This exhibition of more than 30 of Barbara Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings is the first time that so many of these powerful pieces have been shown together. She drew them between 1947 and 1949, during the birth of the NHS, having been allowed into several operating theatres as an observer.
During the Second World War Hepworth and her family lived in St Ives, Cornwall. Her daughter fell ill with osteomyelitis and required extensive hospital care which Hepworth and her partner struggled to afford. The chance to observe in operating theatres came out of the friendship that developed between her daughter’s surgeon and herself.
Hepworth is most famous for her abstract sculptures, but these drawings have recognisable people in them as they focus on surgeons and nurses at work. However, she concentrates just on their eyes and hands; the rest of their bodies are covered in face masks, caps and gowns which give them a smooth flowing , almost sculptural, quality. Their gracefulness is emphasised, until they become almost spiritual figures.
Many of the drawings are in oil and pencil, but with washed oil that softens boundaries and blends one person into another.
Her interest is in the collective work effort: most of the drawings highlight a group totally absorbed in a particular operation – whether it is a surgeon with implements in hand, or a nurse poised to intervene. The implements she focuses on range from scalpels to hammers and chisels, which emphasise the link with the way a sculptor works. Hepworth commented in a lecture to surgeons, “There is a very close affinity between the work of surgeons and sculptors.”
She goes on to say that in her view “the medical profession, as a whole, seeks to restore and maintain the beauty and grace of the human mind and body.”
That comes through strongly in her drawings. The medical staff’s hands are delicate but strong, their eyes full of understanding and compassion. Their only concern is the restoration to full health of the patient in front of them.
The drawings convey a collective, intense desire to heal, and to improve people’s quality of life. The hammer and chisel are life enhancing, not threatening.
These drawings celebrate the creativity and dedication of groups of professional workers. Their motivation is clearly to help others, not to make money. They are the values that underpinned the development of a free health service.
Hepworth’s personal experiences and socialist values led her to welcome the setting up of the NHS – but these drawings are not NHS propaganda. They are a tribute to human endeavour.
It is ironic that in the week this exhibition opened in Wakefield the medical secretaries and other clerical workers at the local hospital began a campaign of strike action against redundancies and pay cuts caused by the government’s attempts to destroy that free health service.
Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings is on at The Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield until 3 February 2013