Jack Castle presents an overview of the life and career of the great British sculptor
Henry Moore’s father wanted a better life for his children than 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 grammar school he had attended in Castleford.
After recuperating, he spent most of the remainder of the war as a PT instructor. However, his war service made him entitled to an ex-serviceman’s grant, and in 1919 he became a student at Leeds School of Art, working in the sculpture studio set up especially for him. At Leeds he was given access to the private collection of the university chancellor, Sir Michael Sadler, where he first came into contact with Modernism. He also met Barbara Hepworth, beginning a lifelong friendship and healthy professional rivalry.
In 1921 Moore won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, London. His work up to this 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.’ 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 he saw a chacmool in plaster cast at the Paris Trocadero, and the reclining figure was to become Moore’s second major sculptural motif.
He was inspired by seeing the work of Constantin Brancuși, 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. Direct carving involves cutting into the final material without preparation using maquettes or clay modelling, and making aesthetic use of the natural flaws in marble or wood discovered during the carving process — what is known as ‘truth to materials’. In 1928 Moore received his first public commission — a relief carved in Portland stone called West Wind for the side of London Underground’s headquarters at 55 Broadway. Epstein and Eric Gill also contributed pieces to the project.
Moore joined Paul Nash’s ‘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 jump into Surrealism, Moore’s interaction with international artists associated with the movement, such as Jean Arp, drew his attention to the possibilities of biomorphism — abstract forms that are nevertheless reminiscent of natural objects. Moore was always more interested in aesthetic questions of form and shape, and the affinity between human beings and the landscape, than he was in the contents of the unconscious, but biomorphism allowed his work to take on a more abstract quality. He also began working in bronze. This allowed him to cast editions of his work instead of carving each one by hand, and enabled him to fulfil larger public commissions. Unbeknown to him it was a crucial commercial step, enabling his work to reach the very wide audience he would come to command.
The celebrated museum director, art historian and broadcaster purchased a number of Moore’s 1940 drawings of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground. Clark was chairman of the War Artists’ advisory committee, and the WAAC commissioned further drawings which were 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’.
Like many of the artists who had gathered in Hampstead in the inter-war years, Moore moved away from London to the countryside. He settled in a farmhouse called Hoglands in Perry Green, near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire.
The groundbreaking New Aspects of British Sculpture exhibition 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 Herbert Read referred to as ‘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 man’s post-war existential crisis. As if in defiance, Moore created series of family groups throughout the 1950s — a humane, unifying image set against the slaughter of war.
In addition to receiving commissions for significant outdoor sculptures from the 1950s onwards, he created a reclining figure for outside the Paris UNESCO building in 1958, as well as Knife Edge Two Piece, 1962-65, for London’s Parliament Square. Moore also started employing increasing numbers of assistants, including a young Anthony Caro and Richard Wentworth.
Despite his enormous financial wealth Moore lived frugally, and his house in Perry Green is practically unchanged since he moved in, save for extensions to the studio. The Henry Moore Foundation was established in 1977, which now runs his house at Perry Green as a museum dedicated to the artist.