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Feature Christmas 2012: Yesterday’s World

Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 19 December 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8529
  1. Richard Cork, art critic, historian, broadcaster, and curator
  1. richardcork{at}

Nobody could have guessed that Barbara Hepworth’s contact with a surgeon would suddenly produce, after the second world war, an outstanding series of drawings inspired by hospital operations.1 She was, after all, renowned for her controversial achievements as an abstract sculptor. So why did she start work on these powerful images of surgeons, while tirelessly visiting operating theatres in Exeter and London as her fascination with the subject deepened?

Hepworth’s involvement with operations began in 1944, when her young daughter Sarah had osteomyelitis. After Sarah was bandaged “in plaster of Paris from head to toe,” Hepworth’s anxiety became intense. But even then, she was fascinated enough to notice that “the moulding of plaster jackets . . . was very near to my own profession.” As Sarah’s illness became protracted, Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson found the medical bills ever more daunting. Yet she received heartwarming sympathy and support from the surgeon Norman Capener. Unlike so many British art lovers of that period, he relished modern art at its most adventurous. Capener was an amateur painter, and was particularly fascinated by the mutually rewarding relation between avant-garde art and music. He told Nicholson that Hepworth’s sculpture had “a very striking similarity to Bach’s more abstract work.” Capener began purchasing her art, and he also backed up their friendship by waiving his surgeon’s fee.

In the summer of 1947, Capener sensed that Hepworth’s central involvement with the structure of the human body might mean that she would find stimulus in observing an operation. He had transferred the ailing Sarah from a modest Cornish hospital, near Hepworth’s home in St Ives, to the far larger Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter. Capener seized his moment when he stayed in St Ives to recover from jaundice. Visiting Hepworth, he asked her if …

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