She rose to international fame for her innovative sculptures, but without the support and encouragement of teachers at her Wakefield school, Barbara Hepworth’s talent may never have developed.
Now, due to the soaring prices her work is fetching inflating insurance costs, Wakefield Girls’ High School (WGHS) is selling two pieces by Hepworth - both with emotional back stories - at an auction at Sotheby’s tipped to raise £1m to fund a new scholarship in her name.
Hepworth, who was born in Wakefield, attended the school from the age of six.
There, her talent was recognised by then-headmistress Miss McCroben, who encouraged her to pursue her gift.
It was Miss McCroben who first introduced a young Hepworth to sculpture after an assembly featured a slideshow of Egyptian sculpture, and she went on to be her biggest champion when her artistry developed.
At the age of 15, when Hepworth told her teacher of her desire to pursue sculpting exclusively, the headmistress was the one who told her she could sit for a scholarship at Leeds College of Art the very next week. Even after she left the school, she continued to support the artist, later arranging lodgings for her when Hepworth moved to the Royal College of Art in London.
I shall never forget the joy of going to school and the gorgeous smell of the paint I was allowed to use, nor the inspiration and help the Headmistress, Miss McCroben, gave me.Dame Barbara Hepworth
Hepworth later spoke of her affection for the influential teacher: “I shall never forget the joy of going to school and the gorgeous smell of the paint I was allowed to use, nor the inspiration and help the Headmistress, Miss McCroben, gave me.”
It was undoubtedly these fond memories that of her school years that led to her providing the two pieces to the school - one at a vastly reduced sum, and the second a gift for her friend.
In 1959, a new headmistress, Margaret Knott, asked Hepworth to provide a sculpture for the opening of the school’s new gymnasium. By that point Hepworth was living in St Ives and was already being celebrated for her work, but choosing the piece was not a decision she made lightly.
She eventually decided upon a piece from 1956, Forms in Movement (Galliard), which was inspired by a 16th century dance and one of the sculptor’s first ventures into using sheet-metal as a material. Hepworth sold this at a special prices of 200 guineas – a price significantly reduced for the school.
The exchanges with Miss Knott were the beginnings of a firm friendship, and on her retirement from the school in 1973, Hepworth carved Quiet From especially for her friend, designed with her sitting room in mind.
In a letter to Miss Knott, Hepworth said: “I would be very happy indeed and honoured to have a work in your possession, and to fill a link with Wakefield... with my love to you and the school which I never forget.”
Miss Knott gave it back to the school in 2003, where it lived in the headmistress’s study, before, along with Forms in Movement, it was loaned to the Hepworth Wakefield for the gallery’s opening exhibition in May 2011.
But it was on their return to the school in 2014 and the pieces were re-assessed for insurance purposes, that the school realised their value had rocketed.
It was in June that year that a new record was set for Hepworth’s work when Figure for Landscape sold for £4.1m. The increased insurance prices meant that they were forced to put them into secure storage rather than on display.
The governors made the difficult decision to sell the pieces.
John McLeod, spokesman for the governors of Wakefield Grammar School Foundation, said: “Having Hepworth’s sculptures at the school was a profound reminder both of her achievements and of the nurturing, supportive ethos of which we are so proud. But as Hepworth’s market prices have rocketed, so have the costs of insurance and security.
“While this means that it is hard to justify devoting valuable – and limited – school resources to insurance costs, it also means that we have the unexpected opportunity to release significant funds, which can be used to afford other students just the kind of special opportunities Barbara Hepworth enjoyed.”
While details are not yet set, the scholarship could be used to support students studying the arts or in the sixth form, and will almost certainly bear the Hepworth name.
WGHS’s current head, Nina Gunson, herself a former pupil, said the school’s “most famous old girl” continued to be celebrated by the school. The art block is named after her, and bears a large photograph of Hepworth along with a quote about her time at the school.
“Just last week we had a lecture about the school during wartime when Barbara was mentioned,” she said. “Miss McCroben had taken a selection of ducks, geese and insects into the school and Barbara won second prize in an art competition for her drawing of a stick insect.
“The girls are immersed in the school’s history - of old girls, and our former heads.”
The two pieces will be auctioned by Sotheby’s on June 13. Quiet Form, which is made of white Servazevva marble, has a guide price of from £500,000 to £700,000; while Forms in Movement, is expected to raise from £250,000 to £300,000.
Sotheby’s Modern and Post-War British Art Specialist, Lydia Wingfield Digby, said the lots had already gained attention from international buyers and Quiet Form is now in New York being shown at Sotheby’s office there before the sale.
She said: “We’re very excited to be offering the works in our sale. What we’re most excited about is the stories behind the pieces. The school was really important to Hepworth’s future success.
“They created a self-belief in her and nurtured her talents.
“The demand for Hepworth at the moment is extremely strong and the two pieces have such a brilliant provenance behind them, that I am sure they will do very well.”