Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Henry Moore: The Sculptor as Public Figure

Jennifer Mundy

Moore at work in his Hammersmith studio, c.1925–6
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Henry Moore Foundation Archive
To a greater degree than perhaps any other British artist of the twentieth-century, the works of Henry Moore have been so enveloped in shifting, and at times contradictory, discourses about their meaning and historical significance, that fresh perspectives have often seemed elusive. Already in the 1930s, but with accelerating momentum from the end of the Second World War, Moore’s sculptures were the subject of intense aesthetic, social and political discussions, in many cases orchestrated by an artistic establishment eager to find a cultural icon for a modern social-democratic society that had emerged victorious, if exhausted, from the war against fascism and now stood poised against communism. A careful evaluation of the exceptional force of Moore’s public identity in its different phases and of the remarkable social reach of his sculptures is one of the objectives of this project. Another is to distinguish the sculptures from their surrounding discursive webs to explore the extent to which they can be seen afresh as carefully crafted and manufactured works of art and how this might affect our understanding of them today.
Moore claimed in 1937 that it was ‘a mistake for a sculptor or painter to speak or write very often about his art’.1 But by nature gregarious and a born teacher, he in fact discussed his work, and wrote about it, extensively over his long career, more so than perhaps any other artist of his generation. He thus became a primary architect of his own public image. There are today no less than two volumes of his collected writings and conversations, bringing together articles, letters, private notes and public statements and interviews.2 These show Moore to be thoughtful, articulate and repeatedly willing to talk about what was important to him in plain, accessible language. His words became a touchstone of interpretations of his artworks, and helped fuel a huge industry of writings about Moore, in the UK and around the world. In 1976, nearing the end of his life and conscious of his place in history, Moore commissioned a bibliography of all known references to his work, which resulted in no fewer than five volumes published between 1992 and 1995.
This bibliography bears witness to the breadth and range of interpretations of Moore and his work during his lifetime and immediately following his death in 1986. Moore has been seen as both a ‘northern’ artist (with reference to his Yorkshire roots) and a Romantic artist, able to find new ways of expressing nature and the landscape in sculptural forms. He has been discussed as someone who had perhaps been traumatised by his experiences in the trenches during the First World War, as well as, importantly, a leading figure among Britain’s modernist artists in the interwar years, willing to endure public and official opprobrium to pursue his vision of what contemporary sculpture could be. Famous for his down-to-earth manner, Moore has been seen as a gifted communicator, able to capture the spirit of the nation during and after the Second World War, and willing in his later years to give hundreds of interviews (and allow himself repeatedly to be filmed and photographed) with the aim of promoting his works and helping the ‘man in the street’ to understand them. For some influential critics, Moore’s figures – often lumpen, broken or pierced – have reflected deep-seated, perhaps unconscious, personal fears, desires and even erotic longings. For others, Moore has been an artist deeply inspired by the classical tradition, one who cannot be understood without reference to his ambition from an early age to vie with the great geniuses of the past. One of the aims of the project has been to look at the various roots of these different interpretations and how these ideas have responded to the evolution of Moore’s work, changing approaches towards writing about art, and the social, cultural and political contexts in which the individual sculptures were received.
The existing wealth of literature, mostly explanatory and at times eulogistic rather than critical, provides a welcome avenue for those who wish to read more about one of Britain’s most important – and during his lifetime most financially successful – twentieth-century artists. But it poses a distinct challenge to those who aim to explore fresh terrain or to reinterpret the artist for the early twenty-first century. There is also a generational issue to be considered by anyone contemplating a new publication on Moore. Such was his pre-eminence in the last decades of his life (in official circles, if not among younger artists), and such the apparent ubiquity of his public sculptures, that for many his works feel deeply familiar, as if they do not require further explication or close attention from a viewer.3 On the other hand, some of those born more recently may only have a sketchy knowledge of who Moore was, what he represented in the different phases of his long career, and struggle to see his contemporary relevance; for them Moore is perhaps an artist to be discovered anew.
In 2010 Tate staged an exhibition of Moore’s works up to the 1960s which aimed to relate the sculptures to the historical conditions of their times and recover an overshadowed, even lost, critical tradition that had once emphasised their dark, edgy and complex aspects (a tradition that saw them, to use a description in the catalogue to an 1960 exhibition of Moore at the Whitechapel Art Gallery as ‘grim ... tragic ... anything but gentle’).4 For the exhibition curator Chris Stephens, Moore’s work of the 1920s and 1930s ‘spoke of and to the crisis of civilisation that was felt to have followed the Great War in ways comparable with, for example, the poetry of T.S. Eliot and the prose of D.H. Lawrence ... [it was] an art close to the intellectual and political conditions of the moment, to the trauma of one war and the rising anxiety about others, to fresh ideas of the body and sex supported by the new vogue for psychoanalysis.’5
It was in the course of the run-up to this exhibition that the idea was first mooted to undertake a new research project that would extend this contextualising approach to Moore’s works to Tate’s own substantial holdings of the artist’s sculptures – seventy-four pieces in all, including long loans. Many of Moore’s later works in the collection had been donated by the artist himself or else sold by him to the museum on extremely favourable terms (sometimes for little more than the price of the casting of a bronze), and the profile and character of the gallery’s holdings could be said to represent to quite a significant degree how Moore himself wanted to be represented in the national collection. Many of these works had been catalogued only very briefly when they first entered Tate’s collection and the need to reassess them was clear.
With the support of the Henry Moore Foundation, Tate accordingly developed a new research project that aimed to explore Moore’s art and legacy, drawing on recent scholarly writings and focusing, at least in part, on what the museum itself could do best, namely examine closely and reappraise the works in its care. Tate was fortunate to appoint Professor Anne Wagner as the Henry Moore Foundation Research Curator: during her year at the museum she laid the groundwork for the current project by determining that it would, first, look in detail at how Moore made his sculptures (in order to re-engage directly with his works), and, secondly, take Moore’s public identity as itself an object of study, examining how it was formed and whether it had become overly imbricated with popular understandings of his work. (‘The Moore of popular imagination’, Stephens noted in 2012, ‘is an easy-going, avuncular figure – typically English – who produced an equally easy-going form of modernism.’)6
Wagner’s successor, Alice Correia, re-catalogued Moore’s sculptures in Tate’s collection over a period of two years. The first step in this process was the re-photographing of the works in the round. Tate’s website was adapted to allow up to fifteen images on the individual page for each work, shown in sequence as if seen by a viewer walking around it, together with several close-ups. The latter reveal unfamiliar aspects of even well known sculptures – the presence of fossils and delicate veining in stone, tell-tale marks revealing the use of particular tools in plaster originals, the mottling and varied colours of bronze patinas, as well as details of signatures and intriguing glimpses of the undersides or insides of sculptures that together convincingly help a viewer understand how works were made.
Henry Moore OM, CH 'King and Queen' 1952-3, cast 1957
Henry Moore OM, CH
King and Queen 1952–3, cast 1957
Tate T00228
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Paired with ‘technique and condition’ texts written by conservators, catalogue entries provide an overview of each work, exploring in detail its making, meaning and history. The entry for King and Queen 1952–3, cast 1957 (fig.2), for example, describes how Moore developed the theme of a seated couple and progressed from drawings to various maquettes, and how he made editioned sculptures of these while developing the large final work (thus illuminating also how Moore was able to supply the burgeoning market for his work and in so doing go on to amass a sizeable fortune). The entry records how Moore struggled with the hands of the couple, and successively asked his wife, daughter and secretary to model for him; he also asked an assistant to model the King’s feet (and, again, the maquettes of the hands and feet became separate editioned sculptures). Plaster studies show that the Queen initially looked towards her consort but before the final version was arrived at the position was changed and she, like the King, now looks outwards. As for how Moore came to conceive the sculpture, the text recounts Moore’s own tale that the idea had come to him from reading about mythical kings and queens to his daughter and from an ancient Egyptian sculpture of a couple in the British Museum that he greatly admired. But it goes on to cite various authorities that suggest that these were post hoc rationalisations by the artist. In their place the entry explores the notion that the sculpture may have been based on Moore himself and his wife Irina, or perhaps the general contemporary enthusiasm for the idea of monarchy following the accession to the throne in February 1952 of Queen Elizabeth II, then married to Prince Philip, and her eventual coronation in June 1953.
Moore with the polystyrene version of Large Spindle Piece 1974 in progress and the plaster Working Model for Spindle Piece 1974 marked up for enlargement, in the Plastic Studio at Perry Green 1974
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Photo: Henry Moore Foundation Archive
Such object-focused entries are supported by several essays about the particular materials Moore used, written by conservators, curators and art historians. Moore came to fame in the 1920s as someone who espoused a belief in the superiority of ‘direct carving’, of carving sculptures in stone or wood in ways that were true to, and in sympathy with, the innate properties of the material. He argued that ‘sculpture in stone should look honestly like stone, that to make it look like flesh and blood, hair and dimples is coming down to the level of a stage conjuror’.7 Thus, his early stone figures retained something of the ‘blockiness’ of the original quarried stone, while the more fluid shapes of his wooden sculptures echoed the patterns of growth found in tree trunks. The idea became a mantra for Moore, something to believe in, as well as an explanatory concept by which critics and the public over the 1930s began to understand his departure from the norms of academic realism. The consternation felt in some circles when Moore in the postwar years abandoned the slow (and physically demanding) business of making unique carvings to produce editioned bronzes, a material associated with public memorials and academicism, was thus real and deep-seated. But the situation is more complex than the familiar account of Moore’s career suggests. As Sarah Turner points out in her essay on this subject, examples of direct carving can be found throughout Moore’s career, even if in his later years he used drawings and maquettes to work out his ideas in advance and employed studio assistants to do much of the preliminary physical work. Lyndsey Morgan and Rozemarijn van der Molen also note that Moore made some bronzes in the early 1920s and experimented with casting sculptures in lead from 1922 to 1931 and 1937 to 1939, while Judy Collins’s account of Moore’s twenty-one concrete sculptures produced between 1926 and 1934 shows him alive to the possibilities of a malleable building material that could be modelled, carved and cast, even in the years when he publicly espoused the doctrine of ‘truth to materials’. Essays by Ann Compton about Moore’s wood carving and by Sebastiano Barassi and James Copper about his stone work also point to the importance of comprehending the artist’s early training and access to particular materials – for example, his preference for English stones and his use of elm when elm trees were hit by disease – when looking at his sculptures and understanding how they came into being. However, the distance that Moore travelled from his early insistence on ‘truth to materials’ is perhaps felt most keenly in Rachel Wells’s essay on scale and Moore’s use of Styrofoam to help create models of his enormous late bronzes (fig.3). It was an effective innovation but the process was ironically close to the use of a pointing machine in traditional academic sculpture and one that separated him even further from the direct contact with sculptural materials. What seemingly mattered to Moore in these later years was his initial idea and visualisation of a piece, not the discoveries involved in making it. Commenting on the disparities in size between his hand-sized plaster models and the final bronzes, Moore said in 1960, ‘Everything I do is intended to be big, and, while I’m working on the models, for me they are life-size. When I take one in my hand like this, I am seeing and feeling it as life-size.’8
As for the broader contexts in which Moore’s sculptures circulated and interpretations were forged, the project follows a number of paths. It explores particular periods and aspects of Moore’s career in depth. Rebecca Wade, for example, discusses Moore’s years as a student and teacher in the 1920s and shows how, notwithstanding his growing reputation as a talented artist, his avant-garde approach cost him his position at the Royal College. No project on Moore would be complete without a discussion of his profound early engagement with sculpture from around the world, both contemporary and ancient, which he studied at the British Museum: Dawn Ades highlights here his knowledge and reflections on early Mexican sculpture. Focusing on the 1930s, Edward Juler shows how biology and morphology helped Moore visualise shapes in transformation: the resulting biomorphic forms conveyed a vision of humanity that was at once disturbingly atavistic and modern in their similarity to scientific close-ups and microphotographs of living matter. Revealing the role played by individual exhibitions in establishing Moore’s post-war reputation, Pauline Rose looks at the retrospective organised in 1946 by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which subsequently toured to Chicago and San Francisco. This won plaudits for Moore and, in retrospect, helped lay the groundwork for him winning the prestigious sculpture prize at the Venice Biennale in 1948. Charmed by the man himself as much as by the qualities of his work, many Americans saw in Moore not only a great artist but also, as Rose relates, an embodiment of ‘old world’ humanist values that also lay at the heart of their vision of what was needed to be cultivated and protected in the ‘new world’ as it emerged from war and faced the threats posed by the Eastern bloc. Moore soon became the sculptor of choice for prestigious open-air commissions for cities, businesses and museums in North America – and, indeed, around the world. As Alex Taylor explores, Moore adapted brilliantly to the booming art market and demand for trophy ‘Henry Moores’, producing editioned casts of sculptures in various sizes to cater for the demand. While some institutions benefitted from offers of works at low prices (a gesture both generous and, in the cases of major public museums, calculated to buttress his future reputation), Moore made a phenomenal personal fortune through the sale of his works (according to a letter he wrote in 1979 to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he paid over four million pounds in tax between 1968 and 1977).
Beyond these analyses of specific aspects of his life and career, the project explores Moore’s public identity at the height of his fame. He welcomed photographers and filmmakers into his home and studios, and indeed insisted on being filmed there, believing that this context (and his down-to-earth charm) would help people better appreciate his work and understand his intentions. In her discussion of early and mid-career photographs of and by Moore, Marin Sullivan points to a multi-faceted but nonetheless consistent aesthetic at play in them, one that gave the viewer insights into the making of the works but tightly framed what those were. Showing Moore touching or handling his sculptures, the photographs she examines emphasise the tactility of the works (a theme found in the earliest critical writings on Moore) and implied that the artist – his vision, his being and his way of life – was in some way a part of them. This was the path to understanding his work that the artist himself chose and believed in, and one that, as John Wyver explores, was consistently replicated in Moore’s appearances in films and television documentaries. In these Moore’s agreeable personality and his country squire lifestyle were deployed to allay the fears of those suspicious of modern art, and his sculpture was consistently presented as dealing above all else with timeless themes of the female figure and the natural landscape. For those in the culture industry keen to proselytise on behalf of modern art (and this included Moore himself) it was evidently safer and more effective to codify and repeat simplified messages than to risk more challenging or open-ended approaches. But this consistency also created a barrier to fresh understandings. As early as 1960 the artist Anthony Caro complained, ‘When you try to think clearly about Henry Moore you are deafened by the applause. The picture is not man-size, but screen-size. It is as if the build-up into a great public figure has got out of hand, and like a film’s big front has clouded our view of the real Moore.’9
Moore, however, was not fame-hungry, and was sensitive to how other artists viewed him. In 1950 he declined the offer of a knighthood, explaining that he would feel awkward being called ‘Sir Henry’ and that ‘such a title might tend to cut me off from artists whose work has aims similar to mine’.10 Socialist in his sympathies, and conscious, as he felt all artists and poets ought to be, of ‘what is wrong with the running of the world’,11 he did not naturally identify with the government or official circles. When first asked by his friend and supporter Kenneth Clark to become a war artist, he initially refused, hoping to see out the war in relative peace and quiet. But the popular appeal of his drawings of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in underground stations changed his status in the public’s eye: a contemporary artist had found a way of imbuing a new collective experience with a certain timelessness that people in all walks of life recognised as belonging to the sphere of ‘high’ art. By the end of the war Moore had become a household name, perhaps despite himself, at a time when many now looked to culture for answers to the broader questions posed by the war and its aftermath. Indicative of Moore’s new popularity, a slim monograph on his work, published in 1944, sold over 48,000 copies in four years.
Moore’s new status – which was enhanced in the late 1940s by a steady stream of plaudits from leading figures in the art world and commissions from official bodies – led him to reflect on the role of the artist in modern society. Supportive of the ideals of the new welfare state in which culture was to be brought to and shared with ordinary people, he willingly produced works intended for new housing estates. As Dawn Pereira writes, this was much to the initial bewilderment of many local residents, unversed in modern art, who found the works ugly or unskilled, but Moore himself believed that, given enough time, people would eventually come to appreciate them. Discussing Moore as a ‘civic sculptor’, Andrew Stephenson looks at broader factors shaping Moore’s public role in years of post-war reconstruction. He highlights the need of the post-war Labour government and various arts organisations to find credible board members and spokesmen for a new non-elitist, inclusive vision of culture; with his Yorkshire mining roots and leftist sympathies, Moore was a perfect candidate and, known for his sound judgement and collegial loyalty, he found himself much sought after for committee work. Moore willingly served on the board of the Arts Council and, as Julia Kelly explores, was a Trustee of the Tate Gallery and then the National Gallery for many years. He had joined the ‘establishment’, despite himself, and in doing so advertised the progressive, meritocratic ideals of post-war Britain.
None of this would have been possible, of course, without a critical framework that validated, made meaningful and endorsed the premises of Moore’s work and identified within it distinctive contributions to contemporary sculpture. The project explores how the framework shifted and evolved over time, highlighting the different concerns and views of leading art writers of the interwar and post-war years and how these in turn impacted on Moore’s public standing and how he articulated his intentions. Ben Cranfield looks at why Moore was so important to Britain’s foremost critic of the interwar and immediate post-war years, Herbert Read. A Yorkshireman like Moore, a poet as well as a critic, an anarchist in his social and political thinking, and influenced by psychoanalysis, Read welcomed in the empathetic vitalism of Moore’s work what he saw as a ‘credible compromise’ between an artist’s individual vision and themes understood by a wider community. Psychoanalysis provided the framework for the critical writings of, for example, Adrian Stokes and Erich Neumann. Moore responded to this general climate of interest in the deeper wellsprings of creativity by acknowledging that his fascination with particular themes (notably, the mother and child) probably had roots in his psyche but chose not to delve deeper into this. By contrast, other writers focused on the value of great art that they saw embodied in Moore’s work and, in nationalistic mode, interpreted as proof that Britain could produce an artist of world significance. As Chris Stephens shows, Kenneth Clark, in particular, emphasised Moore’s place in a sometimes threatened tradition of great art and what it stood for. In his sculptures Clark found an expression of a recognisably modern sensibility combined with respect for the values of Western civilisation and a communion with nature (‘He alone, I think, has added to the sum of human experience something which was not there before, something which fills the imagination with new forms, satisfies certain deep felt needs, and leaves us, in the end, with a firmer faith in human greatness’).12
As times moved on, there were, perhaps inevitably, an increasing number of dissenting voices. In America Clement Greenberg stood against the tide of adulation and felt that Moore’s work had become mediocre. David Sylvester, who had worked for Moore and saw him as something of a father figure, came to believe that ‘a high proportion of his post-war work was misbegotten, largely because it was engendered by flattery or payment from dubious sources’.13 With John Berger, aesthetic disappointment merged with political dislike: Moore’s recumbent, broken figures spoke of an unresolved artistic vision and held out no hope for social or political change. The appeal to universal humanist values and the quasi-mystical language of vitalism and archetypes of earlier discourses seemed unconvincing, as well as politically suspect, to younger writers. In 1960 Lawrence Alloway noted Moore’s efforts to convey, in the artist’s own words, qualities of ‘humanity and seriousness, nobility and experience’, but found the attempt to engage with such vast themes conceptually flawed and concluded that Moore offered ‘a sculpture of empty Virtues’.14 Moore continued to be admired and feted by official patrons and wealthy collectors, but this shift in the language of criticism risked leaving Moore mired in an out-of-date aesthetic and, except as a point of departure, seemingly irrelevant to new artistic developments. The discourse that had introduced Moore to a broad public so successfully became itself, once identified with a particular period and set of intellectual, social and political interests, a barrier to seeing Moore.
From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, some thirty years after Moore’s death, this project has attempted to understand both Moore’s development as an artist and his broader significance. It examines the various factors that together made Moore for a period Britain’s foremost contemporary artist and someone who, in the words of Anthony Caro, proved ‘a big factor in winning the battle for modern art in Britain’.15 The memories of that battle have faded and the complexity of the issues involved have subsided from view, but Moore’s broader role and significance needs to be remembered in order for his works and their current artistic and social legacies to be understood and appreciated. It is hoped that this project – the essays, entries and rich range of materials provided in the Resources section – will provide a basis for individuals to reacquaint themselves with, or discover afresh, the interplay of Moore’s production as a sculptor and his identity as a public figure.


Henry Moore, ‘The Sculptor Speaks’, Listener, 18 August 1937, pp.338–40, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-the-sculptor-speaks-r1176118, accessed 2 September 2015.
Philip James (ed.), Henry Moore on Sculpture: A Collection of the Sculptor’s Writings and Spoken Words, London 1966, and Alan Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot 2002.
Some younger artists complained in the early 1960s that Moore’s work was ubiquitous and over familiar but the view was far from widely held. This was a period in which Moore remained highly valued as an artist by a wide range of private and institutional patrons, perhaps more so than ever before.
Bryan Robertson, Henry Moore: An Exhibition of Sculpture from 1950–1960, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1960, unpaginated, quoted in Chris Stephens, ‘Anything but Gentle: Henry Moore – Modern Sculptor’, in Chris Stephens (ed.), Henry Moore, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2010, p.17.
Stephens 2010, p.12.
Henry Moore, ‘A View of Sculpture’, Architectural Association Journal, May 1930, p.408, in Wilkinson 2002, p.187.
Henry Moore, interview with Donald Hall, 1960, in Wilkinson 2002, p.208.
Anthony Caro, ‘The Master Sculptor,’ Observer, 27 November 1960, p.21, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/anthony-caro-the-master-sculptor-r1173024, accessed 2 September 2015.
Henry Moore, letter to Prime Minister, 5 December 1950, Henry Moore Foundation Archive, https://www.henry-moore.org/hmf/news/previous-news-items1/refusal-of-knighthood, accessed 23 August 2015.
Henry Moore, letter to Arthur Sale, 30 April 1940, Imperial War Museum Archive, quoted in Jane Beckett and Fiona Russell (eds.), Henry Moore: Critical Essays, Aldershot 2003, p.162.
Kenneth Clark, ‘Praemium Erasmianum’, typescript lecture, 3 May 1968, Tate Archive TGA 8812.2.2.613.
David Sylvester, About Modern Art, London 2002, pp.187–94.
Lawrence Alloway, ‘London Letter: Moore’, Art International, vol.4, no.10, December 1960, p.50, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/lawrence-alloway-london-letter-moore-r1173026, accessed 2 September 2015.
‘He has been responsible for making modern art a clean word here. He took the brunt of uneducated insult early on, but lots of people now feel – because of him – that there must be something in it.’ Caro 1960, p.21, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/anthony-caro-the-master-sculptor-r1173024, accessed 2 September 2015.

How to cite

Jennifer Mundy, ‘Henry Moore: The Sculptor as Public Figure’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/jennifer-mundy-henry-moore-the-sculptor-as-public-figure-r1176241, accessed 02 March 2024.