings at the top of each figure seem to form abstract heads that look outward, toward the horizon, evoking the post-war utopian vision of new towns such as Harlow and Hepworth’s forward-thinking Modernism.

Hepworth also included her hallmark pierced forms in the centre of each figure, recalling the cavity of an acoustic guitar. Occasionally, Hepworth even added strings criss-crossing such openings in her sculptures, drawing the link yet closer to musical instruments. This was not a coincidence: herself a music lover, Hepworth likened the rhythmic chiselling of her stone carving to a form of music, perhaps contributing to the visual lyricism of her abstract sculptures. In fact, ‘contrapuntal’ is a musical term that describes when two lines of music are unique in rhythm and melody, yet harmonically interdependent. Here, the cavities break up the monolithic nature of the figures and create a sort of conversation between the two forms. There is an intimacy between the two figures as well as between the figures and the viewer, who can look through and beyond them to new possibilities.

The deep emotional impact of ‘Contrapuntal Forms’ is evident in its continued presence among the housing blocks of Harlow. At one point, it was slated to be moved to a more prominent position as an exemplary work by a famed British sculptor. However, residents passionately campaigned for the sculpture to remain integrated among the people of Harlow. Grade II-listed in 1998, ‘Contrapuntal Forms’ stands as testament to Barbara Hepworth’s lasting mark on British art, as well as to her talented ability to connect with both medium and audience.