Head of Serpent
180 x 114 x 114 mm
Lent from a private collection 1994
Technique and condition
How to citeLyndsey Morgan, 'Technique and Condition', July 2013, in Alice Correia, ‘Head of Serpent 1927 by Henry Moore OM, CH’, catalogue entry, November 2012, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www
Over the course of his career Moore created four snake sculptures, of which Head of Serpent was the second. The first, Snake 1924 (fig.1), in white marble, presents a snake with the length of its body tightly coiled around itself. This sculpture is directly linked to a series of preparatory drawings which also show a snake coiled around itself, seen from different angles (fig.2). The way in which the upward looking snake’s head rests on its own body in the sculpture replicates the designs seen in Moore’s sketches. Although none of Moore’s sketches from the 1920s correspond as explicitly to Head of Serpent, his sketchbooks reveal that he was interested in animal forms. In his book Henry Moore: Animals, published in 1983, W.J. Strachan suggested that Head of Serpent was a continuation of the 1924 Snake. However, although Snake and Head of Serpent have a shared subject matter, in the later work Moore chose only to prioritise and develop the primary features of the earlier sculpture, namely the head and the mouth, dispensing with the rest of the snake’s body. Moreover, while Snake was designed to be placed on a flat surface, Head of Serpent was fashioned to hang on a wall.
Although he singled out the coiled rattlesnake for inclusion in his 1981 publication, it is likely that Moore also looked at other examples of ancient Mexican snakes in the British Museum during the 1920s. Of the entwined snakes in his 1921–2 sketch, the example on the far left appears to have more in common with the stone serpent (fig.4) than with the coiled rattlesnake. In 1996 Moore’s niece, Ann Garrould, noted that the exact source of a sketch from 1925, annotated ‘snake – head of serpent’ (fig.5), had not yet been identified, but recounted how Moore had called it ‘a bit Mexican’.13 The sketch shows two snake heads that recall both the coiled rattlesnake showing its fangs and the reposed but menacing stone example. In his sketches Moore probably amalgamated shapes seen in a range of ancient Mexican examples. With the knowledge of form that these sketches provided, Moore went on to create his own interpretations of ancient snake forms. Indeed, in Herbert Read’s 1934 publication Henry Moore: Sculptor, Moore is quoted as saying, ‘in my sculpture I do not use my memory or observations of a particular object, but rather whatever comes up from my general fund of knowledge’.14 According to Read, Moore’s animal sculptures from the 1920s were reduced to certain basic shapes or features in an attempt to convey the animal’s life force or inner character.15 In so-called primitive art, including archaic Egyptian and ancient Mexican sculpture, Read explained:
Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Quetzalcoatl and the ‘form invention’ of ancient Mexican sculpture, in 1927 Moore made a number of animal sculptures that only loosely resemble their subjects. Moore’s bronze Bird 1927 (fig.8) and concrete Duck 1927 (fig.9) share some similarities with Head of Serpent, in particular the angled, thrusting head.
How to cite
Alice Correia, ‘Head of Serpent 1927 by Henry Moore OM, CH’, catalogue entry, November 2012, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www