Henry Moore was the most celebrated sculptor of his time, and the second part of his career, in particular, demonstrated that Modernist sculpture was, after all, surprisingly adaptable to official needs. In this sense, Moore was the contemporary equivalent of the great Neo Classical sculptors such as Canova and Thorvaldsen. Moore was born in July 1898 in Castleford, Yorkshire, the seventh child of a mine manager who had worked at the pit face. Both parents were strong and supportive personalities, and Moore’s childhood was a happy one. He became a student teacher in 1915, and by 1916 was teaching in the local elementary school which he had attended in his boyhood. At seventeen he joined the army, as the youngest member of his regiment, the Civil Service Rifles.
For him the First World War was not the traumatic experience it was for so many others: he remembers the army as being ‘just like a bigger family’ and says that ‘for me the war passed in a romantic haze of trying to be a hero.’ He was gassed at Cambrai but made a swift recovery, and finished the war as a physical training instructor. In September 1919, after a brief return to elementary-school teaching, he went to Leeds School of Art on an ex-serviceman’s grant. He was soon recognized as a star pupil, and in 1921 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London: I was in a dream of excitement. When I rode on the open top of a bus I felt that I was travelling in Heaven almost.
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And that the bus was floating on the air. Moore made the most of the opportunities London offered, regularly visiting the museums, where he acquired a great interest in primitive art: he was particularly struck by pre-Columbian sculpture. In his first year at the Royal College of Art he went to Paris with his fellow student Raymond Coxon, who had been with him at Leeds; these visits were to be many times repeated. In 1925 he visited Italy on a travelling scholarship – something which caused a certain creative blockage as he tried to work his way through what he had seen and experienced.
Even before he went to Italy Moore had been fortunate enough to be offered a part time post as Assistant in the Sculpture Department at the Royal College of Art. In 1926 he held his first one man show, which attracted some distinguished purchasers including Augustus John, Henry Lamb and Jacob Epstein. He was also commissioned to provide a sculpture for the new London headquarters of the London Underground – the job came to Moore on the recommendation of Epstein, who was also employed there. Moore married a beautiful Russian, Irma Radetzsky, in 1929, and in 1931 they bought a small cottage in Kent where he could work during the Royal College holidays. He was still obsessed, as he had been from the beginning, with the idea of direct carving, and at this time everything was laboriously hewn by hand. His second one man exhibition also took place that year, and it was Epstein who wrote the catalogue introduction, saying: ‘For the future of sculpture in England Henry Moore is vitally important.’ By this time he was sufficiently well known to have become a controversial figure.
His show was savagely attacked in the Morning Post and a number of other newspapers and periodicals. The Morning Post review was brought to the attention of the Royal College of Art and played a role in the non renewal of his teaching appointment in 1932, after seven years. Fortunately Moore was able to move to the Chelsea School of Art, which had already approached him. In 1934 he sold his cottage in Kent and bought another, equally small, but with five acres of ground attached to it which enabled him to see his work in the open air. In London the Moores lived in Hampstead, where they came together with the group which included Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and the critic Herbert Read.
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Nicholson inclined to Constructivism, but Moore, though reluctant to join any stylistic grouping, was more interested in Surrealism, and showed at the International Exhibition of Surrealist Art held in London in 1936. This was also the year in which his work was first seen in the USA: he was included in an exhibition entitled Cubism and Abstract Art, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Moore commuted from his cottage in Kent to London in order to teach. When the Chelsea School of Art was evacuated he resigned and applied to Chelsea Polytechnic for training as a munitions toolmaker. Before the application could have any effect (the course was oversubscribed) he began making the first drawings of people sheltering in the London Underground during the Blitz. These came to the attention of the War Artists Advisory Committee, and Moore was commissioned to make larger and more finished versions.
When the drawings were shown in 1940 and 1941 Moore began to attract a wide public, who recognized their own feelings in what he had to show them. Moore’s studio in Hampstead was damaged by bombing during the Blitz. As a result he moved to Much Had ham in Hertfordshire, where friends had told him there was a house available. In 1942 he continued his work for the War Artists Advisory Committee, drawing miners in his native Yorkshire. It was only in 1943 that he was able to return to sculpture, with a commission for a figure of a Virgin and Child for the church of St Matthew’s, Northampton. This was his first draped figure and a more traditional and accessible image than anything he had made so far.
The theme of mothers and children continued in his post war sculpture, inspired now by something personal – the birth of a daughter in 1946. The year 1946 also marked an important stage in the growth of Moore’s public reputation – a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was a triumphant success. The show later travelled to Chicago and San Francisco, and then on to Australia. In 1948 Moore was asked to take part in the first post war Biennale in Venice, and carried off the main prize for sculpture.
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His stature as an artist of international reputation was thus confirmed. Moore now began to shift from direct carving to the model ling he had once despised. He began in 1952 by building an experimental foundry at the bottom of his garden, in order to learn the fundaments of the process; the shift from one method to another was accelerated after 1954 when he had a brief illness which seems to have given him a sense of his own mortality. Later, in 1960, he said: ‘The difference between model ling and carving is that model ling is a quicker thing, and so it becomes a chance to get rid of one’s ideas.’ There was another reason for reverting to techniques he had once scorned – the fact that he was now being offered commissions for works on a massive scale. Some of these, like the screen for the Time Life building in London executed in 1952, could be carved, but others, like the massive Reclining Figure for the Lincoln Center in New York (1961-65), had to be cast. Others again, like another Reclining Figure made for the Unesco Headquarters in Paris (1957-58), though still made of stone, were largely shaped by assistants.
Moore’s ever expanding studios and gardens came to resemble a factory as the work came to be organized along quasi industrial lines, with maquette’s and models of gradually increasing size being made until the final full scale result was achieved. Maquette’s for rejected ideas would also be cast, so that there was a steady flow of small bronzes from Moore’s studio, as well as drawings and prints. All this was a reversion to a pattern widespread in the sculptors’s tu dios of the nineteenth century but rejected by the early Modernists. In his final years, Moore was increasingly criticized for the amount of work he was prepared to leave to his assistants, and for the resulting insensitivity of surface in many of his larger works. The best of his late work is to be found in his drawings.
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While those of his active maturity nearly always seem to have been made with sculpture in mind (almost the sole exception to this being the celebrated series of Shelter Drivings made during the Second World War), the very late drawings are often pictorial rather than sculptural. Moore’s studies of trees, made in old age, can be compared to similar sheets by Rubens and Van Dyck. In the post war years Moore was loaded with official honours – it is difficult to think of any which he might have coveted which were not offered to him. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1955, and a member of the Order of Merit in 1963. These marks of distinction showed the extent to which Modernist art had now been absorbed and accepted by the traditionally conservative British cultural establishment. They also demonstrated the extent to which Moore himself now identified with this establishment.
Though his work remained in demand to the end of his life, and continues to fetch high prices at auction, it now seems very far from the mainstream of sculptural development.