Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings are a carefully-observed homage to the ‘craft’ of surgery. The drawings present her vision of the surgeons as followers of a vocation, connected to the artist’s vocation—‘to restore and to maintain the beauty and grace of the human mind and body’ (2013 ). They also coincide with a pivotal moment in British medical history: the creation of a national publicly-funded health service (the NHS).
Commentators on the drawings often note how much they resemble the great religious paintings of the Renaissance (Launer 2016: 367). Hepworth responds to the profound seriousness, the shared encounter with mystery, in the everyday work of the operating theatre. The grouped figures’ reverence is suggested not only by their bowed heads, but also in the intense work of their hands, at the centre of this and many of the other hospital drawings. The surgeon’s work is his or her ‘concentration’. The face of the patient does not appear, but it is hard to tell where the bodies of the surgeons end and the body of the patient begins. Even at the point where there is the greatest imbalance of agency and power, the patient’s life in the surgeons’ hands, we are reminded of their shared embodiment, and hence of their shared vulnerability. We are—including Hepworth, the observer who identifies with the surgeons and recalls her own young daughter’s recent major surgery—all in this together.
As I write these commentaries under Covid-19 lockdown, Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings have acquired new poignancy and urgency. The presence of the surgeons’ masks—which in 2020 have come to signify their, not the patient’s, need for protection—draws our thoughts, not only to the fragility of the individual body under the surgeons’ knives, but also to a societal crisis in which the sense of being overwhelmed and consumed (Psalm 90:7) and of crying ‘how long?’ (v.13) is pervasive.
Concentration of Hands engages the crisis at its heart, and concentrates attention on active compassion and hope for healing. It bespeaks the compassion for which the psalmist cries out, divine compassion mediated in the ordinary actions of vulnerable hands that exercise the ‘sharp compassion of the healer’s art’ (Eliot, ‘East Coker’ IV).
Eliot, T. S. 1940. ‘East Coker’ (London: Faber & Faber)
Hepworth, Barbara. 2013 . ‘Sculpture and the Scalpel’, Tate Etc., 27: 13
Launer, John. 2016. ‘The Hospital Drawings of Barbara Hepworth’, Postgraduate Medical Journal, 92: 367–68
90Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place
in all generations.
2Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.
3Thou turnest man back to the dust,
and sayest, “Turn back, O children of men!”
4For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
5Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream,
like grass which is renewed in the morning:
6in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
7For we are consumed by thy anger;
by thy wrath we are overwhelmed.
8Thou hast set our iniquities before thee,
our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
9For all our days pass away under thy wrath,
our years come to an end like a sigh.
10The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11Who considers the power of thy anger,
and thy wrath according to the fear of thee?
12So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on thy servants!
14Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
16Let thy work be manifest to thy servants,
and thy glorious power to their children.
17Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish thou the work of our hands upon us,
yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.