Executed in 1941, Three Figures Sleeping, or Shelterers Sleeping in the Tube is one of a group of works which Henry Moore created, having been struck by the sight of Londoners seeking safety from the bombs of the Blitz in the stations and tunnels of the Tube network. The so-called 'Shelter Drawings,' several of which were acquired at the time for the nation and also by the Tate, are unique explorations of the human spirit in a situation of adversity; indeed, Moore here uses his appreciation of sculpture to take the forms of these huddled shelterers and to grant them an incredible and intensely moving monumentality. There is a poetic timelessness and stillness in this image of people sleeping while the storm of conflict rages; the forms, which echo the Three Graces and religious paintings, are presented foreshortened, placing the viewer at their feet. However, this is not religious in itself, but instead reveals an intense humanism, an engagement on the part of the artist which was in contrast to his previous influences in the examples of tribal and ancient art. Looking at Three Figures Sleeping, it is easy to see why Herbert Read considered the 'Shelter Drawings' to 'constitute the most authentic expression of the special tragedy of war its direct impact on the ordinary mass of humanity, the women, children, and old men of our cities' (H. Read, 'Introduction', pp. ix-xxviii, D. Sylvester, Henry Moore: Sculpture and Drawings 1921-1948, Vol. 1, London, 1969, p. xxvii).
Although Moore had explored the theme of the Second World War already by the time the Blitz began, these had been intermittent experiments. However, one evening when he had visited friends and was using the Tube rather than a car, he found that he was travelling during a raid and saw,
'for the first time... people lying on the platforms at all the stations we passed... When we got out at Belsize Park we were not allowed to leave the station because of the fierceness of the barrage. We stayed there for an hour and I was fascinated by the sight of people camping out deep under the ground. I had never seen so many rows of reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me to be like the holes in my sculpture. And there were intimate little touches. Children fast asleep with trains roaring past only a couple of yards away. People who were obviously strangers to one another forming tight little intimate groups' (Moore, quoted in C. Lichtenstern, Henry Moore: Work Theory Impact, F. Elliott & M. Foster (trans.), London, 2008, pp. 107-08).
As is clear in Three Figures Sleeping, Moore saw these shelterers as echoes of his own reclining figures. He thus began to create a series of works based on them, usually creating small sketches in the Tube and memorising scenes which he later worked into larger, finished works such as this, based on the drawing on page 7 of the Second Shelter Sketchbook (AG 41.51; HMF 1632). Some of the pictures would be shown at the National Gallery, of which the permanent collection had been moved into safety in a Welsh mountain. When his friend Kenneth Clark, the National Gallery's director, first saw them he ensured that Moore, who had earlier turned down the position of Official War Artist, was approached again by the War Artists' Advisory Committee. As a War Artist, Moore therefore had access to extra fuel, to materials, and was given permits to roam the London Underground, creating his studies. Ironically, this would be the first period by which he made his living as an artist, having earlier made recourse to teaching.