We are making a new world

1st June 2013

To Pallant House Gallery in Chichester for Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings. Having started at The Hepworth Wakefield, this wonderful exhibition closes at Pallant House on Sunday; it then shows from 14 June-24 August at Mascalls Gallery in Kent. On display are forty or so of the roughly seventy drawings and paintings that the artist made as studies of surgeons and nurses in and around operating theatres between 1947 and 1949. Little-known and comparatively uncelebrated, at least in comparison to the artist’s sculptures, these are beautiful and powerful works – personal, gloriously human yet with strong elements of the impetus to abstraction. For all their modesty, they can also be seen (although this is not how they are presented in Chichester) as one of the few truly great cultural celebrations of the achievements of post-war Labour government.

In many ways, the exhibition catalogue by Nathaniel Hepburn is a fine publication. A selection of the drawings is beautifully illustrated and it reconstructs a fascinating lecture about the works that the artist gave with slides around 1953. Hepburn’s essay provides a detailed context for the creation of the drawings — how the illness in 1944 of one of Hepworth and Ben Nicolson’s triplets, Sarah, led to a friendship with the surgeon Norman Capener and to a later invitation to observe and document his work. But I am struck by how the social and political context for the works is pushed to the margins in a discussion that focuses largely on biography and on the formal qualities of the drawings and their relationship to Hepworth’s sculpture.

Concentration of Hands II, 1948

Nathaniel Hepburn acknowledges that ‘the political developments of the NHS may… have contributed to [Hepworth’s] interest in entering a hospital theatre.’ But, he writes, ‘the works are neither personal therapy nor political propaganda’. In a similar vein, one of the wall texts in Chichester states that the drawings ‘can be viewed as essentially abstract and closely related to [Hepworth’s] sculptures’.

This does seem to me somewhat perverse – and we do not need to think of the works as ‘propaganda’ to understand their profoundly political import. For me, the drawings are revealed here as a cycle that can claim a central place in the complex relationship between visual culture and the social and political realities of mid-century Britain.

From five or so years before these works by Hepworth, Henry Moore’s tube shelter drawings are widely acknowledged as defining images of Britain under the Blitz, with a metaphorical power that embraces ideas of fragility, resilience, terror, the strength of community and more. Although they have not had anything close to a comparable impact, Hepworth’s hospital drawings can surely be seen as similarly crystallising a historical moment – one of hope, of belief in a better future, of technology coupled with knowledge and skill taking us into a bright future, and of communal effort towards reconstruction (one drawing, made on 9 December 1947, even uses this word as its title).

The 1942 Beveridge Report had proposed ‘a free national health service’ and this idea had been given form by the 1944 Coalition government White Paper, A National Health Service. After a long political battle, and many arguments with doctors and others, Attlee’s government brought the NHS into being on 5 July 1948. ‘It was a day,’ the historian Peter Hennessy writes in Never Again: Britain 1945-51, ‘that transformed like no other before or since the lives and life chances of the British people.’

The establishment of the NHS was, of course, one of the great legislative achievements of the 1945-51 Labour government. Yet we lack resonant images of this foundational moment of British society and it is hard to think of visual monuments to it. Our dominant sense of British art in the late 1940s is focussed by the individual angst of Francis Bacon or the essentially rural neo-romanticism by the likes of John Piper and John Craxton. The urban images of the moment are the oppressive industrial landscapes of L.S. Lowry. Barbara Hepworth, by contrast, gives us a forward-looking and collective vision which is optimistic and redolent of a new Jerusalem. Together, we are making a new world.

The contrast with Henry Moore’s wartime drawings from the underground is instructive. Many of his figures are horizontal and passive, whereas Hepworth’s surgeons and nurses stand ready to begin their work or are involved in active co-operation. Moore’s palette is dark and dominated by earth colours, while Hepworth uses brighter blues and greens.

The art historian David Alan Mellor has reflected (in an important essay in Tate’s 2010 Henry Moore catalogue) on the Gothic horror qualities and what he calls ‘the sense of abjection’ in the shelter drawings. They are, he writes, ‘over-written with deathly decay and putrefaction, becoming, in their phosphorescent colours, polluted abstractions’. The Hospital Drawings, by contrast, are clean, clear and sterile, with no trace of blood or broken bone.

Unlike Moore’s anonymous sleepers and watchers, the faces sketched by Hepworth combine individual elements of portraiture (including her own in certain works) with the surgical mask that is common to all. Men and women are at the same level (and there are very few drawings featuring just an individual), surgeons and nurses working together, serene and secure with a common task.

Prevision, 1948

The masks, along with the close groupings and the shared attention of all those involved, underpin this sense of social and collective activity. There is too a quietly heroic quality about these people, but this is a long way from the conventional depiction of agricultural or industrial exemplars.

Is it also too fanciful to think that these are in some way beings from a time to come, ethereal anthropoids from a science fiction fantasy, in which bodies are abstracted, perfected even, and dedicated to achievements of scientific endeavour and healing?

Yet at the same time these are simply dedicated men and women working for a health service that, as the committed Labour supporter Hepworth would have believed, was to become one of the glories of post-war Britain. As indeed it did, even though it is now being systematically torn apart by the current government. Which makes these remarkable drawings all the more poignant and, lest we forget, all the more significant.

Lead image: detail from Radial, 8 December 1947; all images are © Bowness, Hepworth Estate.

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