Barbara Hepworth

The Hepworth papers: why the delay?

Despite the sculptor’s wishes, Alan Bowness has failed to hand her papers over to the Tate

Barbara Hepworth’s papers have still not been given to the Tate Archive, nearly twenty years after her death. Her correspondence is in the possession of Sir Alan Bowness, the sculptor’s son-in-law and former Tate director, who now promises that the letters will eventually be handed over in 1996.

Hepworth wanted her papers to go to the Tate Archive and Bowness’s decision to hold on to them has led to an open split among her executors. Sir Norman Reid, a fellow executor and another ex-director of the Tate, told The Art Newspaper that the long delay in implementing Hepworth’s wishes is very regrettable.

“I quite understand the impatience of scholars who want to see the Hepworth correspondence. I very much regret that the material has not yet seen the light of day”, Sir Norman said. As Bowness’s predecessor at the Tate, Reid encouraged Hepworth to leave her papers to the newly established archive.

Lack of accessibility to the papers has also restricted the scope of the Tate Gallery’s

Hepworth exhibition, which closes this month in Liverpool and then moves to the United States and Canada. “If the archives had been opened up some years ago, we would have been able to present a fully comprehensive retrospective, rather than what is a reintroduction of a forgotten artist”, said exhibition curator Penelope Curtis.

Bowness, who is the only person to have seen the Hepworth papers, admits it is “one of the richest archives of a twentieth-century British artist”. It consists of tens of thousands of papers, equivalent to the contents of several filing cabinets. Among the documents is correspondence with her galleries, both Gimpel Fils and Marlborough, and friends such as Adrian Stokes, Herbert Read and Margaret Gardiner.

It is thanks to Bowness that most of the Hepworth papers have been preserved. After he married her daughter Sarah in 1957 he suggested that the sculptor should save all her correspondence. Hepworth was appointed a trustee of the Tate in 1965 and when the gallery’s archive was established four years later it seemed the most appropriate place for them. In a codicil to her will dated 29 March 1974, Hepworth offered the Tate “all correspondence of potential historical interest”. She died in a fire at her St Ives studio on 20 May 1975, leaving an estate worth £2.8 million.

Hepworth had named four executors in her will. These were her son-in-law Bowness; Sir Norman Reid (Tate director 1964-79); her solicitor Anthony Lousada (also chairman of the Tate Trustees 1967-69); and her accountant David Jenkins.

The terms of Hepworth’s will are complicated. A general cause allowed her executors “to retain any works of art of property” for a maximum of twenty-one years, a period which therefore expires in 1996. However, in the codicil giving her papers to the Tate, she specified that the correspondence should be closed to researchers for “a period of ten years from my death”, suggesting that she assumed they would be deposited there soon after she died.

Bowness says that he has retained the papers because he wants “to sort them and use them for my Hepworth biography”.

Bowness admits that he has not yet finished reading through all the correspondence, although he had begun to sort the material. Papers which are of no significance are likely to be discarded, but the bulk of the documentation will go to the Tate Archive. Documents which are particularly sensitive, such as those involving Hepworth’s four children, are likely to be embargoed until the early decades of the next century.

The other reason for the delay in handing over the papers to the Tate is that Bowness is writing a biography of his mother-in-law and wants first use of the material. “A biography was expected–and it fell to me to do it. The book will be an authorised biography”, he said.

Bowness admits that twenty years is a long time to have held on to the material, but points to his other commitments. After Hepworth’s death he helped turn her St Ives studio into a museum. He then served as director of the Tate 1980-88. His next post was as director of the Henry Moore Foundation, a job which became much more time-consuming than had been anticipated because of the legal disputes with Moore’s daughter Mary Danowski. Finally, Bowness also sorted the papers of Hepworth’s second husband, the artist Ben Nicholson, which were purchased by the Tate when he was director. These have now been deposited at the Tate Archives. Most of the Nicholson documents were opened up to researchers last July, although over 300 letters from Hepworth to Nicholson remain under embargo until 1996.

Last February Bowness retired from the Henry Moore Foundation and he has at last started his Hepworth biography. He hopes to finish the book next year and is now in dis-cussion with possible publishers.

Bowness told The Art Newspaper that in 1980, when he took over as Tate director, he advised his fellow executors that he would not be able to hand over the Hepworth papers until after he had relinquished his responsibilities at the gallery. It does not appear that the other trustees formally agreed to his proposal, although they do not seem to have objected. Reid now says that he regrets the situation. Jenkins was unavailable for comment when we went to press and Lousada died last June.

Among the scholars who have been frustrated by the delay is Sally Festing, author of what is billed as the first full biography of the sculptor since her death. “Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms” is to be published by Viking next May.

In 1991, when she started work, Festing was told by the Tate that the Hepworth papers would be available two years later. It is understood that this date was given as a result of a commitment made by Bowness. When she then asked to see the correspondence in 1993, the Tate admitted that there had been a further delay.

Festing believes that “it is a distortion of twentieth-century art history that the archives of such an important figure are suppressed”. However she admits that some of Hepworth’s friends ended up giving her greater cooperation because they were annoyed that the papers had not been made available.

Access to the Hepworth papers has even been barred to the curators of the Tate’s own exhibition in Liverpool, although it was Bowness who as director of the Tate set up the gallery. The Hepworth show opened in September and runs until 4 December. It then moves to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven (4 February-9 April 1995) and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (19 May-7 August).

Bowness and his other executors have been generous in making loans to the exhibition. Of the eighty-five sculptures on show, fourteen were lent by the Hepworth estate, as well as drawings. But despite a request by the Tate’s exhibition organisers to see the papers, the former director of the Tate refused permission.

Curtis, who was exhibition curator at the Tate Liverpool until her appointment earlier this year as head of the Henry Moore Centre for the Study of Sculpture, admits that in her contribution to the catalogue she had to concentrate on Hepworth’s public work. “If I had been given access to the archives I would also have written more about the private work which Hepworth made for herself”, she said.

Legally, Hepworth’s executors may be entitled to hold onto her papers, but it has to be asked whether they have followed the request in her will that they exercise their powers in “such a way as to uphold and extend my reputation as a sculptor and artist”.

Bowness says that he sees this primarily in terms of the loan of works of art. He also believes it is proper that his own book should be the first biography to be based on the archival material. But Bowness’s critics argue that it is unfortunate that such a distinguished art historian and gallery administrator has effectively barred an entire generation of scholars from access to the Hepworth papers.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 43 December 1994