Henry Moore is one of the most renowned British sculptors of the 20th century. Born in a small mining town in Yorkshire in 1898, he was inspired to become a sculptor at the age of 11 by a story about Michelangelo. His father insisted he train as a teacher instead, which he saw as a more stable career. However, Moore joined the British Army in 1917, serving in France during World War I. In 1919, he used his ex-serviceman’s grant to enrol in classes at the Leeds School of Art. Two years after this, he won a scholarship to study sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art in London and would later become an instructor at the school.
Living in London, Moore regularly visited the collections of the British Museum. His early sculptures drew inspiration from African and Oceanic work, as well as Pre-Columbian art he discovered there. Trips to Paris and Italy in 1923 and 1926 also shaped his style and approach to form.
Like many of his European contemporaries, Moore believed passionately in direct carving. He was an advocate for a technique known as ‘truth to materials’, in which the sculptor’s vision responded directly to the inherent character of stone or wood as they carved. The majority of Moore’s output during the 1920s and 1930s adhered to this principle, as seen in works such as Head.
While Moore was inspired by nature throughout his career, his primary focus was the human figure. From naturalistic depictions of a mother and child to abstract visions of singular reclining figures, he returned to the human form repeatedly. As his practice evolved, he also began to explore new materials, working in terracotta, lead, plaster and bronze.
Moore remained in London following the outbreak of World War II and was appointed an official war artist in 1940. His famed 'Shelter Drawings', including Two Sleepers in the Underground, were inspired by his experiences of travelling through the city’s underground bomb shelters during this period.
In 1943, he received a commission from the Church of St. Matthew, Northampton, to carve a Madonna and Child. This was the first of an important series of family-group sculptures to emerge in Moore’s oeuvre. A major retrospective of his work opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1946 and two years later he won the International Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale.
Moore strongly believed in the civic responsibility of the artist. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he created a number of sculptures intended for public display in schools, hospitals and housing estates. He was invited by the Arts Council to create a new work for the Festival of Britain, due to be held in London in 1951. Although the organising committee suggested a family theme, Moore instead created a refined, skeletal reclining form. This work marked an important turning point in his career, and he began to embrace a greater sense of three-dimensionality in his work. A cast of Reclining Figure: Festival achieved a world record for the artist when it sold at Christie’s in London in June 2016 for £24,722,500.
Several important public commissions followed in the 1950s, including one for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Moore’s international reputation continued to grow through these years and he was able to realise his sculptures on an increasingly larger scale.
In 1977, the artist and his family established The Henry Moore Foundation to encourage public appreciation of the visual arts. A year later, he made a substantial donation of artworks from his personal collection to the Tate Gallery in London. Moore continued to create sculptures and drawings right up until his death in August 1986.
Two Sleepers in the Underground ( recto ); Figures and Sketches of Sculpture ( verso )