Henry Moore's Approach to Bronze
Lyndsey Morgan and Rozemarijn van der Molen
In the 1920s and early 1930s Moore was committed to carving as a means of working directly with his materials. For him and others, direct carving offered a new aesthetic that stood in sharp contrast to the smooth finishes and naturalistic representations of traditional academic sculpture. However, his break with traditional methods was not complete. In response perhaps to client requests he produced a bronze horse in an edition of three in 1923, a reclining woman in 1926, and a bird in polished bronze in 1927 (fig.1), although he chose not to include photographs of any of these early works in his 1944 catalogue raisonné for reasons that are unknown. To try to learn casting techniques, he also made a number of concrete casts from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s (see fig.2).1 Although such works evidence his early interest in working with a range of materials, he focused mainly on stone and wood in his early years, and was not to take up working in bronze until the late 1930s.
Early bronze and lead casts
Works such as Reclining Figure 1939 (fig.3) include fine rod-like shapes that would indeed have been difficult to achieve in wood or stone; although they echo the use of string in earlier sculptures, their forms appear to relate directly to the lost wax casting processes by which they were made. This period of making casts, however, was soon to be interrupted by the Second World War and a concomitant shortage of metal. Invited to be a war artist, Moore shifted his practice to focus on drawings, but as the war drew to a close he began to make a large number of small, and thus easily portable, terracotta sculptures, typically centred around themes of mother and child or family. Clay was a material that was freely available, and perhaps the experience of war had transformed Moore’s sense of what was an appropriate subject matter.
In making open work sculptures Moore may have been inspired by the techniques employed by the sculptors of Benin bronzes found in what is today Nigeria. These sculptures started with a refractory clay core upon which a layer of wax was added. Once finished, the wax model was then covered by a layer of clay or other investment. Hollow bronze sculptures normally require a core that is located in position with pins during casting to ensure that core and outer mould remain evenly separated. Moore cleverly solved the difficulties inherent in this process through allowing striations and holes to connect the inside and outside of his open work sculptures. This ensured that the gaps would be filled with investment and naturally support the wax form without the need for pins. In a letter to Helen Knapp, director of the Wakefield City Art Gallery, Moore described how he made Open Work Head No.2 1950 (fig.9):
Records at the Henry Moore Foundation show that in 1951–2 Moore purchased quantities of casting sand, suggesting that he made bronzes in this period using the sand casting process. Before the war Moore had had his lead sculpture Three Points 1939–40 cast in iron by a local industrial foundry using this technique, and it is possible that in the 1950s he and his assistants used this cast to experiment with as they learned about bronze casting through making copies in the backyard foundry, though analysis would be needed to confirm this (fig.11). A surviving plaster, which would have been a model for the later bronze edition of ten works, shows that the points were originally joined to allow the metal to flow freely and prevent air bubbles gathering there during the casting (fig.12). The points were then separated and filed by hand in the metal cast. Moore’s interest in supervising the work of casting his bronzes soon waned, however, and he seems not to have cast works after 1952. He later explained, ‘I found the amount of time taken up doing technical jobs was preventing me from doing as much sculpture as I wanted. Besides, professional bronze casters could do the job better than I. Now I send all my sculpture away to be cast and visit the foundry if necessary’.16
From this period onwards Moore seems to have increasingly drawn inspiration from different ways of working with materials, allowing these to frame both the forms and subjects of his work. He used plasticine as well as wax and plaster as modelling materials, and incorporated into his models found objects such as flints and bones (both found in nearby fields and as used in cooking). For some sculptures he used press moulds17 or cast and recast objects, taking away and adding bits each time until he was satisfied. For Three Quarter Figure 1961 (Tate T02288; figs.13 and 14), for example, he made a preliminary model, probably in clay, with a head made from a found flint or stone. He then made a one-sided mould from this original into which he poured plaster to make a cast. He removed the flange produced from the overflow of plaster at the sides using a file and added further wet modelling plaster at the back (as indicated by the tool marks visible on the back) before casting the work in bronze in an edition of nine.
Throughout the early 1950s Moore continued to use the Susse Frères Foundry regularly, but when André Susse died he looked for new founders. Moore was then represented by the Marlborough Fine Art Gallery, London, whose owners introduced him in 1958 to Hermann Noack III of the Noack foundry in Berlin. Moore later called Noack ‘the best bronze caster I know’ and it seems that his foundry, perhaps more than any other, understood what Moore wanted in terms of finish and quality.22 Texture was hugely important to Moore, as can be seen in a work such as Two-Piece Reclining Figure No.2 1960 (Tate T00395; figs.17 and 18). This would have been cast at the Berlin foundry in several sections, most likely using the indirect lost wax process, and then welded together (sand casting could not produce the level of surface detail shown here, with the chisel marks that Moore made in his original plaster faithfully reproduced). When he first worked for Moore Noack was already using argon arc welding which allowed him and other founders to achieve better joins. This in turn allowed the casting of more and smaller parts using the lost wax process.
Moore interest in the processes and techniques of bronze casting had led him to become a master of the medium, one who was intimately aware of the interplay of matter and form, texture and colour. At first he was led by curiosity and expediency but it seems he soon appreciated how technique could itself become generative of form. As discussed above, his experiments in creating lead sculptures in his backyard foundry influenced his formal vocabulary and allowed him to discover ways in which metal casting could be innovative and experimental, rather than simply reproductive and traditional. In Moore’s hands bronze was not an antithesis of stone or wood carving: carving, scraping and grating his plaster models allowed him to create texture in his finished bronzes that matched anything he could achieve in his stone or wood pieces, while many of his patinas suggested natural textures and weathering. Moore’s shift from direct carving in the interwar years to bronze casting in the decades following the Second World War has been seen as marking a sea-change in his practice, but analysis of his approach to bronze suggests that were in fact many more continuities than have been thought.
How to cite
Lyndsey Morgan and Rozemarijn van der Molen, ‘Henry Moore's Approach to Bronze’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www