Executed in 1941, Woman in an Underground Shelter Feeding a Child is from Moore’s celebrated series of Shelter Drawings. The artist was inspired to create these works after seeing Londoners seeking refuge from the bombs of the Blitz by going in the stations and tunnels of the Tube network during the Second World War. The Shelter Drawings, several of which were acquired at the time for the nation and also by the Tate Gallery, are unique explorations of the human spirit in a situation of adversity. In the present work, Moore uses his appreciation of sculpture to grant the forms of these huddled shelterers with an incredible and intensely moving monumentality. There is a poetic timelessness and stillness in this image of people sleeping lined up along the tunnel and a mother feeding and protecting her child while the storm of conflict rages. Through Woman in an Underground Shelter Feeding a Child, it is easy to see why Herbert Read considered the Shelter Drawings to “constitute the most authentic expression of the special tragedy of war, its direct impact on the ordinary mass of humanity, the women, children, and old men of our cities” (H. Read, 'Introduction', pp. ix-xxviii, D. Sylvester, Henry Moore: Sculpture and Drawings 1921-1948, London, 1969, vol. 1, p. xxvii).
Although Moore had explored the theme of the Second World War already by the time the Blitz began, these had been intermittent experiments. However, one evening when he had visited friends and was using the Tube rather than a car, he found that he was travelling during a raid and related what he saw: “for the first time... 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, London, 2008, pp. 107-08).
It is this atmosphere that Woman in an Underground Shelter Feeding a Child so perfectly captures, as well as the visual assonance between Moore's sculptures and the clustered figures sitting together in the tunnel. The mother and child group figured among the very first sculptures the artist executed in 1922 and, together with the reclining figure, the subject would occupy Moore for his entire career. The mother and child theme assumed even more emphasis after 1943, when Moore was commissioned to produce a Madonna and Child sculpture for the Church of St. Matthew in Northampton. The confrontation with that sacred theme forced Moore to meditate on the theme more thoroughly: “The Madonna and Child should have an austerity and a nobility and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness) which is missing in the everyday Mother and Child,” Moore noted (quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., Henry Moore Sculpture, with Comments by the Artist, London, 1981, p. 90).
In the present Woman in an Underground Shelter Feeding a Child, Moore has employed his signature mixed technique of watercolor washed over the water-resistant surface created by the repeated striations of wax crayons, overlaid with delicate lines of pen and black ink, which describe the women's facial features and help to define the mass of the bodies. The artist uses color to create the massive, ennobling effect of classical drapery, which covers the mother and her child and serves to highlight the curves in the tunnel walls and figures lined up along them.