Three female figures are huddled together, one holding a child, one knitting, one with her hands clasped together on her lap in anxiety. Created in 1941, this image is one of Henry Moore's celebrated Shelter Drawings, showing Londoners seeking refuge from the Blitz by going into the Underground during the Second World War. This image is filled with the claustrophobic darkness of the underlit tunnels, yet the people themselves have been captured with electric flashes of light colour as well as earthy, mossy green highlights. To some extent, Three Women in a Shelter shows the beacon of humanity glowing in this terrestrial underworld.
It was early on in the London Blitz that Moore, travelling to visit friends by Underground because his car was not working, had first witnessed the use of the tunnels as impromptu bomb shelters. Travelling on the Northern Line, he saw,
'people lying on the platforms at all the stations we passed... When we got out at Belsize Park we were not allowed to leave the station because of the fierceness of the barrage. We stayed there for an hour and I was fascinated by the sight of people camping out deep under the ground. I had never seen so many rows of reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me to be like the holes in my sculpture. And there were intimate little touches. Children fast asleep with trains roaring past only a couple of yards away. People who were obviously strangers to one another forming tight little intimate groups' (Moore, quoted in C. Lichtenstern, Henry Moore: Work Theory Impact, F. Elliott & M. Foster (trans.), London, 2008, p. 107).
It is this atmosphere that Three Women in a Shelter so perfectly captures, as well as the visual assonance between Moore's sculptures and the clustered figures sitting together in the tunnel.
Because of the darkness in the tunnels, Moore was unable to work extensively in situ; instead, he recreated images such as Three Women in a Shelter from memory. Some of the pictures that Moore created in this way would be shown at the National Gallery, of which the permanent collection had been moved into safety in a Welsh mountain. When his friend Kenneth Clark, the National Gallery's director, first saw them he ensured that Moore, who had earlier turned down the position of Official War Artist, was approached again by the War Artists' Advisory Committee. As a War Artist, Moore therefore had access to extra fuel, to materials, and was given permits to roam the London Underground, seeking subject matter for his pictures such as Three Women in a Shelter. Ironically, this would be the first period by which he made his living as an artist, having earlier made recourse to teaching. It was also a turning point for Moore himself, who became more involved in the emotional rather than the formal dimensions of his own work. As he himself explained, 'Without the war, which directed one 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' (Moore, quoted in R. Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore, London, 1987, p. 176).