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 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.
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 the 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, where 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, 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 Trocadéro, and the reclining figure was to become 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.
Direct carving involves cutting into the final material without using preparatory 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 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 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 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 Londoners 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. He 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 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 man’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
In addition to receiving commissions for significant outdoor sculptures from the 1950s onwards, Moore 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.
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, save for extensions to the studio. The Henry Moore Foundation, established in 1977, now runs the house as a museum dedicated to the artist.