THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the death of Henry Moore OBE on August 31 sparked nostalgic memories for me of working as his assistant from 1950 to 1953.
I had taken over the job from Oliffe Richmond who had first introduced me to Moore. The dominating task for the first year was working on a large bronze reclining figure, commissioned by the Arts Council for the 1951 Festival of Britian. It was to be installed on the exhibition site on the south bank of the Thames. The construction in plaster of this same figure was documented on film by John Read for the BBC so that the working time was interrupted by a film crew setting up in the studio every couple of weeks.
During this period, Moore was preparing for a large retrospective exhibition of his work to be held at the Tate Gallery. A body of his work passed through the studio from galleries and collections throughout Britain and America for cleaning and presentation. There was at one time in the studio two of the large elm wood carvings from the 1930s, numerous smaller works and the foundry stages.
Major works subsequent to this were the King and Queens bronzes, one of which later toured Australia, a large elm wood carving, exterior and interior forms and the four large Portland stone ‘square form’ carvings that form a screen on the Time Life Building in London’s Bond Street. There was also a large draped reclining figure for the terrace of the same building. This was the result of Moore’s first visit to Greece and seeing the classical Greek figures.
Mine was a rich working experience that also embraced the construction of a bronze casting furnace and kiln with the discovery for me of wax as a working medium for small sculpture. Henry entered into all aspects with a cheerful, unfussy approach to the work in hand and he maintained a warm relationship with everyone who worked for him.
His own day would be spent in the studio working on small wax maquettes. Sometimes these would owe their point of departure to a small bone form the shape of which had interested him. Or it may have been a chalk pebble pierced with holes that had been picked up on his annual summer holiday on the beach at Broadstairs. Fintstones turned up by the plough in the surrounding farms were another source. Like the man himself his sculpture was very much of the soil and places he revered. These maquettes, if the idea challenged him, would then be scaled up to a larger dimension with most forms now assuming a human form but never to the extent of completely obscuring their source.
At this time the late Owen Broughton, who later taught sculpture in Adelaide, worked for a short period in the studio as did the English sculptors Phillip King and Anthony Caro.
These years saw Moore’s career burgeon rapidly. The British Council travelled his work widely. He had won the 1947 sculpture prize at the Venice Biennale so that an English artist achieved an international reputation of acclaim not equalled before.
Curt Valentin, his New York dealer, was a frequent visitor to the studio and was selling his works widely in the United States. The demands on Moore’s time and energies were increasing but he still managed to go about his work with a passion and attend to his many social duties cheerfully.
Some days could be disrupted by a bus load of Americans from an Arts Council summer course. There were frequent overseas visitors and other sculptors to be greeted. He had a wide circle of friends: Herbert Read, a fellow Yorkshireman, came frequently, as did Graham Greene, and sometimes William Walton, the composer, and Sir Philip Hendy, Director of the National Gallery. One memorable day we were honoured by the presence of the legendary Nancy Cunard clacking with every movement and gesture from the dozens of ivory and amber beads and bangles that spanned her arms and neck.
I visited the studio again in 1980. Henry by now was eighty-two and restricted with arthritis, nonetheless he maintained the spark he had always had.
By this time he was, of course, a world figure, and what had been a comfortable Elizabethan farmhouse plus stable converted to studio had now been enlarged and a complex of studios spread over many acres of the surrounding farmlands of Perry Green, the hamlet near Much Hadham in Hertfordshire where he lived. With his wife Irina’s aid the grounds had been landscaped into a sculpture park with reproductions and originals of his major works placed according to his directions. A Henry Moore Trust had been formed and this had its headquarters in a modern building next door where archives, photographs and the general business that becomes the lot of a modern day international figure were kept.
Henry ruefully recalled the simpler days of the forties and fifties and complained of becoming ensnared by his own trust. But he appreciated his current status which enabled him to have recently purchased a superb Paul Cézanne painting. His home had become a treasure trove of both his own and fellow artists’ works as well as primitive and classic works of history and of regions.
Henry Moore’s influence on contemporary sculpture has been profound. His work is so distinct that rather than leaving a school of Henry Moore his followers tended to seek their sculptural solutions in the very opposite to his aims. Hence Caro found his in the rather dry aestheticism of David Smith’s welded steel forms. Reg Butler, too, achieved his eminence in welded steel as did Lynn Chadwick with his finely balanced mobile steel works.
But they existed now as sculptors in an environment that had opened up to receive their talents largely by the genius and industry of Henry Moore’s unique vision that brought sculpture to the fore at a time, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, when it had almost become debilitated.
Alan Ingham is a sculptor living and working in Sydney