The Great British Art tour: half a Hepworth that became a whole

With public art collections closed we are bringing the art to you, exploring highlights and hidden gems from across the country in partnership with Art UK. Today’s pick: Orkney’s Oval Sculpture

Oval Sculpture was made by Barbara Hepworth in 1943. It is carved from plane wood with the interior painted white. It has been part of the Pier Arts Centre’s permanent collection since the gallery first opened in Stromness in 1979.

Margaret Gardiner, the founder of the Arts Centre, was a great friend of Hepworth, Ben Nicholson (Hepworth’s second husband) and many other artists working in Cornwall at the time. She saw this piece in a London art gallery in 1946 and tells the story (in a publication that marked the launch of the Pier Arts Centre) about how she came to purchase it.

At the Reid and Lefevre Gallery show in 1946 I stood for a long time looking at Barbara Hepworth’s carving, Oval Form. Opposite me, and looking at it with seemingly equal delight, was a man, a stranger.

‘If I could afford it, I’d buy that sculpture’ I said.

‘If I could afford it, I’d buy that sculpture’ he said.

On a sudden impulse, ‘Then why don’t we share it?’ I asked.

‘Why not, indeed?’ said he.

And so it was agreed. I discovered that his name was CS Reddihough, that he lived in Yorkshire and was a friend of Ben Nicholson’s and a great admirer of both Ben’s and Barbara’s work.

We shared Oval Form for many years. Reddihough would drive down to London and collect it and then, about six months later, he would bring it back to me. It was always with especial delight that I would see it again.

In the end Reddihough asked me to buy him out as he wished to get a painting of Ben’s that he couldn’t otherwise afford. I agreed, and so I acquired my ‘second half’ of the work.

I still have the invoice from the gallery which runs like this:

‘One carving by Barbara Hepworth in plane wood. “Oval Sculpture” 1944.

Your half-share …’

Which must, surely, be something of a rarity?

Contemporary artist Christine Borland has a longstanding fascination with Oval Sculpture, and in 2012 created a work – Oval Interior – that explores the interior spaces of Hepworth’s carving. Using 3D digital scanning technology the hollowed-out spaces were recreated as solid forms, revealing the appearance of space “hidden” within the sculpture.

Hepworth’s sculpture is much loved by gallery visitors and is often compared to natural forms including shells or caves – linking the sea-eroded landscape of Hepworth’s Cornish home to the shores that surround the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney.