DAME BARBARA HEPWORTH DBE (1903-1975) Biography
MODERN BRITISH (20th Century ) Biography

Fenestration (The Microscope) (England, 1948)

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Pencil and oil on gesso-prepared board
Signed and dated Barbara Hepworth 1948, signed, inscribed and dated on reverse Barbara Hepworth/ 'Fenestration (the microscope)'/1948 (oil & pencil)


35.50cm high
45.80cm wide
(13.98 inches high)
(18.03 inches wide)
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Lefevre Gallery, 1948, sold to:
Private collection to 1996


John B.Booth, Window On The Ear: Barbara Hepworth and the Fenestration Series of Drawings, The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, volume 114, supplement no.26, Royal Society of Medicine Press, April 2000
James Holland Hibbert, Barbara Hepworth, Drawings from the 1940s, Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, London, 2005, illustrated page 61

Exhibition History

London, Lefrevre Gallery, Paintings by Barbara Hepworth, April 1948
London, Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, Barbara Hepworth, Drawings from the 1940s, Loan Exhibition, October-November 2005

Description / Expertise

Fenestration (The Microscope) is the final work in a sequence of six paintings illustrating the proceedings of the delicate `fenestration' operation of the ear. This revolutionary operation could cure patients of otosclerosis, a condition in which the stapes, a stirrup-shaped bone in the middle ear, had become rigid. Barbara Hepworth represents the various specialised instruments used by the surgeon to locate and put pressure on this delicate bone in order to mobilise it: The Hammer (Tate Gallery London), The Beginning (Foundation, Melbourne), The Lamp (Leeds City Art Gallery), The Magnifying Glass (Bolton Museum and Art Gallery), The Blue Drapery (whereabouts unknown), and the present work The Microscope. These paintings were made on scumbled and rubbed backgrounds which recalled Ben Nicolson's own.

Barbara Hepworth first `discovered' the aesthetics of surgery through Norman Carpener, the suave and charismatic Orthopaedic Surgeon at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Centre in Exeter, who in November 1943 treated her daughter Sarah for osteomyelitis of the left thigh in. The Capeners, who also had four young children, became close friends of the family, and in particular Barbara, whose sculpture Norman admired. He visited her at Chy-an-Kerris to learn how to carve, whilst she made return visits to Exeter. It was Norman who first suggested that she should watch first hand an operation in a hospital:

I expected that I should dislike it; but from the moment when I entered the operating theatre I became completely absorbed by two things: first, the co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of a 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), induce a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work.

We are all conditioned to seeing the nerveless kind of scurrying movement of modern life: dressed often in absurd clothes and with tense faces, blind to all but the necessity of working one's way through the crowds, we fight our way through the days and week' .. A particularly beautiful example of the difference between physical and spiritual animation can be observed in a delicate operation on the human hand by a great surgeon. The anatomy of the unconscious hand exposed and manipulated by the conscious hand with the scalpel, expresses vividly the creative inspiration of superb co-ordination in contrast to the unconscious mechanism.

Norman Capener wrote the introduction to the exhibition of paintings at the Lefevre Gallery in April 1948, signing himself anonymously as `A Surgeon'. Little perhaps do surgeons realise the classic beauty of their surroundings, a beauty based upon perfect architectural conditions - designed for a purpose; the focal point within a space, which whatever its shape becomes converted visually and mentally into a circle or sphere, a group of individuals, a massing of structures all arranged with simple economy, all with a movement towards one object, one purpose, all co-ordinated rhythmically and in harmony. Rarely has an artist been found with both stamina and vision who can perceive and portray the sincerity and harmony, the power and beauty, the rhythm and tenderness and the simple drama of the operating theatre. Barbara Hepworth has, in these surroundings, shown us the possibilities of symphonic grouping both physically and psychologically; the spirit of enquiry, the intensity of proper solicitude, the power of the craftsman, unhurried activity, energetic poise. And an uncanny sense of the unseen; indeed the sense of the good surgeon himself - always conscious of the unseen `person' beneath his hands and never callous of his `material'.