25 September 2023

Barbara Hepworth’s
‘Winged Figure’ at
John Lewis’s flagship
store in Oxford Street

‘Winged Figure’ (1963) by Barbara Hepworth on the corner of the John Lewis store on Oxford Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have long accepted three good tips for seeing the beautiful, the unusual and the unexpected in London: walk instead of taking the Tube; keep your eyes open; and look up rather than down.

Walking rather than taking the Tube may add another 10 or 15 minutes to a journey, but usually no more in the long run, and the rewards can be delightful.

As two of us were strolling around Oxford Street and the West End recently, we found ourselves beneath ‘Winged Figure’, a 1963 sculpture by Barbara Hepworth on the corner of the John Lewis flagship store on Oxford Street. It has been described as ‘a sculpture of high artistic and aesthetic quality, possessing a universal beauty in its sense of fluid movement and dynamic spatial expression.’

Dame Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was a leading figure in the colony of artists who lived in St Ives, Cornwall. Her work exemplifies Modernism and in particular modern sculpture.

‘Winged Figure’ is one of Barbara Hepworth’s best-known works and it has been on public display for the last 60 years, since April 1963. It is mounted on the south-east side of the John Lewis department store, on the corner of Holles Street and Oxford Street.

The John Lewis shop on Oxford Street replaced an earlier war-damaged premises. The building was designed by architects Slater, Moberly & Uren in 1956 and reopened in 1961.

The idea of adorning the plain Portland stone side wall of the new shop with a sculpture had been advocated by John Spedan Lewis, son and successor of John Lewis, in 1951. Sir Jacob Epstein was first approached, but he was engaged on other works at the time and turned down the commission. By 1960 a suitable artist had still not been found.

In May 1961, John Lewis asked six other artists to propose designs. Barbara Hepworth’s breakthrough public sculpture, ‘Meridian’, had recently been installed outside State House on Holborn, and caught the eye of Bernard Miller, who by then had taken over from Spedan Lewis. The other sculptors approached at the time were Ralph Brown, Geoffrey Clarke, Tony Hollaway, Stefan Knapp, William Mitchell and Hans Tisdall. However, none of their initial designs was accepted.

Hepworth had been asked to express ‘the idea of common ownership and common interests in a partnership of thousands of workers.’ In October 1961, she had proposed a different design, ‘Three Forms in Echelon’, but John Lewis rejected that. One of 10 bronze maquettes of ‘Three Forms in Echelon’ cast in 1965 is now in the Tate Gallery.

Her second proposal, based on an enlargement of her 1957 sculpture ‘Winged Figure I’, was accepted. Related sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, such as ‘Stringed Figure (Curlew)’ and ‘Orpheus’, were also made in sheet metal with rods.

The work is 5.8 metres (19 ft) high. It resembles a boat’s hull, with two wide asymmetric wings like blades rising from a small plinth, curving towards each other and linked to each other by a series of radial rods like strings that almost cross at a single point in the middle of the sculpture.

‘Winged Figure’ is the first sculpture Barbara Hepworth created in her Palais de Danse studio in St Ives. She made a prototype in 1962 in wood and then aluminium in St Ives, made from lengths of aluminium covered with aluminium sheets and linked by ten aluminium rods. The surface of the prototype was then textured with Isopon, a polyester resin filler.

The aluminium prototype – the largest prototype by Barbara Hepworth that is still in existence – is now in the Hepworth Museum in Wakefield, Yorkshire, where she was born.

The main body of the final work was cast in aluminium by the founders Morris Singer in Walthamstow, with the rods replaced by stainless steel. It was installed on the John Lewis building on Sunday 21 April 1963, on a plinth 4 metres (13 ft) above the footpath.

Hepworth summarised her ambitions for the project: ‘I think one of our universal dreams is to move in air and water without the resistance of our human legs, I wanted to evoke this sensation of freedom. If the ‘Winged Figure’ in Oxford Street gives people a sense of being air-borne in rain and sunlight and nightlight I will be very happy. It is a project I have long wished to fulfil and this site with its wonderful oblique wall was quite perfect.’

‘Winged Figure’ was refurbished for its 50th anniversary in 2013. ‘Winged Figure’ was given Grade II* listing in January 2016. The sculpture, its plinth, and the applied raised lettering beneath it, form part of the listing.

The listing says the piece ‘has become an Oxford Street landmark, inextricably associated with the John Lewis store’ and ‘it demonstrates the potential for art to enhance the built environment and become ingrained into a collective sense of place.’

It is said that about 200 million people see this sculpture each year. So, perhaps, I am just one in 200 people walking along Oxford Street, keeping my eyes open, and looking up rather than down.

‘Winged Figure’ by Barbara Hepworth ‘has become an Oxford Street landmark, inextricably associated with the John Lewis store’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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