Commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure: Festival became a highlight of Christie’s 250th anniversary auction Defining British Art on 30 June, establishing a new record for the artist when it sold for £24,722,500.
For International Head of Research Robert Brown, seeing the sculpture in London alongside works including Lot and His Daughters by Rubens, was ‘a great moment’. Alhough Brown admits to a personal preference for Barbara Hepworth sculptures, Moore’s exceptional work swayed him. ‘He produced three or four wonderful reclining figures that I love,’ he says. ‘This, his first great experiment in bronze, is one of them.’
The sculpture originally held a commanding position at the centre of London’s newly built South Bank. Its significance, both for the artist and for the country, proved enormous. ‘The fluid nature of bronze allowed Moore to create, for the first time, a complete, semi-abstract symphony of solid form and empty space, which work in and out of each other to form a landscape — a landscape that is also the female figure,’ Brown continues.
When it was first exhibited, Reclining Figure: Festival also acquired a strong symbolic meaning, coming to represent, for many, the resilience of the British people in the wake of the Second World War. For Brown, the artist’s subject has a manner that seems at once ‘regal and traumatised’.
‘As is so often the case with Henry Moore,’ he says, ‘this reclining figure is also a maternal one — although it is startlingly expressive and emaciated. I’m sure Moore intended her to be a symbol of British survival and defiance.’
Today, Moore’s plaster original remains on display at London’s Tate Gallery. The record-breaking bronze cast sold at Christie’s is one of just five that were made, in addition to a single artist’s proof. The work joined other historic lots in the Defining British Art sale, which realised £99,479,500 / $133,203,501, establishing eight world auction records. As a celebration of four centuries of British art, it was a fitting auction to celebrate Christie’s anniversary year.