Henry Moore is still considered to have been the most important British sculptor of the 20th century. His works feature in a number of museums, as well as being placed in striking outdoor settings throughout the world. His figures have become iconic in their own right, kings and queens and draped female figures looking out on the countryside or the townscape.
Moore was born in Yorkshire, the son of a mining engineer. He hoped to become an artist, but was initially encouraged by his father to train as a teacher instead. Moore served during the First World War with the Civil Service Rifles, and was gassed at the Battle of Cambrai; he spent some time recuperating before returning to France as an instructor. Following his military service, he was given a grant to become a student at Leeds School of Art in their newly-founded sculpture department. In terms of legacy, Leeds had a great impact on Moore in part through the influences of two people: Barbara Hepworth, who was soon granted a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, and Sir Michael Sadler. The Vice Chancellor of the School, Sadler had a formidable collection of tribal and avant garde art including works by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, and allowed Moore access to it. Moore was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London in 1921, and also taught there for a number of years after his studies.
Moore took advantage of studying in London to see the many public collections, including the ethnographic items belonging to the British Museum. In 1924, he travelled to Europe, where he saw the established and canonical works of France and Italy, but was also impressed by the ethnographic collections he saw in Paris, not least from the Pre-Columbian civilisations. This would come to alter his artistic outlook, as he discovered new, visceral means of conveying senses of figurative form. He also became increasingly interested by direct carving, and hence by being true to his materials. This was an important legacy in its own right.
In 1928, Moore received his first public commission, a reflection of the increasing currency and appreciation of his art. He and his wife, Irina Radestsky, whom he had met at the RCA, became increasingly involved with the avant garde growing in London, which included his friend and fellow sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, as well as other figures such as Ben and Winifred Nicholson. They all became involved in the Seven and Five Group, which was converted under their influence from being a relatively conservative society to a front line of British abstraction. Moore was making sculptures that reflected these abstract tendencies, as well as the works of artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso, which he saw in exhibitions in Paris.
During the Second World War, Moore’s studio was destroyed in bombing, and he moved to the countryside, to Much Hadham, where the Foundation that bears his name remains. In the space there, his long-standing love of the British landscape became all the more eulogising. During the war, however, Moore became one of the official war artists, creating one of his most famous series of works, drawings showing huddled figures in the bomb shelters of the capital. For Moore, these shelters, often improvised in underground railway tunnels, were filled with hope and misery in the form of the seemingly timeless reclining figures crammed throughout. Later, his subterranean explorations would continue with drawings of miners, recalling a world in which he had been immersed as a child in Yorkshire. These series revealed the incredible draughtsmanship that underpinned his work, visible also in his sketches, his pictures of sheep and his landscape drawings.
The influence of Western art, and of drapery, became increasingly prominent in Moore’s post-war works, as did other elements such as the formation of bones, which filtered through into his treatment of the human form. His stately recumbent figures, his fallen warriors, his kings and queens, his drawings, almost all celebrate nature and humanity. His use of the human form as subject matter in most of his works derived in part from his belief that it forms the basis, the common denominator, for all of our experiences, and is therefore best able to express the nature of the world. During the post-war years, the establishment that had earlier looked critically at Moore’s work came to promote him, and his sculptures were widely commissioned and exhibited throughout the world.
28 September – 15 December 2018