Wonderful, intense eyes peer from above surgeons’ masks which fall over faces to make holy, spiritual visions.

Hands are treated with a similar delicacy, and their gestures remind of Renaissance paintings in churches.

Barbara Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings certainly provide an alternative view of hospital life before the NHS.

The sculptor perhaps had Henry Moore’s Underground shelter drawings in mind – they had been made four years earlier – when she visited Exeter hospital in 1947 and 1948 to draw surgeons at work in operating theatres.

At the time, Hepworth was based down the road from the Devon city in St Ives. She was already a renowned sculptor who had carved a place for herself in the canon of British modernism.

The invitation came from a surgeon and old friend, Norman Capener. He had a few years earlier treated one of her and husband Ben Nicholson’s triplets, who was suffering from a bone infection.

Capener visited Hepworth’s studio to convalesce from jaundice and try his hand at wood carving in her studio. During the visit he mentioned she might like to visit the hospital.

“When the surgeon suggested she visited the operating theatre she felt horrified at the idea and she wasn’t sure that anything gruesome would be conducive to making art,” explains Nathaniel Hepburn, who has written a book to accompany a touring exhibition featuring 30 works from a series of 72.

“She said she would only witness reconstructive operations and when she went along she was struck by two things. The first was the rhythm of work and the concentration of the surgeons; she felt that reflected her own artistic practice.

“The second was how the surgeons around the operating table were like an abstract sculpture: figures moving around a central form.”

Much of Hepworth’s work is about arranging figures in a group and she found the operating theatre similar to the challenges she was trying to understand through her sculpture.

The title of the collection refers to “drawings” but the pictures are made with a sculptor’s eye. Rather than stick to pen and paper, Hepworth mixed chalk and enamel paint to build a layer of thick white material to evoke a Renaissance gesso – think Giotto or Masaccio.

She carved the surface with a razor blade and pencil after she had used an oil wash over the flat surface to add colour. She compared a pencil’s movement through gesso to the bite of carving through slate.

The result is subtle light and colour, and at times almost portraiture.

Hepworth identified with a surgeon’s craftsmanship and both felt each other’s professions were similar. Capener even modelled some new surgical tools based on Hepworth’s sculptural apparatus.

“The surgeon referred to the human figures as being his material and his clay, which he worked into. They both felt a real affinity and she felt the surgeon was as much a craftsman as she was.”

Both were fascinated by professions that use the hands. A self-portrait, a cast of the artist’s hand, a cast of the surgeon’s hand and medical papers using Hepworth’s illustration reveal the exchange of creative ideas.

“I’m very keen to always remind people that art is not created in a vacuum,” adds Hepburn. “It is created out of friendships and out of the influences normal people absolve through their lives.”

Hepburn picks out the two Scalpel pictures as important because they reveal Hepworth’s focus and how she develops her technique over the series.

The underlying political theme is inescapable as one walks around a collection which brings together the works for the first time.

“Hepworth was a strong Labour supporter. She had experienced the heavy costs of medical bills when her daughter was ill. She had to pay the surgeons, the ambulance staff and the matrons and would have welcomed the NHS. “At the time of great change in the NHS, she would want one to remember that fact while looking at the work.”

  • Barbara Hepworth: Hospital Drawings is a Mascalls Gallery exhibition. It comes to Chichester from The Hepworth, Wakefield, as part of a three-venue tour. The exhibition will finish at Mascalls Gallery, Kent, from June 14 to August 24.
  • Pallant House Gallery, North Pallant, Chichester, until June 2
  • One ticket for both the RB Kitaj and Barbara Hepworth exhibitions costs: Adult – £9 Child – £3.50 Student – £5.50 Family – £21.50.
  • Pallant House Gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Thursday from 10am to 8pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5pm, closed Mondays. For more information, call 01243 774557