‘Fear, expectancy, boredom, lassitude, mutual love, and protection – all the emotions in the attitudes of these victims of war are rendered in drawings of monumental power’
‘in their visionary intensity, Moore’s Shelter Drawings have a rightful place among the supreme achievements of English graphic art’
‘I found myself excited by the bombed buildings but more still by the unbelievable scenes of life in the underground shelters. I began filling a notebook with drawings… Naturally I could not draw in the shelter itself. I drew from memory on my return home. But the scenes of the shelter world, static figures (asleep) – “reclining figures” – remained vivid in my mind... I was absorbed in the work for a whole year; I did nothing else’
Executed in a deftly rendered combination of crayon, watercolour, pen and ink, Henry Moore’s Two Sleepers in the Underground (recto); Figures and Sketches of Sculpture (verso) of 1941 is one of the artist’s great Shelter Drawings, the series in which he captured hauntingly beautiful and compassion-filled visions of people in the unofficial Underground air raid shelters of London during the long and terrifying months of the Blitz. Here, a couple emerges from the darkness, a silvery light illuminating their bodies as their outstretched arms mirror each other in perfect accord. Pictured with dramatic foreshortening, the figures are covered in a blanket – delicately coloured with hues of pale green and white – that encases them like stone, their evident vulnerability furnished with a layer of resolute protection, a sanctum as they lie amid the dark bowels of the besieged capital. This composition has been described by Alan Wilkinson as ‘the most powerful and disturbing of the Shelter Drawings’ (Henry Moore Drawings, exh. cat., London, 1977, p. 35), with closely related works found in the Tate, London and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
On 7 September 1940, the German Luftwaffe began their sustained campaign of nightly air raids of London and other cities across England. ‘The air raids began – and the war, from being an awful worry, became a real experience,’ Moore recalled to James Johnson Sweeney in 1947. One evening four days later, the artist and his wife had been dining with friends when, returning to their home in Hampstead on the Underground, they witnessed for the first time the mass of people who had begun using tube platforms and tunnels as subterranean air raid shelters.
During the first two months of the Blitz, some 100,000 people a night flocked to the Underground as air raid sirens warned of the bombs that were soon to rain down on the city above them. Children slept as the trains roared past, flashes of light illuminating the sea of figures, while strangers sat side by side on stairs, huddled together in forced intimacy often with only threadbare blankets for warmth, as they waited to see the outcome of the bombing. When the Moores arrived at Belsize Park station, they were unable to leave due to the intensity of the falling bombs – this was the first night that R.A.F. fighters had been grounded to allow London’s anti-aircraft units to fire unimpeded at the enemy – thus the artist was able ‘to observe and remain in the atmosphere of the station longer than I would have done,’ stunned and deeply moved by the scenes that lay before him (quoted in ibid., p. 29).
Profoundly affected by the chaotic mass of humanity that he had witnessed in the shadowy depths of the city, Moore immediately began to record his experiences of this unexpected encounter, filling notebook after notebook with sketches of figures. He was conscious not to intrude upon the shelterers’ privacy during his trips underground. As a result, he chose not to draw from life, but instead worked from memory, silently absorbing the chaotic atmosphere of the shelters and trying to ingrain particular groupings or compositions that he witnessed there into his mind so that he could recreate them in his sketchbook when he returned home at dawn. Moore also made notes describing the scenes throughout his sketchbooks. One such inscription appears to describe the composition of Two Sleepers in the Underground, as Moore reminded himself, ‘Remember figures seen last Wednesday night (Piccadilly Tube). Two sleeping figures (seen from above) sharing cream coloured thin blankets (drapery closely stuck to form). Hands and arms. Try positions oneself’ (ibid., p. 32).
Having previously declined an offer from Sir Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery and Chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, to become an War Artist, Moore and his view of the war was altered by the Shelter Drawings, and he subsequently accepted Clark’s renewed request. He was granted an official permit to the London Underground, and returned two or three nights a week to study life there. The scenes that he witnessed provided Moore the opportunity to develop what had already become his favoured motifs: the reclining figure, as well as the mother and child. He quickly found in the clusters of shrouded figures an equivalence with his sculpture, using this to inform his drawing, ‘…even the train tunnels seemed to be like the holes in my sculpture,’ he recalled (ibid., 1977, p. 29).
The composition of Two Sleepers in the Underground particularly captivated Moore, who depicted it in several drawings. The foreshortened depiction of the two lying figures recalls Mantegna’s The Lamentation of Christ (circa 1480, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) as well as the reclining figures in the foreground of his Agony in the Garden. Held in the National Gallery, London (1455-1456), this likeness is perhaps not coincidental. The artistic equivalences of the Shelter Drawings were multivalent for Moore, who not only compared his figures to the Renaissance and antiquity, but also likened them to ‘the chorus in a Greek drama, telling us about the violence we don’t actually witness,’ as well as to the images of ancient Pompeiians buried under the debris of their destroyed city (quoted in op. cit., 2002, p. 261). With their blankets transformed into classical draperies – a key formal aspect of the Shelter series that would become a central feature of the artist’s subsequent sculpture – the figures are endowed with a solemn monumentality and timelessness.
Indeed, as in all of his Shelter Drawings, Moore sought not to capture individual portraits of the capital’s inhabitants, but rather created increasingly abstract and archetypal figures. In this way, much like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid), Moore’s Shelter figures become universal symbols of humanity in the throes of war and suffering. The shared experience of the Second World War and the tragedy that befell the country’s capital and its inhabitants not only imbued the Shelter Drawings with the powerful pathos and compassion that radiates from a work such as Two Sleepers in the Underground, but would continue to inform his art for the rest of his life. ‘Without the war, which directed one’s direction to life itself, I think I would have been a far less sensitive and responsible person – if I had ignored all that and went on working just as before. The war brought out and encouraged the humanist side in one’s work’ (op. cit., 1977, p. 36).