InSight No. LXXVII
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.
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.)
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.
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.