Letters reveal postnatal crisis of Barbara Hepworth

Previously unpublished correspondence sheds new light on artist’s struggle to pursue career while caring for triplets alone

For decades, Barbara Hepworth has been portrayed as a coldly ambitious artist who sent her children away when they were infants so that she could focus on her work. Now, however, that view is to be challenged by previously unpublished letters showing how deeply Hepworth struggled to care alone for her newborn triplets, and how she agonised over what to do for the best.

Hepworth’s plunge into postnatal crisis, revealed in a major new book about the Hampstead modernists, is detailed in letters written by her and her friends in the aftermath of the babies’ birth in 1934. They shed new light on Hepworth’s feelings about her children and her relationship with their father, the artist Ben Nicholson.

Trapped in a damp and dingy flat in Hampstead, north London, with three newborns who were deemed too delicate to be taken outside, Hepworth confides: “I knew fear for the first time in my life”. She cried “for days on end” after the birth, her friend and patron Margaret Gardiner recalls later: “She couldn’t stop.”

Nicholson, who was in an open marriage, went back to his wife Winifred and three other children in Paris. “Barbara was essentially left as a single mum, looking after the triplets in a basement flat, and the nurses that she employed couldn’t really cope. One nurse left,” said Caroline Maclean, author of Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists.

Hepworth found herself stuck indoors for weeks on end with three small babies and her four-year-old son. “She couldn’t really take the babies out. It was winter and the babies had a very low birth weight – there was some concern about whether they would even survive,” Maclean said.

In the letters Hepworth describes herself as “very weak” after the birth and writes to Nicholson that the flat is damp and cramped: “The gas is leaking, the boiler’s leaking and the window’s falling in.”

When she finds a “light, airy, very green and spacious” nursery training college in Golders Green that can house and care for the triplets, providing each with a professional nursemaid, she is tempted – but torn. “She wrote all sorts of desperate letters to Ben about how the responsibility of trying to make the decision on her own is awful,” said Maclean, an art historian. “The thought of not having them with her made her deeply unhappy, but the thought of not being able to do her work also made her deeply unhappy.”

The idea that it was best for children to be brought up collectively by a community of adults was popular at the time, particularly with Hepworth’s friend and neighbour, the influential art critic Herbert Read. He encouraged her to send the children to the nursery college, the letters show. Eventually, after agonising over the decision for weeks, she and Nicholson agreed she should take his advice. The babies left her care when they were about four months old.

Hepworth with her work Sphere and the Inner Form, in her studio at St Ives in 1963.
Hepworth with her work Sphere and the Inner Form, in her studio at St Ives in 1963. Photograph: AP

They remained at the nursery, where Hepworth could visit them often, until they were more than a year old. “Hepworth has historically been seen as quite career-driven,” said Maclean. “But she was also trying to make the right choice for her babies. She adored them – the descriptions of the babies in the letters to Ben is extraordinary.”

The more traditional view of Hepworth as an ambitious woman who farmed out her babies so she could devote herself to her sculptures has its roots in the sexism that can often be directed towards female artists, Maclean said.

In fact, she said, Hepworth was trying her best to juggle motherhood with her work, and her ambitions were relatively modest. She told a friend: “I’m not fit to live with unless I can do some work – even an hour a day keeps me civilised.”

When the triplets returned to her, she created an arrangement in her studio using music and poetry that enabled her to easily pick up her work following interruptions from either her children or domestic duties. “It’s very interesting thinking about it now,” said Maclean, “as our lives are overlapping in these ways in lockdown.”

She decided to write the book, set to be published on 30 April, because she grew up in Hampstead and wanted to read a group biography of the famous modernist artists who lived there during the 1930s. But it didn’t exist. “This is the first biography looking at these artists in a decade, a time and a place,” she said.

After Hepworth moved into Mall Studios – a building designed for “gentleman artists” in the 19th century, with three skylights in each studio and large north-facing windows – Nicholson inevitably followed her. So did many of their friends, including Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Herbert Read, Piet Mondrian and the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius. “They were all living in Hampstead at the same time, and they were all influencing each other. Their lives and their art overlap – and they’re not working in isolation, they’re collaborating with each other,” she said.


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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