The Twentieth Century Society is delighted that Historic England has agreed its request to list the Barbara Hepworth triptych sculpture in Cheltenham which had been threatened with removal from public view.
The sculpture, “Theme and Variations”, has been listed at Grade II along with the façade of the building which it is attached to, the former Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society HQ.
C20 Society Caseworker Grace Etherington said: “We are thrilled with the listing decision which secures the sculpture’s future on display to the public. It is great news that the relationship between Hepworth’s piece and the building is also protected. It has been really encouraging to see the local authority actively seeking protection for the sculpture, and their efforts along with input from the Hepworth Trust have helped us achieve this success.”
Prior to the listing decision, the Society had successfully requested that Cheltenham Borough Council serve a Building Preservation Notice, to offer temporary protection against an attempt to remove the sculpture.
The sculpture was designed by Barbara Hepworth in 1970 and was her last public commission before her death in 1975. It is located on the front façade of Cheltenham House, an office building designed by Healing and Overbury and opened in 1972 on Clarence Street in Cheltenham’s town centre. Theme and Variations is a bronze sculpture formed of three groups of layered semicircles stacked in a chaotic arrangement, intended to embody a sense of movement and energy. Hepworth cleverly used the gentle curve of the building’s façade to create a sculpture suited to being viewed ‘in the round’, as layers are revealed and focal points shift from different viewpoints along the street.
Winged Figure, attached to John Lewis’ flagship Oxford Street store, which was cast in 1962 and installed in 1963, is the only other example of a sculpture designed by Hepworth to survive in its original location attached to a building, rather than to be placed in a building’s surroundings. Winged Figure was listed at Grade II* in 2016. Winged Figure is in fact an enlarged version of an earlier sculpture by Hepworth, meaning that Theme and Variations can be considered the only commission Hepworth undertook where she directly responded to the form and detail of the building to which it was to be attached.
Theme and Variations is owned by a property investment company, who sold Cheltenham House in the 1980s but retained ownership of the sculpture. The C20 Society intervened after the owners of the building applied for a Certificate of Proposed Lawful Development which argued that removing the sculpture and replacing it with a replica would not require planning permission. The owner’s legal argument is that as there would be no material change to the external appearance of the building as replacement of the sculpture with a replica does not classify as development and therefore should not require planning permission.
By 1970 Hepworth had become one of the most successful artists in post-war Britain. Her work had been exhibited in numerous large solo shows worldwide, and several sculptures had been awarded top prizes at a number of international biennales. She was created C.B.E. in the 1958 New Years’ Honours List, and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1965. She produced sculptures for the Festival of Britain in 1951, for schools and universities, and for State House in High Holborn (sold and now displayed in the US). Her most prestigious commission was Single Form for the United Nations Plaza in New York in 1961-4, created in memory of her friend Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary-General.
The new list description can be found here: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1466801