10 things to know about the life and work of Henry Moore

‘Even when I was a student I was totally preoccupied by sculpture in its full spatial richness’ — an overview of the great British sculptor’s life and career, illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Photograph of Henry Moore, circa 1968

Henry Moore, circa 1968. Photo: © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

Born on 30 July 1898, Henry Moore was the seventh child of a Yorkshire coal miner

Henry Moore’s father wanted a better life for his children than one spent working in the mines, and encouraged them to pursue higher education. He was strongly opposed to Moore’s decision to become a sculptor — a job he regarded as manual labour. Moore initially took his father’s advice and trained as a teacher, working at the primary school he had attended in Castleford.

Henry Moore, O.M., C.H. (1898-1986), Helmet Head No. 1, conceived in 1950 and cast in 1960. Bronze with a dark brown patina, on a black-painted wooden base. 13 in (33 cm) high, excluding base. Sold for £302,400 on 20 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Moore was gassed at the Battle of Cambrai on 30 November 1917

After recuperating, he spent most of the remainder of the war as a physical training instructor. However, his war service entitled him to an ex-serviceman’s grant, and in 1919 he became a student at Leeds School of Art, working in a sculpture studio set up especially for him.

At Leeds he was given access to the private collection of the university vice-chancellor, Sir Michael Sadler, through which he first came into contact with Modernism. He also met Barbara Hepworth, beginning a lifelong friendship and healthy professional rivalry.

The chacmool, a type of reclining Mesoamerican statuary, is perhaps Moore’s greatest single influence

In 1921 Moore won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. His work up to that point had retained a Romantic, Victorian flavour, but now he was able to study the ethnographic collections in the V&A and the British Museum. He would recall in 1955: ‘Even when I was a student I was totally preoccupied by sculpture in its full spatial richness, and if I spent a lot of time at the British Museum in those days, it was because so much of the primitive sculpture there was distinguished by complete cylindrical realisation.’ 

Henry Moore, O.M., C.H. (1898-1986), Reclining Figure, conceived in 1945. Bronze with a dark brown patina, on a wooden base. 5⅝ in (14.3 cm) long, excluding base. Sold for £113,400 on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

He soon hit on the two themes that would occupy him for the rest of his life. The first was the mother and child, combining Christian imagery with the humanity of African art. In 1924, when he saw a plaster cast of a chacmool at the Paris Trocadéro, the reclining figure became Moore’s second major sculptural motif.

Moore switched to direct carving in the early 1920s

He was inspired by seeing the work of Constantin Brancusi, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Frank Dobson. Direct carving was revolutionary in British sculpture, and was taken up by a triumvirate of promising Royal College sculptors: Moore, Hepworth and John Skeaping, who was Hepworth’s first husband.

Henry Moore, O.M., C.H. (1898-1986), Head, circa 1930. Alabaster, on a verde di Prato base, unique. 8 in (20.4 cm) high, excluding base. Sold for £5,122,000 on 20 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Direct carving involves cutting into the final material without using preparatory maquettes or clay modelling, and making aesthetic use of any natural flaws in the marble or wood discovered during the carving process — what is known as ‘truth to materials’.

In 1928 Moore received his first public commission: West Wind, a relief carved in Portland stone for London Underground’s headquarters at 55 Broadway. Epstein also contributed pieces to the project.

He briefly became involved with Surrealism

Moore joined Paul Nash’s group of artists, ‘Unit One’, and served on the organising committee of the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, alongside Nash and Roland Penrose. While he never wholly made the leap to Surrealism, Moore’s interaction with international artists associated with the movement, such as Jean Arp, drew his attention to the possibilities of biomorphism — the use of abstract forms that are reminiscent of natural objects.

Henry Moore, O.M., C.H. (1898-1986), Reclining Figure, 1935. Pencil, ink, black chalk and wash on paper. 14⅜ x 21¼ in (36.5 x 54 cm). Sold for £15,120 on 21 March 2024 at Christie’s in London

Moore was always more interested in aesthetic questions of form and volume, and the affinity between human beings and the landscape, than in the contents of the unconscious, but biomorphism allowed his work to take on a more abstract quality.

He also began to use bronze, meaning that he could cast editions of his work instead of carving each one by hand, which enabled him to fulfil larger public commissions. Unbeknown to him, it was a crucial commercial step, allowing his work to reach the very wide audience he would come to command.

Moore found an unlikely supporter in Kenneth Clark

The celebrated museum director, art historian and broadcaster purchased a number of Moore’s 1940 drawings of people sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground. Clark was chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which commissioned Moore to make further drawings, completed between autumn 1940 and spring 1941. They remain some of the most iconic artworks of the Second World War.

Clark’s patronage was crucial to Moore’s success. As Moore wrote to him on 22 April 1939: ‘Whenever I write to you nowadays it seems to be to thank you for something you’ve done for me.’

Moore’s studio was bombed in September 1940

Like many of the artists who had gathered in Hampstead in the inter-war years, Moore moved away from London to the countryside with his wife Irina. They settled in a farmhouse called Hoglands in Perry Green, near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire.

Such was Moore’s dominance of British sculpture that a generation of sculptors revolted against him

The groundbreaking exhibition New Aspects of British Sculpture at the British Pavilion of the 1952 Venice Biennale was a direct challenge to Moore and Hepworth. It featured a group of young sculptors such as Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage, all portraying what the exhibition’s curator, Herbert Read, referred to as the ‘geometry of fear’.

They had common cause with European post-war sculptors of the time, such as Giacometti and Germaine Richier, who were focusing on humanity’s post-war existential crisis. As if in defiance, Moore created sculptures of family groups throughout the 1950s — a humane, unifying image set against the slaughter of war.

Moore gave away many sculptures on condition that they would be installed in public places

Moore created many significant outdoor sculptures from the 1950s onwards, among them a Reclining Figure  to be placed outside the Paris UNESCO building in 1958 and Knife Edge Two Piece (1962-65) for London’s Parliament Square. He also started to employ increasing numbers of assistants, including a young Anthony Caro and Richard Wentworth.

Henry Moore, O.M., C.H. (1898-1986), Seated Figure, conceived in 1949. Bronze with a dark brown patina. 17⅛ in (43.5 cm) high

Seated Figure, (above), was conceived in response to a 1948 commission from the British Film Academy, known today as the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). Cast in bronze as an edition of five, the award was presented to the production units of award-winning films until 1967.

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By the end of the 1970s, his work was appearing in more than 40 exhibitions every year

Despite his enormous wealth, Moore lived frugally, and his house in Perry Green is practically unchanged since he moved in, except for extensions to the studio. The Henry Moore Foundation, established in 1977, now runs the house as a museum dedicated to the artist.

Part of Christie’s 20th and 21st Century Art sales series throughout March 2024, the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale takes place on 20 March, followed by the Modern British and Irish Art Day Sale on 21 March. The pre-sale view runs from 13 to 20 March

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