Published  09/04/2013

Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings

Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
16 February–2 June 2013

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, is showing Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings. The show coincides with the 65th anniversary year of the launch of Britain’s pioneering National Health Service in 1948. A groundbreaking change within Post-War Britain society, the NHS was embraced by artists like Hepworth, who supported the broad left ideals behind the social reconstruction of Britain, to develop a fairer, more inclusive society.

Barbara Hepworth is one of Britain’s most important sculptors of abstract forms. Her naturalistic drawing, however, is relatively unknown, but shows her exemplary skill. As a unique record of the surgeon at work, Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings also reveal the importance of drawing as a fundamental process for her later sculptures. The exhibition at Pallant House allows Studio International the rare chance to have a senior Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon, Mr Kevin Kane, whose interest in art history has seen him gravitate towards the work of Barbara Hepworth, carrying out independent research in England. His admiration for these works was precipitated when the Society of ENT Surgeons in Australia was bequeathed a number of related works by Hepworth. It is appropriate therefore, that Hepworth herself, observed: “There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors.”

The Surgical Art Of The Sculptor Barbara Hepworth


In the 1940s Barbara Hepworth, the British artist and sculptor, met the two surgeons, Norman Capener (an Orthopaedic Surgeon in Exeter) and Garnett Passe (an ENT Surgeon practicing in London) and in 1947 was invited to their hospitals to view them operating. She immediately became fascinated by the whole drama and rhythm of the operating theatre, which moved her to later write:

From the moment when I entered the operating theatre I became completely absorbed by two things: first the extraordinary beauty of purchase and coordination between human beings, all dedicated to the saving of life … and the way that unity of idea and purpose dictated a perfection of concentration, movement and gesture and secondly by the way this special grace (grace of mind and body) induced a spontaneous grace composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work.1

Over the next two years, she made frequent visits to both surgeons’ hospitals and the experience sparked one of the most remarkable series of surgical paintings and drawings ever produced in Western art.

Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903 and later studied sculpture at the London Royal College of Art. She was a fellow student of Henry Moore and the two became colleagues and friends for the rest of their lives. Many art historians consider Hepworth to be Moore’s heir and successor, as a major British sculptor.

She first met the Orthopaedic Surgeon, Norman Capener, in 1943 when one of her triplets (a daughter, Sarah) had contracted osteomyelitis of the femur. Sarah was the third of the triplets born to Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in Hampstead, London, in October 1934. This illness required regular attendances to the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Centre in Exeter, Devon after their move to St Ives.

Norman Capener made frequent visits from Exeter to the London clinic in Harley Street to stay in touch with his colleagues and it was there that Hepworth was introduced to Garnett Passe. Edward Roland Garnett Passe was an Australian ENT surgeon practising in London. He graduated from the University of Melbourne as a dentist but travelled to London in 1926 and finished a medical degree there. He became an Otolaryngologist (ENT Surgeon) in the later 1920s and early 1930s and developed an early fascination with the surgery of deafness, particularly the disease otosclerosis.

Hepworth and her artist husband had settled in St Ives, Cornwall in 1939 with the triplets immediately before the outbreak of war. With a group of other artists including Naum and Mirium Gabo, Adrian Stokes, Bernard Leach and Peter Lanyon, they founded the St Ives School of Artists and later the Penwith Society of Arts which was to become world renowned.

From 1947 to1949, Hepworth produced nearly 100 drawings and paintings to make up the surgical series. The orthopaedic series is comprised of 60 works of paintings and drawings and there are 6 paintings and 28 drawings that make up the ear surgical series. The Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Foundation in Melbourne hold one of the six ear surgical works, The Fenestration Series. One of the orthopaedic paintings (The Clinic No. 2) is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The story of Garnett Passe and the later establishment of the Foundation to honour his name is one of high romance and epic ideals. In 1933 Garnett Passe published a book entitled The Singing Voice containing several illustrations by a Miss B. Slatter, a beautiful art student living in London, who was later to become his wife. Barbara Hope Slatter was born in Kenya and lived in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She was later educated in England and trained as an artist at the Edinburgh College of Arts. She married Garnett Passe in December 1939 just as European hostilities were commencing.

In the earlier part of the 20th Century little could be done to alleviate deafness apart from the prescription of rudimentary hearing aids. This was particularly so with the disease of otosclerosis where the tiny stirrup bone (the stapes) becomes fixed by an overgrowth of bone. It is thus unable to vibrate and the transmission of airborne sound is prevented from reaching the inner ear fluids where transduction of sound is passed into the nerve endings to reach the brain.

Garnett Passe developed an early fascination with this problem. In 1937 he met the New York surgeon Julius Lempert who was to develop and popularize the first effective surgical operation for otosclerosis called the One Stage Fenestration Procedure. This involved creating a small window (fenestra) into the inner ear mechanism involved in balance thus gaining access to the inner ear fluids for sound to travel into, bypassing the fixed immobile stirrup bone (stapes).

During the war, Garnett Passe was stationed in Bermuda and in periods of leave was able to visit Julius Lempert in New York, renewing his acquaintance and learning all there was to know about this new operation. After the war, Garnett Passe was to develop a considerable name for himself in Europe in popularizing and advancing this first effective surgical operation for this condition.

It was probably Norman Capener who invited Barbara Hepworth to the London clinic where she would have been introduced to Garnett Passe. Later she was invited to view the new ear procedure that he was performing. Between April and May 1948 she painted six oil and pencil works on board which became The Fenestration Ear Series. Ben Nicholson, her husband, prepared the ground of the board used. 2 She also made a sketchbook of some 28 drawings from which the paintings were reworked. The sketchbook is held in the permanent collection of the Science Museum in London.

The titles and location of the six paintings that constitute the Fenestration Series are set out in Table 1 (courtesy of J. Booth) where an excellent description of the Fenestration Series of paintings can be found in his article: Window of the Ear, Barbara Hepworth and the Fenestration Series of Drawings.3

Table 1.

1. The Beginning. GPRW Foundation, Melbourne
2. The Hammer. Tate Gallery, London
3. The Lamp. Leeds City Art Gallery
4. The Microscope. Spink-Leger Gallery, London
5. The Magnifying Glass. Bolton Museum and Art Gallery
6. Blue Drapery. Location unknown

The Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Foundation (GPRWF) holds the first of the series The Beginning which was bequeathed to it by Barbara Williams, Garnett Passe’s widow. The painting shows a robed surgeon and his two assistants with two masked bystanders including a gowned nurse. The surgeon wearing a headlight holds an instrument and may be commencing the procedure by incising the skin as the title TheBeginning suggests. This painting is of particular interest for as Chris Stephens4 of the London Tate Gallery and an expert on Barbara Hepworth has suggested the figure in the left hand background of the painting may be a self-portrait of Hepworth herself. According to Norman Capener,5 she had already used this idea in the Orthopaedic series of paintings in the work entitled Concourse 2, the last of this series held by the Royal College of Surgeons in London where she furtively placed herself.

The larger body of 64 plus orthopaedic paintings and drawings are similarly scattered around the world. This series consists of 30 pencil and oil paintings and 30 or more drawings and sketches. In 1948 a large body of these sketches was exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery in London. Norman Capener wrote the introduction to the catalogue anonymously, signing himself “A Surgeon”.

One of these works is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased in 1958. It is titled The Clinic No. 2, 1947 and is of pencil and white oil ground on wood. The scene depicts a seated Orthopaedic doctor and a mother with a child on her knee surrounded by a veiled nursing sister and other nurses or hospital staff. The identity of the child is unknown. It is not Hepworth’s daughter, Sarah, as the child in the picture is far too young.

This operating room experience and subsequent two-year immersion in producing this oeuvre had a profound effect on Hepworth’s perspective and aesthetic. David Baxandale, Director of the National Gallery of Scotland, wrote in his introduction to the catalogue, Barbara Hepworth Retrospective Exhibition 1927-1954,6this was a complete change from the purely abstract drawings and sculptures of the previous 12 years. The reawakened interest in the human form, which also led to many fine figure drawings, brought about a change in the later sculpture”.

As Paul Bowness, Hepworth’s grandson, has pointed out7 before the war she worked with single abstract forms but her operating theater experience drew her attention to large groups of people working in unity and harmony towards a single purpose. After the operation series, she focused on multi-form abstract sculptures.

Further, Paul Bowness states: “the operation drawings concentrate on the participants’ eyes and hands. Hepworth used the homogeneity of theatre dress to veil the figure (and gender) and a green wash to blend dress and background. The eyes repeatedly direct our attention to the hands (often folded), a pose that the artist found prayer-like and peaceful.” The combination of precision and strength needed for orthopaedic operations must have seemed remarkably akin to her own expertise in carving marble, especially when hammer and chisel were used.

Hepworth had a particular interest in hand operations. She wrote: “the anatomy of the unconscious hand, exposed and manipulated by the conscious hand with scalpel, expresses vividly the creative inspiration of superb co-ordination in contrast to the unconscious mechanism.”

There are only five drawings however of arm and hand operations out of a total of 61 works. The majority, 36, are general views of the operating theatre and personnel in various poses and actions, reminiscent of Edgar Degas’ ballet scenes.

In 1952 Garnett Passe and his wife, Barbara, were extremely happy. The war years were a fading memory and the hardships endured of separation, wartime danger, and later setting up a practice in London with little money and debts had been overcome. A photograph taken in Malta the previous year whilst on holiday shows a fit and glamorous-looking couple relaxing in each other’s company.

Garnett Passe at about this time had developed essential hypertension and had been advised by doctors to reduce his workload and spend time relaxing. He took up sculpture lessons with their friend, Barbara Hepworth. In August of that year, whilst returning to London after a two-week holiday with Barbara Hepworth at her studio in St Ives, he collapsed in the car from a massive haemorrhage and died in his wife’s arms at the age of 48.

He left Barbara, his relatively young widow of 43, in comfortable circumstances with a house in central London and a good income. This allowed her to mix in a sophisticated London society where she eventually met Rodney Williams, a fifth generation wealthy American stockbroker of New York. He was visiting London to attend the grouse-shooting season in Scotland. They married in 1968 and Barbara moved to the east coast of the United States, taking up residence in one of his homes in Charleston, South Carolina rather than the estate outside Boston, which she found too cold. She kept the London house in Weymouth Street for their twice-yearly London visits that included the grouse-shooting season.

Discussions had already commenced as early as 1962 between Barbara and surgeons in Australia to set up a memorial trust both to honour the name of her late husband, Garnett Passe, and also to assist struggling young surgeons and their families in gaining experience overseas.

Rodney Williams died in 1984 and left much of his fortune to his widow Barbara. This new wealth dramatically altered her vision and she decided to enlarge and establish the current foundation as a Memorial Trust under the names of both of her husbands, Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams, and also to create a charter dedicated to ‘charitable, scientific, and educational purposes including the advancement in Australia and other countries of the specialty of Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose and Throat) and the related medical, surgical and paramedical fields’.

The Trust was established in the early 1990s and funding has been applied to the creation of new University Chairs of Otolaryngology, to a vast amount of research including cancer research, to the funding of various projects that assisted in the development of the cochlear implant in Melbourne and the training of the next generation of Australian academic Otolaryngologists. It is the largest private bequest ever made to Australian medicine.

The Dame Barbara Hepworth Estate is based in London and promotes her name and artworks. One of the three trustees is Sir Alan Bowness, Art Historian, formerly Professor of Art History at the Courtauld Institute, past Director of the Tate Gallery in London and Director of the Henry Moore Foundation. He married Sarah, the youngest of Dame Barbara Hepworth’s triplets already mentioned, and the child whose osteomyelitis of the leg was treated by Norman Capener thus starting this whole intriguing story.

Recently the Hepworth Foundation informed Melbourne that it possessed a hitherto unknown and unpublished work called The Mouth Operation or The Tonsillectomy, a painting depicting Garnett Passe as surgeon performing a Tonsillectomy most probably at the London Clinic. The Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Foundation recently purchased this painting.

The work painted in 1948 is of oil and pencil on board similar to the other paintings in the surgical series and of the same size measuring 20 x 24 inches. There are three other figures in the picture beside the patient. The seated surgeon Garnett Passe, possibly wearing a head mirror, is looking into the pharynx of the patient who is in the Tonsillectomy position. The mirror has a toggle, presumably for adjustment, on its lower border or it could possibly be a light bulb. A review of the surgical catalogues of the time has failed to identify it.

There is neither visible anaesthetic tube, nor obvious Boyle-Davis gag but presumably one is in place, as the patient’s mouth appears widely open. It is doubtful if the operation is being performed under local anaesthetic with the patient in this supine position with hyperextension of the head. It is possible that a general anaesthetic utilising a mask and chloroform or similar agent was being used. There appears to be a mechanical arm with a right-angled extension coming up from the region of the patient’s chest that may be an obsolete method of fixing the gag. Details may have been omitted for clarity of the image. There is no sign of a guillotine so presumably the tonsil dissection technique is being used. The careful inspection by the surgeon and delicate placement of the hands suggest this.

The assisting nurse in the Fenestration Series of paintings has been identified by John Booth3 as Margaret Moir and the nurse in this Tonsillectomy painting has the same facial characteristics of sharp pointy features and almond shaped eyes. However in the photograph 12a on page 10 of Booth’s article, she is seen wearing spectacles. The assisting nurse in all of the Fenestration paintings and sketches, as well as this Tonsillectomy painting, is without glasses.

Margaret Moir later moved to Cornwall after Garnett Passe’s death and became a general factotum to Lily MacDonald, the widow of Duncan MacDonald who was a director of the Lefevre gallery in London where Barbara Hepworth’s surgical series of paintings were exhibited. She also became a helper and secretary to Hepworth herself.

In the painting the assisting nurse, who is probably Sister Margaret Moir, stands to the patient’s right side in the usual position with what appears to be an instrument tray immediately in front of her. Curiously this seems to have the reflection of her hand on its shiny surface. There is no evidence of surgical instruments on the tray. A second nursing assistant watches on in the background.

It was Sir Alan Bowness who suggested that it would be appropriate for The Tonsillectomy painting in his possession to come to Melbourne, the birthplace of Garnett Passe the surgeon in the painting and the nominal patron of the Foundation.


1. Barbara Hepworth. A Pictorial Autobiography. Tate Publishing. 1970. pp 50.

2. Direct communication from Sir Alan Bowness.

3. Booth J B. Window of the Ear, Barbara Hepworth and the Fenestration Series of Drawings. J. Laryngol. Otol. 2000; 114. (Suppl. 26): 1-29.

4. Gale M, Stephens C. Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Gallery and the Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives. London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1999; 110-5.

5. Capener N, Concourse 2. Ann.R. Coll. of Surg. 1969; 45: 46-9.

6. Baxandale, D. Barbara Hepworth Retrospective Exhibition. 1927-1954. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery; 1954: 6.

7. Bowness P. Operation Drawings of Dame Barbara Hepworth.BMJ 1985; 291: 21-8.







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