Henry Moore is regarded as one of Britain’s most important modern sculptors. He is renowned for his semi-abstract, biomorphic sculptures that broke away from traditional ideas of form, proportion and composition to represent the human figure in a new and exciting way.
Born in Yorkshire in 1898, Henry Moore was the son of a miner. He showed talent for drawing at school but was encouraged to become a teacher rather than an artist. However he soon found that this career did not suit him and signed up to serve the British Army during the First World War. Thanks to an ex-servicemen’s grant, after the war Moore was able to attend the Leeds School of Art where he began sculpting in stone, wood and bronze. In 1921 he went on to the Royal College of Art in London where he later became a teacher.
By the early 1930s Moore had begun to achieve critical and commercial success, showing his sculptures in London galleries and earning his first public commission, a carved relief entitled West Wind, for the new headquarters of the London Underground at St. James’s. The work was heavily influenced by the style of Jacob Epstein who was a pioneer of Modernism. At the time he was living in Hampstead, surrounded by a creative network of artists such as Marcel Breuer, Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read, who also had a huge impact on the development of his style.
Despite admiration from fellow artists and critics alike, Moore’s work was often considered too unconventional for the tradition of an institution such as the RCA, and in 1931 he resigned from his post following pressure from his colleagues and the press, and began teaching as Head of Sculpture at Chelsea School of Art. This job allowed him more free time to work on his sculpture and he was able to exhibit widely, even participating in the celebrated International Surrealist Exhibition in London and the Cubism and Abstract Art show at the MoMA in New York, both in 1936.
In 1939 war broke out again and London became the target of heavy bombing. In 1940 the home that Moore shared with his wife Irina Radetsky was hit and the couple moved to the rural hamlet of Perry Green, Hertfordshire where the Henry Moore Foundation still exists today. Here the artist could work on more large-scale works in a number of outbuildings that he converted into studios, all among the natural landscape that had perhaps the biggest influence on his ideas about the body.
While at Perry Green Moore became a member of the local Home Guard and continued to visit London. This period produced some of Moore’s best known work, particularly the Shelter Drawings of Londoners taking cover from the Blitz in the city’s underground system. In 1941 Moore became an Official War Artist, and was commissioned to create more of these drawings, which brought his work to a much wider audience. Rendered in wax and ink, these pieces remain as poignant today as when they were first made, the ghostly figures – diminished by the hardships of both war and poverty – evoking empathy and heartbreak in the viewer.
Mother & Child
In 1946 MoMA held the first retrospective of Moore’s work, bringing his work to a truly global audience. That same year, Moore’s daughter Mary was born and the artist’s work began to focus on the theme of mother and child which resulted in a number of seated figures that became some of his best known sculptural pieces and can be seen throughout his print editions and drawings.
Moore was heavily influenced by Jacob Espstein who in turn was influenced by non-Western, ‘tribal’ art from Africa, South America and South East Asia. Moore was particularly inspired by forms such as the Chacmool sculptures from the Mayan settlement in Chichen Itza, Mexico, which had a particular impact on his ideas around the reclining figure.
Moore also studied alongside sculptor Barbara Hepworth who shared his interest in direct carving (as opposed to modelling). While Hepworth spent the war years in St Ives in Cornwall, the two continued to share a similar style and approach to sculpture. It was Hepworth who first thought to pierce her sculptures, an act that Moore soon appropriated in order to explore the dialogue between positive and negative space. However it was Moore that got the lion’s share of the limelight, winning greater support from the British Arts Council and significantly more acclaim for his Venice Biennale show of 1948, compared to Hepworth’s of 1950.
In later years, Moore’s sculptures became larger and more monumental as public commissions began to roll in. These were born initially from hand-moulded maquettes which Moore believed were important in allowing the sculptor to “[get] the solid shape, as it were, inside his head… he identifies himself with its centre of gravity.” The larger versions of the sculptures required a number of assistants to be carved and cast. Moore preferred to exhibit these sculptures in open landscapes such as sculpture parks and urban public spaces, rather than the traditional art gallery setting.
On the Market
Due to his pioneering modernism and early success, Moore’s work has always been in demand among collectors. Today his sculptures continue to reach record-breaking amounts at auction with particular demand for his bronzes.
Moore’s drawings and limited edition prints, which, like many artists, he used to develop his ideas, have, over the years, also become highly sought after works of art in their own right. From signed lithographs of ink studies of his reclining figures to etchings of sketches for his Mother & Child series these works offer an affordable entry point to this great artist’s oeuvre.