Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth in The Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Picture by Jonty Wilde.

Lady Hale, Judge and Lord Temporal, on Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BH Well, there are lots of beautiful things in the world, but it was the thing that I have seen most recently that took my breath away as a work of art.

GB And you chose something related to family, which has been a huge part of your work. Do you think this is an idealised family or can there be no such thing?

BH Well, I suspect it’s not an idealised family. I suspect that it’s a family with all its faults and its problems and its worries and so on. I mean, looking at it, it’s not a comfortable work of art at all.

GB Does it resonate with the opening of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

BH I don’t agree with that. I agree that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. I actually think that all happy families are happy in their own way as well.

GB And as a feminist, would you have called the group Family of Woman?

BH I don’t know what Barbara Hepworth would have thought when she did it a long time ago. But some of the most beautiful shapes there are the women. 

GB It’s amazing how many parallels you and Barbara Hepworth have in your lives and backgrounds. Does that make her work more beautiful to you?

BH No, I don’t think so. No, I think it just is beautiful. And of course, where I saw it recently was in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, very close to where she grew up. And it just grows out of the ground in a most organic but beautiful way. That’s why it’s so spectacular.

GB Modernism as a movement really wanted to challenge traditional views of beauty in art and there were all those angry manifestos at the time, but Barbara Hepworth absolutely believed in beauty. Do you believe that there’s a universal beauty?

BH No, I’m not sure that I believe in a universal beauty. I think what I believe is that there is beauty in many more things than conventional beauty. Conventional, Western European, Greco Roman, Renaissance, all of that is lovely. But there are many other ways to beauty and Barbara Hepworth is an example of that. So is Henry Moore and so are lots of modern sculptors who produce really beautiful objects. So, I’m not sure I believe in universal beauty but I believe in beauty being a very malleable concept.

GB But would you be surprised if somebody didn’t find this group of sculptures beautiful?

BH No, I wouldn’t be surprised because there will be people who would like them to look more like real people. 

GB Yes, there’s something quite primitive about them. And I’m wondering if family means the same thing to you, as you look back on generations or forward to future generations.

BH Our visions of the family have changed over centuries, obviously, the purpose of the family has changed, over generations. And yet, what always struck me when I was a family judge, was the strength of family feeling. I mean, even when there were quite dysfunctional family cases going on, nevertheless, that sense of relationship, that sense of knowing more about the other people than anybody else in the whole wide world and the sense of love, and support was really palpable in some of the most dysfunctional families.

GB Barbara Hepworth talks about her work as religious and passionate and magical and a life-giving purposeful force. Do see a spiritual dimension in it? 

BH Oh yes. But then I think that’s true of most great art. And I think it’s particularly easy to experience when you’re in the big wide world in the open air, as those sculptures are. But think of all our great cathedrals and how you feel about the spirituality of great art when you’re in any of those wonderful buildings. I was in Ripon Cathedral last week, which is probably the closest of the ancient cathedrals to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and it is a magnificent building and you feel very connected with a wider dimension than the earthly one that you’re mostly associated with.

BH Barbara Hepworth sculptures have this amazing simplicity to them. And is that something that attracts you?

BH You say, simplicity? I’m not sure it’s that simple. Take one look and they’ve got a similarity, but really look at them and they’re all very different. How you can produce a different sensation, a different vibe, out of these sculptures, even though the essential ingredients are much the same, I think that’s part of the huge skill.

GB That’s really interesting, because in a way, you must like complexity. Our law is so complicated.

BH I’m at home with complexity. But I think the solution to complexity has to be as much simplicity as you can build into it. And now we come to talk about it, I think that maybe that’s one of the reasons why that particular set of sculptures speaks so powerfully, because it looks simple. But when you look at it more carefully, it isn’t simple. It is quite complicated. I like that.

GB I’ve spoken to a few neuroscientists about what happens in our brain when we have an aesthetic experience. And they think that there’s a sort of millisecond of evolved response. We prefer complex landscapes because they’re safer. And we like symmetrical faces and all that kind of thing. But then our mind is flooded with memories and associations. Do you think that’s true of your response? When you look at something like this work?

BH Probably. I’ll defer to the experts as I always do. But I think most of our brains are indulging in really quite complicated experiences all the time. There’s a lot going on around us and we may choose to notice it all or not.

GB I think that theory makes sense when you look at your spider brooch because it’s so powerful by association with that moment in history. I think in a way, it became emblematic of that moment to people. I know there are crazy conspiracies that there is about you wearing it to give a message. I think it became more beautiful in people’s eyes, because something powerful was being achieved.

BH I think that’s other people’s interpretation. And had I realised the symbolism a spider might be taken to have in the situation, I’d probably have chosen to wear something else. And then it would have been a frog, or it would have been a dragonfly or butterfly. And then people would have made something of that. 

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

BH Worthy is not a very interesting word, because worthy tends to connote deserving which is a moral judgement and I’m not happy with that because I think that the appreciation of beauty is an aesthetic judgement. I don’t think it’s a moral judgement. In fact, we can find beauty in things that possibly are not morally very attractive. I can’t think of an example at the moment, but what I want to do is draw a distinction between moral and aesthetic work. I think of those as two very different things.

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