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Arts on television: Barbara Hepworth & Andrew Lloyd Webber

“Your head is like the loveliest pebble I’ve ever seen” said the sculptor Barbara Hepworth to her second husband, artist Ben Nicholson

Kenneth Clark’s championship of the sculptor Henry Moore, and his neglect of Moore’s contemporary Barbara Hepworth, was a measure of the attitudes Hepworth had to contend with in her early career. To mark the centenary of her birth and to celebrate her achievement Alan Yentob’s Imagine … Barbara Hepworth: Shapes out of feelings pulled her story dramatically under the spotlight. He presented her as “a pioneer”, “the first great woman sculptor” determined “to make her mark in a world dominated by men”. This was a fine and visually appealing introduction to Hepworth, researched with the Estate’s co-operation. It did much to salvage the reputation of this populist arts strand after its disastrous launch. Beyond the dramatic headlines, “She had to fight tradition and prejudice to gain recognition”; “Despite her achievements as an artist, her reputation has been tainted by controversy”, the director Jamie Muir balanced a gripping human story with a close view of her work. Occasionally the elements fused in a memorable image, as when Hepworth wrote to Ben Nicholson, her new love, “Your head is like the most lovely pebble ever seen.”

When Hepworth gave birth to their triplets they farmed the babies out to the Welgarth Nursery training college for three years. Although jointly decided, it was Hepworth who was accused of being a ruthless and neglectful mother. The programme did well to bring in people who understood Hepworth’s dilemma in the context of her aspirations: David Lewis, her secretary in the early 1950s, Angela Connor, one-time assistant, Sir Alan Bowness, son-in-law and biographer, and Sarah (Lady Bowness), one of the triplets.

Sir Alan dealt with the significance of her professional relationships. With Henry Moore, confirming that it was Hepworth who first explored the effect of piercing through stone in 1931/2, and then with her second husband, Ben Nicholson. It is difficult to say who exercised the stronger influence, Sir Alan said. The giving was mutual. “But the whole concept of the relief painting, which was three-dimensional, is basically a sculptural idea, and I do not believe that Nicholson would have moved through to that had it not been for living with a sculptor.” Dr Penelope Curtis, curator of the 1994 Hepworth retrospective, shed light on the utopian quality of her work in the mid-1930s. It “looked refined and distant and uncommitted. But for her they were like models or sketches for a new life. It is hard for us to understand now but these were sculptures that represented the possibility of society changing.” Hepworth put it another way. It took her a long time, she said, “to discover the purest forms, which would exactly evoke my own sensations.”

The Art of Barbara Hepworth on BBC Four provided a perfect complement. This was a beautiful, smoothly unfolding sequence of sight and sound, composed of the artist’s own words, perhaps a little too passively delivered by Gina Mckee when compared with the more characterful voice heard on archive footage in “Imagine…”. It used location shots in the commemorative exhibitions at Tate St Ives (until 12 October) and at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and an accompanying reflection of Hepworth’s love of music.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite painting and other Victorian arts was a reminder of what a young progressive sculptor like Hepworth reacted against in the early 20th century. But Andrew Lloyd Webber is keen to highlight the positive links between aspects of Pre-Raphaelite painting and certain Moderns in his collection, such as Stanley Spencer and Blue-period Picasso. “The point I keep banging on about” is the link between Burne-Jones and a youthful admirer, Picasso, he told us in Andrew Lloyd Webber: The full picture. He pointed out stylistic similarities, rhythmic drawing and a dominant blue, which motivated the purchase of Edward Burne-Jones’s “The Fall of Lucifer” as well as Picasso’s portrait of Angel de Soto.

The programme treated us to an informal tour with Lord Lloyd-Webber of his London and country houses before the collection went on exhibition in the Royal Academy (until 12 December). The feature added little to the story of his rising popularity and riches (The Art Newspaper September 2003, No.139, p.27). More interestingly it bought us into the genial company of the man, offering insights into a collecting passion, which grew from an extraordinary amalgam of interests: music, theatre, art, history, and polychrome architecture. “Rock and Roll was equally there with Rossetti,” he explained. “All my passion about Victorian art began” when, aged nine, he visited William Burges’s folly Castell Coch, near Cardiff. He later commissioned a version of the drawing room ceiling for his country home, Sydmonton, complete with portraits of his cats perched in painted branches. London churches, too, opened “a fascinating treasure trove of art” that “I guess kept my life afloat. … The one that immediately made an impression was All Saints, Margaret Street. … For me,” he said, almost inarticulate with feeling in an interior packed with colour and decorative pattern, “it’s what it’s all about.” From schoolboy ownership of Dugdale’s handsomely engraved “Monasticon Anglicanum”, he focused on Pre-Raphaelite beauty. Burne-Jones was “an artist I absolutely wanted to collect from the word go”.

Some 40 years on what he has amassed is “not the whole history of Victorian art,” said Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy, but it is “very startling. It is absolutely amazing that we have been able to fill the largest gallery in the Royal Academy only with Burne-Jones.”

Equally prominent in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s collection are paintings of everyday life. “There is a lovely little crook here that a shepherd left behind,” he said, pointing it out in Holman Hunt’s tiny landscape “Fairlight Downs”. He likes, too, the vitality of Victorian city life shown “warts and all”. “Was that because it was part of society you were getting interested in, or because of the painting itself?” Melvyn Bragg asked. Because of the paintings, Andrew Lloyd Webber replied. But also because they reveal the painters’ thoughts about contemporary life. Taking us to Henshall’s “Behind the Bar”: “I love the mum feeding the baby with a little gin to keep it quiet. The whole atmosphere is absolutely here.”

You must take or leave Andrew Lloyd Webber’s reading of “two-dimensional cubism” in Burne-Jones’s crisp rendering of drapery. As you must take or leave his shifting forward some 50 years of the traditionally accepted high point of British art. He hopes the exhibition leaves the visitor with one thought, “that the Royal Academy was the epicentre of British art in the Victorian movement, and at that time British art produced arguably more great painters than at any other time in its history —Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Leighton. In many ways it was the golden era of British art.”

Imagine … Barbara Hepworth: Shapes out of feelings, BBC 1, 18 June. Presenter Alan Yentob. Reader Diana Quick. Executive producers Alan Yentob and Mark Harrison. Producer/director Jamie Muir.

The Art of Barbara Hepworth, Illuminations for BBC FOUR, 18 June. Reader Gina McKee. Produced in association with Sir Alan Bowness, Dr. Sophie Bowness. Director John Wyver. A full 49-minute version, thoroughly recommended, is available on VHS and dvd.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Full Picture. A South Bank Show Special, an LWT production for ITV, 19 September. Producer / Director Daniel Wiles. Editor / Presenter Melvyn Bragg

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Arts in broadcasting and television'