Tag Archives: Paul Laib

Pietro Bordi: Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s Object Compositions, Photographed by Paul Laib (1933): A ‘Poetic’ Exhibition

Paul Laib (1869-1958) was a photographer who in the early decades of the 20th century captured the works of some of the most important contemporary artists working in Britain between 1890 and 1950. His large corpus of over 20,000 negatives were gifted to the Courtauld in 1974 by Patrick de Laszlo, son of Philip de Laszlo, the famous portraitist who for many years had been Laib’s client. In 1933, Laib visited the studio of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson at ‘No. 7 The Mall’ in Parkhill Road near Hampstead. His collection of photographic glass plate negatives depicting the works and compositions of assorted objects in Hepworth’s and Nicholson’s artistic residence remain some of the most puzzling and charming images in the Courtauld’s vast photographic library. By accompanying these images with vivid poetic descriptions containing excerpts from Hepworth’s own writings and memoirs, this virtual exhibition hopes to shed light on the aesthetic significance of these objects for the artists’ developing views on sculpture, painting, form and space.

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

At first glance, the compositions from Laib’s photographs appeared to me almost as deliberate, still-life shots. The artworks depicted are embellished by the objects which encircle them: could this be the work of a photographer who is showcasing the art in its studio environment? Precariously balanced crockery gives the illusion of momentary arrangement. A slender white bottle reappears in different assemblages. Small level inclinometers, like elegantly shaped pocket-watches, litter our field of view,  and are added and removed between each picture. The concept turned out to be as unlikely as it was originally alluring. Courtauld digitisation specialists suggested Laib would have been perhaps too shy and discreet in his operations to have meddled with the objects in a renowned artist’s home – as suggested by the darkness of his negatives, the Hungarian photographer was often hasty in providing his famed clients his service, leaving little time for his glass plates to be exposed by light through his camera. Upon closely reviewing Hepworth’s writings and meditations from her period with Nicholson, I increasingly came to understand the arrangements as compositional masterpieces, highly wrought visual works assembled by the artists and informed by their developing thoughts on the nature of form, abstraction, and space.

Portrait of Ben Nicholson, No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.









Inclinometers being placed and removed between photographs, No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

The images taken by Laib present groups of objects, trinkets, souvenirs, and other puzzling paraphernalia. Presented on different planes and contrasting positions, these objects assume a life of their own, responding to each other in both thematic and formal qualities. Desert cacti are combined with wine bottles and fishing floats. A hammer is juxtaposed to a fragile glass. At the same time, the ensemble of curves, triangles and squares inherent in the objects’ outlines resemble those simplified in Nicholson’s geometrical works. A small coffee plate might for instance mirror an abstract gesso dot. The outline of a plant is reminiscent of his linocut profiles, and a protruding shelf or bookcase might match the indentations in his white, sculptural reliefs. These correspondences also reflect Hepworth’s interest in sculptural groups, which, like the duo’s object compositions, conversed in what Hepworth called “a silent language of forms”.[1]

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

Among the string of random articles assorted in careful balance, the artworks themselves feature as a reminder of their co-existence with these shapes. Some lie in the corners and borders of the composition. In other pictures, Nicholson’s linocuts provide a backdrop for the arrangement itself. Often, a sculpture or white relief might be the main photographed piece, but we gain access to the work’s close surroundings through the space left in the narrow margins of the picture. In some cases, the resemblance between the artwork and its formal environment is impossible to ignore. In Laib’s photographs of Hepworth’s studio, we witness the sculptures next to the shapes and objects which inspired them: “I like to have a lot of material lying about the studio for a long time – even for years – so that I feel intimate with each piece”(33). The artists wanted the works photographed in the context in which they were originally conceived, before they would be bought, framed, and displaced in the white-washed setting of a gallery or museum. In her writings, Hepworth explains that sculptures and other artistic creations are almost inseparable from its immediate surroundings, being conceived out of precise qualities found in nature or in one’s studio. Existing in a state of “harmony” with the other “individual forms which inspired it”, these are, as Hepworth claims, “for their own specific landscape”(134).

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

While the significance of Nicholson’s collection of everyday objects has been the subject of discussion in recent years (a 2021 Pallant House Gallery exhibition described these as “a source of almost endless inspiration for the artist”), Barbara Hepworth’s own fascination with spatial arrangement and object composition has been left relatively unobserved.[1] This is especially surprising given the wealth of literature on the subject: in her own writings and conversations (1930-1970), the sculptor makes ample reference to the significance of grouping objects into what she called “rhythmical” composition, a musical idea she applied to forms in natural landscapes as well as to the domestic environment of her home or studio. The impact of Ben Nicholson’s work, on the other hand, opens up for her a “new and imaginative approach to the object in landscape, or group in space”(61). The specific nature of the arrangements photographed by Laib are themselves described at length in Hepworth’s memoirs, in which the artist recalls the provenance and significance of certain objects for the artistic duo – objects which we can directly retrace to Laib’s images. Exceptionally fluent in communicating her aesthetic ideas, Hepworth was also particularly conscious of the transmedial nature of the arts, and where a sculpture, a studio, or an artwork is described, language from poetry and music is employed to articulate its significance. “Carving is, perhaps, more similar to music”. Art is the “perfect realisation of rhythm, composition, order and harmony”. Sculpture, on the other hand, is “dictated only by my poetic demands from the material”(43-68). Like few artists of her generation, Hepworth was also acutely aware of the expressive potential of poetic language in conveying abstract ideas. During her travels in Greece, she resorted to free-verse compositions to conjure the appearance of a natural landscape littered by marble forms. Her artistic beliefs are often expressed with the use of imaginative vocabulary and rhapsodical prose, both of which are referenced and integrated in the poetic works below. Throughout her life, Hepworth composed countless verses, many of which can be today found in Tate’s archive of unpublished manuscripts.

Epidaurus, 1954. Tate Archive. Dame Barbara Hepworth, Greek Sketchbook interleaved with pressed flowers and plants, Tate Britain.

Feed the flame’, manuscript draft (earlier of two manuscripts), 1938-9. Tate Archive. Dame Barbara Hepworth, Handwritten notes by Barbara Hepworth, Tate Britain.

Honouring Hepworth’s fascination with poetry and its relationship to visual art, the following portfolio of ‘word-image’ compositions responds to Laib’s photographs through the creative use of poetic language, hoping to articulate the different forms of dialogue between the objects as well as the various interrelationships between the artworks and their immediate formal surroundings. A poem (by its broadest of definitions) can itself be understood as a thoughtful assemblage of single elements. Words, rhymes, assonances and line-breaks are all examples of single devices which amount to a larger, choral whole, giving a poem a sense of overall unity. Much like Hepworth and Nicholson’s own assemblages of selected objects, these participate in a greater “symphony”(56).

By incorporating direct allusions to Hepworth’s writings within the creative text, I hope to present the possibility of a ‘poetic exhibition’, whereby an informed, ekphrastic description (vivid, verbal account of a figurative work of art) is offered, as if to replace a museum caption or mere textual note. Inspired by a recent exhibition at the Courtauld which saw works by Peter Doig and poems by Saint Lucian writer Derek Walcott displayed side-by-side, this project hopes to demonstrate how a transmedial presentation of this kind could urge the viewer to establish a deeper connection with the inner themes and concepts underpinning a visual work of art. Without the constraints of prose syntax, I believe poetic language allows us to delve into the fluid and inarticulable concepts matured by the artists themselves in realising their compositions.

As one of the interns at the Courtauld, I was particularly drawn to the archive’s efforts to render the material qualities of the photographs perceptible in digital reproduction, the same way one would in attempting to digitise a Renaissance panel painting, or an Impressionist masterpiece. As a result, I have decided to accompany each of the poem titles with the original combination of numbers marked by Laib and previous archivists onto the negatives themselves, in an effort to highlight the material quality of the images as physical works of art.

I think every sculpture that’s made must have some relation to a place. I don’t think you can make it in a vacuum – at least, I can’t. It always has some kind of position in the landscape or in architecture, in one’s imagination.

— Barbara Hepworth in conversation with Reg Butler, Artists on Art, BBC Third Programme, Recorded in London, September 1951




And yet best critical account of a picture may well be that of a sonnet or of an elegy…

Charles Baudelaire, Salon de 1846



A Large Rock

The whole great studio filled with soaring forms and still, quiet forms, all in a state of perfection in purpose and loving execution, whether they were in marble, brass, or wood… Everything I saw in the studio-workshop itself demonstrated this equilibrium between the works in progress and the finished sculptures round the walls, and also the humanism, which seemed intrinsic in all the forms.

                                                Barbara Hepworth on Constantin Brancusi’s Studio, The Poetry of a Figure in Landscape, London, 1931-34

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

It is a nest of infinitesimal detail

which confronts us,

a temple of unparalleled creation.

Unformed asteroids rest in the foreground.

Sculptures are hallowed by morning light.


Imagine hands that, whirring,

conquer elements, carving,

cast unwieldly designs.


They are like plants propagating in a small solarium:

a strange verticality dominates the scene.

It is as though we witnessed the growth of a number of cylinders.



Here we observe not the instruction of forms,

but the destruction of laws into bare essences.


Why might a stool, placed on a stool, give the illusion of upward growth?

And why might a window, harbinger of light,

be reflective of the source of all things present?

We do not know, until a jagged rock dominates the scene.


A large rock, like a statue,

may “give the sense of a new enjoyment”,

Hepworth says, “when placed in a small room”.

It is “a new aesthetic experience which cannot be got

through any other kind of art”.



It is as though our hearts were invested in the future of these silhouettes.

We entertain the notion of scale by watching a rock create obliteration.

It is the uncivilised shape that we abhor, which like some cruel intruder

is uncouth among smooth stones we may very well hold,

pebbles which could fit in our palms.


“There is a symbolism, of course, in stone”.[1]


[3] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, pg.36, 80


Works by a Window

As regards lighting and setting for my work, I like as much light as can be obtained, and I like a feeling of space. This does not mean actual physical area, but more the feeling that one gets near a window where the eye travels outwards…

                                    — B.H. in ­‘Approach to Sculpture’, Studio, London, 1946

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.



These are the inhabitants which populate the corner.

We see them rearranged in newfangled order.


A festival of forms informs the surfaces in view,

and standing like some trilogy

of strange thematic symmetry,

three shapes among the objects make their central rendezvous.




The first, in opposition, lies reclined across a table,

surrounded by the tools which have enabled its creation.

An octagon of sorts imparts a rhythm of erosion,

a scalpel lies for indentations subtler than skin.

Beside a wedge a straw suggests the energy of suction –

a bell-like hammer sits behind, inverted, like a pin.


What is this creature, motionless and firm,

lying naked like the offspring of some bird?


Embryonic is the vein which cuts across the mineral

of a sculpture of full shape unknowable,

of scale unreconcilable.


It possesses the inevitable stumps of that which imitates humanity.

The marble remnants of a neck, the narrowing of abdomen –

its bowels could resemble both fertility and foetus.

A womb slackens laterally, conjoined, like a sack,

and lying on its back it rests on two bottom features.


“I find that it is possible to take

a pebble of fine and simple shape

and carve in addition successive planes

suggestive of the human form”.


Reclined across a table it retains its human form.




Our eyes observe a second shape of similar conception,

lit beneath the window, focused by the camera.


Dark and prehensile, volcanic and obsidian,

it was cast and preconceived with a meteoric cavity.


Obliquely it retains a kind of central torsion,

a motion, if you will,

akin to that of human shoulders,

of balanced contrapposto.


Around it are a number of identities,

illumined by the light which gives full play to its concavities.

A glass transparent bottle, shaped like a lute –

symphonic in its similar appearance to a torso.

Inverted hammers play an inane game of balance –

as do the saw and the crutch, which touch, amiably.


Marble slabs and rectangles surround it here and there,

some strewn across a table, a few erected by a chair.


What is the hole pierced into it

if not an exploration into “the special accord”

between the “inside and outside in every form”?

A “nut in its shell”, a “child inside its womb”,

the shape of “shells and crystals”

and “the architecture of human bones”?


“Every shadow, cast by the sun from an ever-varying angle

reveals the harmony of the inside to outside”,

gives the eyes their “tactile perception”,

reveals “the interplay between space and volume”.


Stark and dark and hollow

and with a hole pierced into it,

the figure faces us, illumined

on a far corner of the table.




We need not search for the third sculpture,

as it stands so high above the others on a tower

of cylindric proportions – of diminishing dimensions.

From the bottom to the top,

cubes and blocks and cylinders



The figure at the top is stupefyingly streamlined, a body so round

its sound could be akin to that of a guitar, or of a globular cello –

its shape to Donatello’s David and the nudes in the Bargello.


“Growth, movement and balance.

All these things interlock,

and are principles which,

when expressed aesthetically,

do re-create a vitality…


There is life in stone and in wood”.[3]


Cactus Compositions


Small things are found and kept for their lovely shape, their weight, their texture and intense pure colour. Objects that we place near to each other, in their different aspects and relationships create new experience. A scarlet circle on the wall, a slender white bottle on a shelf near it, a bright blue box and lovely-shaped fishing floats that rest in the hand like a bird, weighty pebbles, dull grey, some gleaming white all these move about the room and as they are placed, make the room gay or serious or bright as a frosty morning …

B.H. on the objects in the Mall Studio, Unit 1: The Modern Movement in British Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, London, 1934

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

This is perhaps the most exquisite of constructions:

a study of form and shape in its basic rudimentariness.


Geometries commingle making complex combinations.

The pattern on the table like a crossing in the street.


One questions if the artwork in the middle is the feat

or if the objects are abstractions in the artworks made concrete.


Plates and plants and flowerpots repeat the shapes on paper:

a shoe-polish, from CHAT BOTTÉ,


retells the forms and radii of small concentric circles.


A fishing rod, a line, a pipe with straws inside:

these mirror the strange nexus of connections drawn behind.




Correspondence is the visual key.


And veritably we find in these very same objects

an equal desire for growth and formal structure,

to grow, to breathe, to change and think – respire,

and for an upward momentum, comparable to sculpture.


Desert cacti are like flags, erect in planets of creation.

A bottleneck aspires to a higher order, something different:

organic, complete.

A strung-up fishing float (perched on a diagonal)

hovers in the foreground like some bird.


These are planes and patterns that intersect,

orbiting geometries and shapes

so close to one another they hold

a gravity and discover thus

their role in formal landscape:

“the balance of one form poised against another form”.[4]



Lino Cut Inclinometer


I was fascinated by Miro’s unique way of picking up pebbles on the beach and arranging them swiftly so that his gesture revealed a Miro painting in movement.

                                                — B.H. on Miró, Constructive Forms and Poetic Structure, 1934-39

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

This picture consists of impossible equivalence:

a strange delusion of the simpleness of shapes.


It is the image in geometric resolution,

a pun between the circle and triangle in space.


Across a wooden linocut,

lines project illusions of awkward equilibriums,

each barely managed, obdurately upheld.


They are the chair and the window conceptualised,

the tablecloth abstracted,

the bonnet reimagined.

It is as though two people enjoyed lunch

in a strange visual paradigm.


In a corner, two spheres, like eyes,

assess each other’s weight

through the value of a string.




And it is in this world of correspondences

two inclinometers appear, outside –

giving almost the impression of time,

or of time petrified.


And we relish in their form

and the rings bound to them,

repeating the reprise of the painted correspondences.




Objects, reduced to the simplest of essences,

Inflect their presence through proximity and incidence.





The impact of Ben Nicholson’s work had a deep effect on me, opening up a new and imaginative approach to the object in landscape, or group in space, and a free conception of colour and form.

B.H. on the objects in the Mall Studio, Unit 1: The Modern Movement in British Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, London, 1934

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

This image is another of a series of assemblages,

a thoughtful merging of amusing situations.


Among a stray ashtray, a number of things remain.


A flower strokes the contents of a strung guitar,

like a plectrum reflective of what these things are,

or might in fact turn out to be.

Overlapping profiles are marked by a total blackness.

A guitar could entertain the serenading of a kiss.


Its shape is made on the basis of sweet

vacancies and rhythm,

absorbed into sensations

of leisure and delight.


Lyrical lines characterise

both linocuts and profiles,

the silhouettes and spheres

which meet the patterns on the instrument.


The sound between the pictures

is of poetic predilection:

like words and punctuation

they are marked by gradual intervals.


The sentence they assemble

is a visual figuration.


The wooden panel,

warped like an oar,

cut like a byzantine relic,

is alighted on a table,

where a glass of water meets an adjacent ashtray,

shimmering with similar reflections.


Half-full, half-empty, it produces new illusions.



Profiles by a Flowerpot


A sculpture, as I conceive it, is for a specific landscape. My own awareness of the structure of the landscape, I mean the individual forms too that contribute towards its general quality, provides me with a kind of stimulus. This object, once I have created it as a sculpture, may harmonize with the landscape that inspired it, in that its form suggests those that I observed.

                                                — B.H. interviewed by Edouard Roditi, Dialogues on Art, London, 1960

No. 7 The Mall studio, Hampstead, 1933. Photo by Paul Laib. The De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld, London.

How is it can we reconcile

a letter with these two profiles?

Or is it three or more we see,

circled almost rapturously,

and not a letter – but a sheet,

folder over, like a warranty?


And where is their resemblance with a cactus plant,

growing like a desert beansprout,

turning on its axis like a strange guitar,

dancing on its torsion like a flute?


It is, without a doubt, the flowerpot

which we decree as their inheritance,

its exultant silhouettes

casting so sweetly, so perfectly

upon the human shapes below.


Is it the ridges of the face

which fit the undulating leaves,

the chin, the nose, which in their still repose

transpose the essence of these shapes?


Or is it the shut, Hellenic mouth,

voluptuous by an eye which seems

aseptic, a pupil like a glass bead,

and perfect, and stolen from a fish?


We do not know – but relish in the slow relay of shapes

and formal aptitudes of plants, and in the way they all translate

the rise and fall of rims and crests of flowers.

We profit from their proximity, as they stand obliquely

so close to one another, exhibiting their brotherhood.




And of what colour we know not,

but black and white,

and not of spots but stripes

and transepts, bisected

like those cut into the canvases

and contours of the face.




It is the play between the silhouettes

and their inevitable backdrop

which produces numerous possibilities, interminable faces.


A flowerpot inspires all such delineations.

[1] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, ed. by Sophie Bowness, (London: Tate, 2015), pg. 72

[2] Ben Nicholson: From the Studio (2021). [Exhibition]. Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK. 26 June – 24 October 2021.

[3] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, pg.36, 80

[4] Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, pg.46-76


Pietro Bordi is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. His interests include the relationship between literature and the visual arts, particularly in the Renaissance and Modernist periods, and his doctoral thesis focuses on pictorial interpretations of the Divine Comedy in the twentieth century. Passionate about poetry, creative writing as well as ‘ekphrastic’ approaches to image and text, Pietro is College Representative for the Edgar Wind Society for the History of Art at Oxford, and at Balliol organises group visits to London’s National Gallery.

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Andreas Schmid: Original Reproductions: Paul Laib’s Photographs of Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure (1933)

Many artworks are only preserved in photographs. When the originals are lost, for instance in the turmoil of war, photographic reproductions often remain as the only way to access them. But the importance of photography exceeds mere preservation: without reproductions, the original would be an isolated object in a museum or an archive with only an expert group of people knowing about it. It is only through the copying and reproduction of photographs that a work of art can be experienced worldwide and become part of general knowledge.

I would go as far as to say: there is no original without reproduction. Over the course of time, reproductions can become originals themselves – at the latest when they are archived as objects of independent value in an art institute, digitised (i.e. reproduced) and appreciated in a public space like this weblog.

This could (should) be the case with Paul Laib’s photographs of artworks taken in the first half of the 20th century. Not much is known about his life and work, but it is evident that his photos have served mere illustrative purposes – they were perceived as media granting access to the artworks and they have not been credited for their aesthetic and technical quality.

Laib was working with some of the most accomplished visual artists of the time, among them Barbara Hepworth. She was one of the British avant-garde sculptors who, inspired by continental European artists, shaped abstract art for most of the 20th century. The photos Laib took of her sculptures are particularly insightful with regards to the difference creative photography can make to how we see a work of art. And they are also fascinating examples of Laib’s skilfully executed photographs, which, I hope, will no longer be seen as transparent windows to other artworks, but rather as artworks in their own right. I will focus on four of his photographs, all of which depict Hepworth’s 1933 sculpture Reclining Figure in very different ways.

On Reclining Figure
Searching for Reclining Figure today, one will find mostly sculptures by Henry Moore. Beginning in the 1930s and especially after the Second World War, Moore and Hepworth were in a friendly rivalry and competed for attention in the international art world. Moore undoubtedly won. He was more successful in seizing funding, he found support in the British Council and he enjoyed more popularity worldwide. Early texts on abstract sculpture in England pin Hepworth’s objects on their femininity, attributing to them passivity and mere beauty that could not match the qualities of thought and reflection found in Moore’s works (Buckberrough, 1998: 48). This biased view held in the early history of abstract sculpture theory marginalised Hepworth’s own achievements. In this respect, her entry into Moore’s specialty, the Reclining Figures, can be rediscovered today as her resistance to many years of neglect.

However, that was probably not the sculpture’s original meaning. The alabaster object, only about 30cm long, was created in 1933, the same year that Hepworth took a trip to France with her new partner Ben Nicholson. In France, Hepworth met, among others, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and, in particular, Hans Arp, who might have had a significant influence on Hepworth’s sculpture. Also in 1933, Arp presented Human Concretion, a sculpture not unlike Hepworth’s Reclining Figure.

Hepworth’s main achievement was thus the transmission of Dadaist and Surrealist art from France to Great Britain. In this sense, she prolonged the life of the historical avant-garde movement, which ended years prior to the beginning of the Second World War.

Fig. 1: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Paul Laib (front view). Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

The Human Dimension
Let’s take a closer look at the sculpture. At its highest point, we can discover the carving of a circle and wavy lines. Is it the sun with clouds above it? Or is it upside down and the sun is above a sea of waves? Is it perhaps the abstract version of an artist’s signature? What is the arrangement supposed to represent – or is it supposed to represent nothing at all? A popular claim, after all, is that abstract art shows form as such, without wanting to represent anything real.

At least in this case, the situation turns out to be more complex. A recent photo of the same sculpture (fig. 2), taken by Cathy Carver for the Hirshhorn Museum, helps: taken from above, a face in profile view becomes clearly visible; the wavy line forms a large nose and overemphasizes the lips; the circle represents the eye. The angle of this photo immediately draws attention to the face. And if one recognizes the face, it is easy to define the whole figure as a torso: to the left and right of the head with the facial features are the shoulders, and the two curves at the other end indicate the legs. Perhaps one could even say that the figure is reclining on its right arm, stretching its feet towards the sky, counting the clouds.

Fig. 2: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Cathy Carver (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

Paul Laib’s photo, on the other hand, ungraciously cuts off the nose line. Thus, at first glance, it is not at all clear what the circle and the implied lines are supposed to represent. Laib was apparently not concerned with highlighting the human shape of the sculpture. But now that we have seen the other photo and know – or think we know – that it is indeed an anthropomorphic figure, can we get rid of that knowledge? Can we unsee the human shape again? Can we again perceive it as a purely abstract form without committing it to human body parts?

Let’s have a look at the rear view in Laib’s second photo (fig. 3). What is recognizable as a leaning arm in the Hirshhorn photo makes a surprisingly unstable impression from behind – a single spike holds the right half of the figure above the ground and the supposed arm melts into the back beyond recognition. What was distinguishable from the front and especially from above as an oval head shape suddenly appears as a slightly overhanging plateau. The overexposed centre of the figure suddenly looks like a sharp angle, no longer a gentle sweep. And something else is remarkable: in the rear view, the shadow play of the photographer spills over onto the wall in the background.

Fig. 3: Reclining Figure. Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, photo by Paul Laib (rear view). Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

In the Shadows
Laib’s photographs work with pronounced lighting and shadows. In the front view, the shadow swallows the figure’s supporting points, so that its contact with the surface underneath cannot be pinpointed – it almost floats. In Laib’s photo, the deep shadow lines in the figure’s curves add depth and plasticity, whereas in Hirshhorn’s photograph, where shadows are used much more sparingly, the figure looks almost flat in comparison. Note especially how the “shoulders” appear like flat surfaces, while Laib makes them resemble humps, and how the curve in the front centre appears much deeper in Laib’s photo. The sharp contrast of overexposed surfaces merging into glistening white on the one hand and shadows swallowing up into the black background on the other could be reminiscent of the era of expressionist film, which was just coming to an end in Germany.

In the rear view, the use of shadows goes beyond accentuating the figurative features and adds its own artwork to the back wall. Different layers of shadows overlap, creating a multifaceted play that cannot simply be made to coincide with the shapes of the figure. We have seen that the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human being as long as the focus is not on the face or if it is viewed from behind, from where it is not so easy to infer human forms.

Just as the sculpture does not necessarily represent a human, the shadow play does not necessarily represent the sculpture. This does not mean that they have an autonomous life of their own. Rather, they embrace the ambivalence of interdependence and free expression. The sculpture represents a human being and at the same time not, just as the shadow simultaneously does and does not represent the sculpture. Or, in Hepworth’s own words: “The best carvings are necessarily both abstract and representational” (Hepworth, 1932: 17). And we could add: the same goes for photographs.

Going a step further, I would argue that it is not only a game of (non-)representation. The emphasis on the curve and the smooth rounded edges in Laib’s photo make invite the viewer to grasp the subject. In its floating state, it loses the appearance of a massive and heavy block of marble, becoming seemingly light and easy to handle. The rear view shot makes the centre of the sculpture appear particularly narrow, as if it could be encircled by a single hand. If we imagine it as larger, we might even interpret it as an armchair or a child’s seat. The depth and dynamism of the object, amplified by the shadows, do not imply that it should look like a human, but that it might have been shaped for humans. It evokes an aesthetics of ergonomics by pointing to the object’s potential haptic qualities (Lewinson, 2015: 783). The human quality of the sculpture, then, is not only representational: it can be an invitation to future human use, as well as the document and product of a past human interaction, namely that with the sculptor.

Fig. 4: Barbara Hepworth’s studio, photo by Paul Laib. Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

On the Workbench
Laib took photos of Hepworth’s studio (fig. 4). Scattered around the workbenches are tools, raw materials, but also a coffee cup and finished sculptures. In the first photo, what catches the eye is the massive stone on the left, and perhaps the large window overlooking the garden; what is somewhat lost is the Reclining Figure, which can be seen on the workbench in the foreground. It is positioned like in the rear view photograph, but slightly rotated and the perspective is slightly elevated. The strong shadows are missing, and the sculpture almost seems to merge with the surface of the bench: both being bright white. Although it is lying on the workbench with a hammer and other equipment next to it, it looks finished, and it may have been positioned there just for the purposes of the photo.

In the second photo (fig. 5), the Reclining Figure is more prominently placed in the foreground and it has been rotated almost 180 degrees. Upon closer inspection, we notice that the other objects on the table have also changed position. The hammer and the coffee cup are behind the sculpture, a chisel protrudes over the edge. But the change in the arrangement is much less elaborate than it seems: what moved was the workbench, not the objects. A notch in the wood in front of the sculpture (fig. 5) reveals that the bench was rotated for the photos. And even if some of the objects were rearranged, this rotation accomplishes one thing above all: the Reclining Figure can be seen from two sides. It seems that Laib or Hepworth, whoever directed the photos, was concerned with showing that the Reclining Figure has at least two sides. Thus, the essential ambivalence of the sculpture, its indecision between representation and abstraction, which can at least partially be brought into congruence with the contrast of front and rear views, has also been realized photographically.

Fig. 5: Barbara Hepworth’s studio, photo by Paul Laib. Paul Laib Collection at The Courtauld. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness 

On the other hand, in both views the sculpture dissolves into the white of the workbench. Its human form disappears completely and its contours are difficult to discern. It might have been primarily technical circumstances such as the bright daylight that make the Reclining Figure almost invisible, yet there seem to have been enough darker surfaces available that would have provided a stronger contrast to the sculpture to make us guess that the positioning was deliberate.

The contrast, on the other hand, is to be found in setting the delicacy and smoothness of Reclining Figure among the dark, worn tools. One almost fears that the fine object could be damaged in the untidy pile of tools – yet it was precisely these tools with which this delicacy was created.

If we assume that the “white-out” of the sculpture was intentional, however, the figure begins to transcend the question of abstraction and representation, and its materiality becomes problematic. We might find Hepworth‘s enthusiasm for Christian Science and the emphasis on the immaterial world in it (Kent, 2015: 475). The Pierced Forms, one of which is seen in the background, are held as the culmination of her engagement with these ideas: the hole represents and exhibits the absence of material. In the Reclining Figure, the immaterial is not integrated into the sculpture, but the exposure technique in the photographic reproduction even surpasses the effect. The sculpture is itself and as a whole in transition to the immaterial. It is, in more than one sense, illuminated.

Original Reproductions
Paul Laib’s photographs throw a different light on Barbara Hepworth’s Reclining Figure. Providing very particular angles and guiding our interpretation, they should also be appreciated as works of art. Maybe we can call them not reproductions of a sculpture, but artworks inspired by this sculpture. Just like literary texts, film and indeed sculpture always draw on other works of art to critically reflect, celebrate or further develop elements of them, the photos of sculpture find inspiration in their objects but tell their very own story.


Andreas Schmid
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant


Buckberrough S (1998) Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective by Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson. Woman‘s Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 , 47-50.
Hepworth B [1932] The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson. Interview with Hepworth. In: Bowness S (2015) Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 14-17.
Kent L (2015) Christian Science and Ben Nicholson’s work of the 1930s. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 474-481.
Lewinson J (2015) Barbara Hepworth reconsidered. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157, no. 1348: 781-786.

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib


Audio Version

Read by Anna Thompson

Text Version

The Tate Archive holds some of the only remaining correspondence between photographer Paul Laib (1869-1958) and the artists who hired him: a misaddressed cream card dated July 1935 listing his telephone number, address in London’s South Kensington borough, and services offered. All in vibrant red ink: “Carbon Platinotype, ENLARGEMENTS, &c … Pictures carefully Photographed by Panchromatic Process. PHOTOGRAVURE.” (TGA 977/1/1/222)

E.Q. Nicholson, the eventual recipient of the note, was one of many clients Laib worked with over his five-decade career as a Fine Art Photographer in London. The title listed on Paul Laib’s stationery implied a role somewhat different than the common understanding of the term today. Whereas the contemporary use most often refers to an artist whose chosen medium is photography, fine art and people who made it comprise the subject matter of nearly all 22,000 images in the De Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives at The Courtauld.

3 Thistle Grove in 2017

I remember the initial thrill of coming across Laib’s photographs of studios, particularly Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s at No. 7 The Mall in Hampstead. There is something tantalisingly subversive about seeing well-known and well-loved works of art loved and known somewhere other than a gallery, somewhere where the rules of engagement with art might be relaxed. Hepworth and Nicholson hired Laib at various points in the 1930s to photograph their work. These weren’t snapshots, though – the depiction of possibility in these photographs, of the possibility of different kinds of interactions with art, was intended. Lee Beard, Sophie Bowness, and Chris Stephens all note in the exhibition catalogue for 2015’s Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World that photographs like this were a concerted effort to convey a more holistic aesthetic view – if anything, one that the artists had more control over than in a gallery. Textiles, sculptures, and paintings live alongside a spiky selection of cacti, works in progress, tools, and the ephemera of a filled, well-considered space.

With some more reading, trips to archives at Tate and the National Art Library, and discussion with colleagues here, I decided to expand on the idea that placing artworks in different contexts change how we feel about perceive them. Showing how Laib’s photographs depict a range of art-in-context, and how his unique occupation brought together photography, art, and the archival in an unexpected way – became the theme of the show, now up in the Book Library Foyer until September 27.

I had never previously considered the legions of photographers capturing the artwork we see in books, exhibition catalogues, lecture halls, and postcards. This is more than a little ironic considering that I and sixty other volunteers are taking on a similar role in our time at The Courtauld.

Artists in their studios: Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib.

The title of the exhibition – Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib – is a reference to the different relationships at play between artworks and photography in his archive. As I write in the introductory text for the piece, sometimes an image itself reminds us that we’re looking at a staged photograph, something that took scheduling, supply sourcing, and time to plan. Paintings were secured on easels and sculptures on pedestals to ready them for a photo. Further reminders of the presence of the photographer include graphic white strokes across many of the images – Laib placed tape directly on the negatives to mark where the images would be cropped.

In other photographs from the archive, the physical presence of the camera is less obvious. This is particularly the case for photographic reproductions intended for publication – a copy of Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (1933), generously lent by the Courtauld Institute’s Book Library, is open to a photograph of Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture “Reclining Figure” – while staged in a very thought-out way, the presence of a photographer is less obvious, thus “Camera, Obscured”.

To give visitors even more of a sense of how these photographs live as physical objects before being digitised in our studio in the Witt Library and printed, some of the glass plate negatives and the boxes they have been stored in since the 1970s are included in the exhibition.

A view of the exhibition.

Many thanks to everyone who has helped source negatives in the archives, point me towards references, set up the show, and supported in ways large and small – hopefully this will be the first of many exhibitions to come out of the rich photo archives we are digitising.

— Mary Caple

Camera, Obscured: The Fine Art Photography of Paul Laib is on show until 27 September in the Book Library Foyer at The Courtauld Institute of Art.