Moore executed this Family Group in 1946, the year in which his daughter Mary, his first and only child, was born. The Second World War had ended the year before; the coming of peace and the arrival of a new life into his family, after sixteen years of marriage, were auspicious events that inspired Moore to create this modern symbol for the enduring value of the familial bond.
Moore had already featured the theme of the 'Mother and Child' on a frequent basis in his work. His very first surviving stone carving, done in 1922, was Mother and Child (Lund Humphries, no. 3). By 1940, of the more than one hundred fifty sculptures he had produced to that date, twenty-two were versions of the Mother and Child theme, including the virtually abstract Family, 1935 (fig. 2). This subject had become something of an obsession for the sculptor; it allowed him to create a formal interaction between two figures--one small, the other much larger--based on their powerful and affecting emotional connection. At the same time, each of the two figures contributed their particular weight and volume to form a single, unified plastic entity. In 1943, during the early years of the Second World War, Moore was commissioned to carve a Madonna and Child for St. Matthew's Church in Northampton, England. This project provided the sculptor an opportunity to cast the mother and child theme in a traditional sacred context, in which the figures took on qualities, as Moore described them, "of austerity, and a nobility, and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) which is missing in the everyday 'Mother and Child' idea" (quoted in A. Wilkinson, Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Berkeley, 2002, p. 267).
Moore had already considered the family group as a subject before the war; he carved the virtually abstract Family in 1935 (Lund Humphries, no. 157a; fig. 1). The occasion of a commission for a public sculpture, this time on behalf of an educational institution, encouraged the sculptor to consider the importance of the family as the primary human social unit whose close interpersonal relationships provided an exemplary guide for wider communal values. Moore later recalled:
"When Walter Gropius was working in England before the war he was asked by Henry Morris, Director for Education in Cambridgeshire to design a large school at Impington, near Cambridge. It was called a Village College and was meant to be different from other elementary schools because it was meant to put into practice lots of Henry Morris' ideas on education... Gropius asked me to do a piece of sculpture for the school. We talked about it and I suggested that a family group would be the right subject... Later the war came and I heard no more about until, about 1944, Henry Morris told me that he now thought he could get enough money together for the sculpture if I would still like to think of doing it. I said yes, because the idea right from the start had appealed to me and I began drawings in note book form of family groups [e.g., A. Garrould, 44.64, fig. 2]. From these notebook drawings I made a number of small maquettes, a dozen or more... Some of the maquettes were ideas for bronze, but most of them were for stone because for the Impington school I felt stone would be the suitable material.
"I must have worked for nine months or so on the Family Group themes and ideas, but again, Henry Morris found it difficult to raise money for the sculpture, and also my maquettes were not liked by the local education authorities, and again nothing materialized. I carried out three or four of the six inch maquettes [e.g., LH, no. 232; fig. 3] more fully into a slightly larger size for my own satisfaction, and then I went on with other work" (quoted in ibid., p. 273).
Moore's wife Irina gave birth to their daughter Mary on 1 March 1946. The sculptor was forty-seven; his wife was thirty-nine. Her previous pregnancies had resulted in miscarriages. Roger Berthoud, Moore's biographer, has written:
"Mary was in every sense a 'precious' baby... Henry was from the first an active and doting father, and played a full part in helping to look after his beloved daughter. Some of Moore's commentators have suggested that the addition of a child renewed his interest in the mother and child theme and in family groups: as John Russell puts it, with the birth of a daughter 'the image of the family took on a new, leaping, unpredictable intensity.' In fact the happy event crowned the readoption of a favoured motif...rather than triggering it" (in The Life of Henry Moore, New York, 1987, p. 197).
The Family Group commission became a possibility again in 1947, this time at a different location, as Moore has recounted:
"John Newsom, the Director of education in Hertfordshire, a friend of Henry Morris, and having similar progressive ideas on education, told me of a large school being built by Herfordshire education authorities... Newsom knew of the projected Impington sculpture and now said, as that had fallen through, would I be prepared to do a piece of sculpture at their new school at Stevenage. I agreed, for here was the chance of carrying through one of the ideas on a large scale which I had wanted to do. I went to see the school and chose from one of my previous ideas the one which I had wanted most to carry out on a life-size scale. This was a bronze idea (the one which the Museum [of Modern Art, New York] bought from my exhibition in 1945)" (quoted in ibid., pp. 273-274).
The "bronze idea" to which the sculptor referred is the three-figure Family Group (Lund Humphries, no. 239), which is five inches (12.8cm) high. The full-size bronze version that Moore installed at the Barclay School in Stevenage (LH, no. 269; another cast, fig. 4) measures 60 inches (150cm) in height. Moore's four-figure groups outnumber the three- member families during this period almost two to one. The combination of two parents plus two children offers, on formal grounds alone, many more configurative possibilities, and for that reason a wider range of emotional expression as well. Notwithstanding these considerations, it seems possible that Moore favored the three-person group for the Stevenage commission partly because it reflected his own family make-up, and for the reason that the three-way relationship might seem more concentrated and intense.
Moore's characterization of parent-child relationships in the four-member families is remarkably varied, engaging, and delightful to observe. The present Family Group is especially distinctive, for reasons that Will Grohmann has explained:
"This family group is rather far removed from the others in its formal aspects. The man's chest is an open hollow as in the 'Reclining Figures' in Buffalo and Wakefield; the woman's right breast is negatively modeled, the left positively; the legs are as rigid as the string-boards of a church pew. The boy standing between his father's knees is statuesquely simplified, the child sitting on his mother's lap is reaching with his left hand for her open breast, but the hand is lost in the bulk of the mother's body. The expression of the group is archaic, mute; the human relationship between the four beings is expressed only through the convergent attitude of the figures and through the alternations of solid shapes and hollows. The woman's hollow is fruitfulness, the man's is spirit. His figure would culminate less consciously in the raised head, if the shoulders did not sit like the arch of a bridge over the broad opening of the chest. An indication of the position of the man in Moore's oeuvre: he stands outside its centre, and when he does become part of it, it is as head of the family, king or warrior" (op. cit., p. 142).
(fig. 1) Henry Moore, Family, 1935. The Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham. BARCODE 25012781
(fig. 2) Henry Moore, Family Group, 1944. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. BARCODE 25012798
(fig. 3) Henry Moore, Family Group, 1944 (terra-cotta sketch-model). Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham. BARCODE 25012811