InSight No. LXXVII

Barbara Hepworth | Maquette, Theme and Variations, 1970

Barbara Hepworth's final large-scale commission prompted a late flowering in her career. The project inspired a companion piece, a work of equal subtlety and sculptural intensity.

Barbara Hepworth 

Maquette, Theme and Variations, 1970

 In November 1969, Hepworth (1903-1975) received an invitation from the architect Thomas Overbury. His practice Healing & Overbury were designing the new headquarters for the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society (of which Overbury also happened to be a director), and he wondered if she could provide an abstract sculpture to fill three panels of the new building. Hepworth replied, 'I like the proportions and I have several ideas in mind for wall sculptures.' The work called Theme and Variations was completed in 1972. Some art historians have identified Hepworth's triplets, born in 1934, as a lasting influence on her approach to sculpture, and the three-part format used for Theme and Variations could be seen as a late expression of this.

Though the office building itself was listed in 1975, Hepworth's sculpture received a separate listing from Historic England in 2019; the work is now owned by a property investment company and this robust response halted a plan to sell the sculpture. (Before an intervention from the Twentieth Century Society and the artist's granddaughter Sophie Bowness, the sculpture was destined to be replaced by a replica.)


Hepworth executed several large-scale commissions in the course of her career, perhaps most notably Single Form - a vast bronze over six metres in height, completed in 1964, which stands in front of the United Nations Building in New York. The Theme and Variations commission bears closer resemblance to Winged Figure, however, which was delivered to the flagship John Lewis store on Oxford Street in 1963. Both these commissions reflected the warm glow of post-war optimism, a mood that mingled together corporate ebullience and an unselfish belief in the value of public sculpture.


In preparation for Theme and Variations and related works, Hepworth made a number of remarkable and austere maquettes. One of these pinned the 'leaf-like segments' to the hardboard using nails, allowing the individual pieces to be composed and repositioned. The 'finished' maquette, presented for approval by the architects and described by Hepworth as a 'sketch', was constructed from wood and was washed in white paint to give a finish redolent of plaster.

Prior to its opening in 2011, The Hepworth Wakefield received a gift from two of Barbara Hepworth's daughters: 44 prototypes in plaster, aluminium and wood, which their mother used to make her sculptures. The gift included the maquettes associated with Theme and Variations. The Hepworth Wakefield is now among the leading pioneers of the artist's reputation, with a permanent display as well as a number of significant exhibitions dedicated to her work. In May this year, the gallery opened 'the largest exhibition of Barbara Hepworth's work since the artist's death in 1975', with the curator Eleanor Clayton simultaneously producing a new biography published by Thames & Hudson.



Coincident with the large-scale bronze, Hepworth also developed Theme and Variationsinto two editioned, small-scale sculptures - one made in polished bronze and the other in polished silver and walnut wood. These sculptures, both named Maquette, Theme and Variations, use the same rhythmic motif of positioned and counter-positioned semi-circles. The title carries a musical connotation, while the ingenious visual effect suggests superimposed planetary phases or the echoes of a ripple through water. In the silver and walnut sculpture, the play of reflected light on the individually cast segments contrasts with the prominent grain of the wood panelling. This subtle material dissonance underpins Hepworth's evocation of organic phenomena in geometric forms, and although the work's monumental companion in Cheltenham dominates the street it overlooks, the same forms repeated at this domestic scale carry no less visual and sculptural intensity.



1.  Barbara Hepworth, Maquette, Theme and Variations, 1970, silver on walnut wood, 31 x 66 x 16 cm
2.  Hepworth's sculpture Theme and Variations in Castle Street, Cheltenham
3.  Maquette, Theme and Variations (detail)
4.  Installation of Winged Figure on the John Lewis store, Oxford Street, 21 April 1963 © Trevor Humphries / Stringer courtesy of Getty Images
5.  Barbara Hepworth, Maquette, Theme and Variations, 1970, The Hepworth Wakefield © The Estate of Barbara Hepworth
6.  A gallery at The Hepworth Wakefield dedicated to the Hepworth Family Gift © Danny Lawson/PA
7.  Maquette, Theme and Variations (detail)
July 14, 2021
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