‘Wild Girl’: Gertrude Hermes

In the wake of Tate Britain’s summer retrospective Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in the work of early twentieth-century female sculptors. In her Sculpture Journal article ‘The ‘English Independents’: some twentieth-century women carvers’, Tate curator, Inga Fraser, notes that, in seeking to contextualise Hepworth’s period of early direct carving for the Tate exhibition, the question arose as to the nature and whereabouts of works by Hepworth’s less famous female contemporaries. In the wake of this research, Tate were able to exhibit two works by women sculptors as part of the exhibition: Recumbent Fawn by Elsie Henderson (1925) and Ursula Edgcombe’s Seated Female Figure (1931). Now The Hepworth Wakefield has brought the female sculptor and printmaker, Gertrude Hermes, to public attention, presenting the first UK retrospective of her work in thirty years. Whilst Hermes was a highly acclaimed printmaker during her own lifetime, her sculpture remains less well-known, with few works being housed in public collections. To remedy this lack of public awareness, The Hepworth Wakefield has used their exhibition to reunite the two-dimensional and three-dimensional work, bringing together all aspects of Hermes’ practice to offer a critical reassessment of her artistic output.

Although Hermes is hardly a household name, what emerges from the exhibition is the extent of her creative networks. In 1921 she enrolled in the Brook Green School of Drawing, where she studied with the artist, Leon Underwood, as well as Eileen Agar, Henry Moore and Blair Hughes-Stanton, whom she later married. In the exhibition’s superb opening archive display, a copy of the first edition of The Island, the short-lived magazine edited by Underwood, features a woodcut by Hermes. A series of photographs displayed nearby are testimony to Hermes’ friendship with Moore – Henry and Irina Moore are pictured with fellow artists Edna Ginesi and Raymond Coxon camping in Hermes’ garden on the occasion of the Moores’ honeymoon. Her connection with the influential director of Whitechapel Gallery, Bryan Robertson, who gave her a retrospective at Whitechapel in 1967, is also established by the inclusion of a copy of his 1981 article, ‘Artistic Survivors’, on Hermes and Agar in Harpers and Queen. Social networks extending beyond the purely visual arts are revealed too, particularly with literary figures, most notably with the children’s writer P. L. Travers, whom Hermes befriended on her journey to America where she moved during the war years to escape the conflict. The display includes Hermes’ illustration for Travers’ 1941 novel, I Go by Sea, I Go by Land, whilst her portrait bust of the author is included in the latter part of the exhibition, together with busts of other creative friends and acquaintances, including the clarinettist and conductor Rudolf Dunbar, the poet Kathleen Raine and the surrealist David Gascoyne. 

This first section of the exhibition highlights the breadth of both Hermes’ networks and practice, reaching beyond the fine arts, into areas such as private press book illustration and craftsmanship, including decorative commissions and design. With her craft output easily as extensive as her fine art work, Hermes’ practice seems to recall the work of Eric Gill and his insistence on the need to unite artists and craftsmen. Like Gill, Hermes was connected with the Arts and Crafts movement and this is evidenced: she became a member of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1935 and exhibited several times with them. A number of functional sculptural pieces, such as the intricately carved door-knockers and a wooden bird-shaped lectern display a certain medieval influence and betray Hermes’ Arts and Crafts leanings.

As with Gill, they are testament to the variety of contexts in which her work was seen, pioneering the use of sculptural works in settings outside the gallery. Archival materials reveal how her work even extended into architectural settings when she was commissioned to carve a mosaic pool and stone fountain for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. Hermes’ international significance during her own lifetime is suggested through theBritannia Motifglass window she was commissioned to design for the British Pavilion at the 1937 International Paris exhibition.

The second half of the exhibition focuses on the relationship between Hermes’ work as both a sculptor and print-maker. With the two and three-dimensional works displayed together, the exhibition highlights the aesthetic connections between them. Hermes’ daughter, Judith Russell described her mother as ‘a natural sculptor who regarded the discipline of wood engraving as a means of extending, in a more descriptive way, the expressive potential of carving’ and this is seen most clearly in the shared subject-matter of the prints and the sculpture. Drawing on the same natural imagery as the decorative prints – something of a leitmotif for Hermes – the sculptures provide a way for her to transpose the subjects of the prints into the third dimension. The bird in the engraving Serpent at the Nest (1931) is transformed into the sculpted wooden Bird in Hand, of the same year, which strains its neck skywards, whilst the leaping fish of the 1929 engraving Tobit (Tobit and the Fish) becomes a larger-than-life carved Leaping Salmon (1949-51).

Hermes’ engagement with animal themes for her sculpture places her work within the context of the work of the early modernist sculptors, most notably her copulating Two Frogs (1947), recalling Epstein’s earlier iconic Doves (1914-15). Penelope Curtis and Sophie Bowness have connected the predominance of the animalier theme in modernist sculpture with the influence of ancient Chinese animal sculpture. Like many of her contemporaries, Hermes was preoccupied with non-Western art, regularly visiting the British Museum whilst studying at the Brook Green School, and later amassing her own collection of non-Western art. The influence of this is most keenly felt in a series of mask-like sculptures on display: the 1933 Three in OneTwo in One (1937) and Head and Hands(1936). Alongside, Moore, Hepworth and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Hermes’ work was included in the landmark 1932 exhibition Sculpture Considered apart from Time and Place, organised and curated by Leon Underwood, in which modernist sculpture was exhibited alongside that of ancient Greece and Africa.

Further strengthening her claim for inclusion within the canon of modern British sculpture is Hermes’ adoption of the themes of fertility and maternity in both her two and three-dimensional work. The Heavenly Twins of 1928 leave their printed paper to materialise as the contorted, wriggling Baby II (1932), a roughly hewn sculpture that seems to offer something of an antithesis to Hepworth’s dignified Burmese wood Infant (1932). As with a number of her other sculptures, Hermes utilised found materials for Baby II, originally carving the sculpture from a chalk pebble found on a beach using only a penknife. Although collecting pebbles for carving was something that Moore and Hepworth also briefly practised during the famous 1931 group holiday to Happisburgh in Norfolk (which also included Ben Nicholson and John Skeaping), Hermes’ engagement with such found objects seems more developed, deliberately utilised for the creation of tactile worn surfaces. These serve to contribute to the aura of life and energy so potent in her work; as she famously declared when sculpting Leaping Salmon; ‘there’s a fish in that tree.’ 

Hermes constantly pushes the boundaries of both two and three-dimensional work, as the subjects break free from the constraints of their media to reach out to the viewer. Indeed, the theme of life and creation is crucial, with early sketchbooks documenting the germination of beans, and the 1934 sculpture, The Heart , representing the very beat of life. This, however, is life on the verge of becoming something else – metamorphosis. The sculptures are rarely still, instead depicting the moment of movement – the flutter of a moth or a rabbit about to leap from the ground. The prints meanwhile, take this concept of metamorphosis one stage further, into the realms of the imaginative, the strange and the surreal. Hermes’ close friend, the writer Naomi Mitchison, described Hermes as ‘the artist as magician – or if you like priestess’ and this is most closely embodied in the print works. For the Surrealists, the notion of metamorphosis and morphology was crucial, and Hermes approaches this in her strange and unconventional renderings of biblical and mythical subjects. In works such as Adam and Eve (1933) and Jonah and the Whale (1933), images of encasement are presented, the former work presenting a miniature Adam and Eve suspended in an apple held in the palm of a gigantic hand. Likewise, the image of the whirlpool or vortex dominates Fathomless Sounding (1932) and Undercurrents (1937). In the catalogue for the 1995 exhibition, The Wood Engravings of Gertrude Hermes and Blair Hughes Stanton held at the Ashmolean Museum, the curator Katharine Eustace noted that works such as Jonah and the Whale and Fathomless Sounding betrayed ‘a new breadth, an aggression even. Superficially figurative, the images are expressions of abstract ideas of personal emotions hardly expressible through other means.’ Significantly, the daringness of these works divided critics with The Morning Post bemoaning that Jonah in the Whale and Adam and Eveportrayed ‘little or no dignity either in pictorial composition or craft’ in comparison with the earlier, more conventional decorations Hermes provided for Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne

The abstract and the surreal also began to find a place within Hermes’ sculptural pieces; in the exhibition this reaches its climax in the 1967 The Heart of the Matter, the final work on display and arguably the only truly ‘abstract’ sculpture in the show. Carved from a huge slice of rosewood seated on an imposing slice of granite, this sculpture brings together the motif of the vortex from the earlier engravings, synthesised into a grand image of energy and metamorphosis. Hermes’ post-war work of both two and three-dimensions was marked by an increase in size as she began to experiment with large scale colour linocutting, also impacting the scale of her carving. A number of the linocuts are displayed alongside The Heart of the Matter in this final room and together they bring a sense of monumentality, hitherto absent from the earlier works. Hermes had hoped for The Heart of the Matter to go on display in a public space and this shift away from the domestic towards the public arena is also noteworthy. Tragically this was not to last. In 1969 Hermes suffered a paralysing stroke, robbing her of speech and halting her flow of work. Although she continued to teach for many years, she was no longer able to sculpt, and The Heart of the Matter, one of her very last sculptures, assumes a new poignancy as her final swansong to sculpture.

The exhibition succeeds in highlighting the diversity of both Hermes’ output and her artistic practice, whilst also redressing the long-standing neglect of her sculptural work and reconsidering its critical relationship with her printwork. The dialogue established with Hepworth and British modernist sculpture confirms Hermes’ value to art-historical re-evaluations of the period. As Bryan Robertson noted: Hermes’ sculpture ‘should be in the collection of the Tate Gallery as one of the most important works made in England this century.’ It is to be hoped that the exhibition will not only reawaken both public and scholarly interest in Hermes, but also provide the impetus for subsequent museological reassessments of other twentieth-century women sculptors.

Main image: Installation view, ‘Wild Girl’: Gertrude Hermes, The Hepworth Wakefield, 2016 (photo: Stuart Whipps, courtesy of The Hepworth Wakefield and The Gertrude Hermes Estate)

Wild Girl: Gertrude Hermes, The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, 13 November 2015 – 24 January 2016.

Aurora Corio