Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity

ISBN 978-1-84976-391-2

Richard Wentworth, ‘The Going Concern: Working for Moore’

Burlington Magazine, vol.130, no.1029, December 1988, pp.972–78.

The going concern: working for Moore
‘WORKED for Henry Moore’ goes the line in my curriculum vitae, which is exactly what I did, no more, no less. Punctiliously, it does not say ‘assistant’.
In the spring of 1967 I wrote Moore a letter, hoping for a holiday job that would be an advance on the usual diet of painting and decorating. To my surprise I received a reply. A brief Sunday afternoon meeting in the drawing room of Moore’s house at Perry Green ended with the offer to work for four days a week in the summer holiday. I found Moore slightly forbidding, in the manner of schoolmaster, but with a gentle firmness, like accomplished gardeners, which was attractive. There are good and bad moments to work for somebody. For myself the timing was perfect. I was nineteen and due to start as a student the following October in Bernard Meadow’s Sculpture School at the Royal College of Art. Meadow’s years as assistant to Henry Moore in the late 1930s were, it seems, his ‘best’. There had been an opportunity to work collaboratively, developing sculpture in a variety of direct ways. The role of assistant as confidant has its moments.
In 1967 the feeling at Perry Green was that of a small family firm, a household given to supporting Moore’s work in every way, which created an atmosphere of steady reliability. I had never met anything so calmly purposeful before, and its invisible organization fascinated me. My summer as the junior assistant did not begin with being sent out to buy a left-handed hammer, though my first task was the kind of simple test that could establish whether I would be safe to have around. Knife edge two piece was sited very near the house and Moore asked me to wash it down (I imagined he hadn’t thought of anything for me to do). Stepladder, bucket, sponge, hot soapy water; my progress was clearly visible from the house and it was not long before Moore appeared and pointed out that I should wash upwards from the base which leaves no drips or stains on the patina. Having passed the test, I was set to using metal polish on Moon head. Soon afterwards Knife edge was sited in Old Palace Yard near Parliament Square. The sheer familiarity of having once washed the sculpture, hand sweep by hand sweep, in the intimacy of the garden at Perry Green, is still a relief every time I pass by this otherwise oppressively institutional part of London.
I was impressed by Moore’s twenty years’ accumulation of studios – nothing quite in Monet’s league, but of a variety of type and scale and position guaranteed to exhilarate any young artist. At that time the converted outbuildings and small studios close to the house were Moore’s own, his intimate world which I was only to see, in passing, a very few times. Away from the house were the various purpose-built studios where the assistants worked. The studio I liked best was the ‘greenhouse’ which Frank and John Farnham, the Moores’ neighbours and regular helpers, had built specifically for the production of the large, international projects. It was the maximum size for a ‘temporary’ structure and Moore delighted in explaining that this meant he didn’t have to pay rates on it. It was an imaginative solution, built of slotted steel and clear plastic, a transparent envelope, sitting in the middle of Irina Moore’s beautiful garden. I admired the illusion of working ‘en plein air’, little realizing how cold it would be the following Christmas when I worked there again.
In the ‘greenhouse’ studio we would build the large works (or component parts of them) by a simple method of scaling up. Moore Would produce a maquette the size of a fist and say ‘Times twelve’ or Times eight’ or ‘Times five’. I was always rather taken aback by what appeared to be such a nominal approach. Why not five and a quarter or eight and two-thirds? However, I was grateful that the mathematics stayed simple. The method is not unlike joining up the numbered dots in a child’s comic to make a picture of the Queen, but in three dimensions – cartography reversed. Distinct points on the surface of the maquette are identified as ‘landmarks’ and each is known by a letter of the alphabet. The maquette is placed on squared paper so that a list of co-ordinates can be drawn up for each ‘landmark’ – how much it is above the surface it sits on, how much from the ‘front’ or ‘back’ or how much from the ‘left’ or ‘right’. The success of this mechanical method is dependent on how thoroughly these measurements are taken. By measuring off a grid, give eight or twelve times bigger, all these points can be plotted in space. Using pointed sticks provided by John Farnham we would make marvellous structures to re-establish the points at the appropriate scale. These exotic Gaudi-esque arrangements were masterpieces of improvised armature held together with knobbly bandages of plaster and scrim, each point perched in its appropriate place. I loved them. Of course my pride and pleasure would soon disappear under a thick coat of obdurate whiteness as the joining up process began to define the contours. When I see the finished bronzes now, I can still celebrate those tacky skeletons that we set inside the parent form. For all its artisanery, this traditional scaling procedure is probably ripe for replacement by computer-aided laser measurement. Its existence then might have prevented a recurring nightmare – the daily discovery of hilarious disparities that were implicit in our working method.
I worked alongside two other assistants, a Canadian and an Israeli, one of whom liked to ‘interpret’ the measurements. There is no reason to begrudge an artist this sort of indulgence, except that these interpretations would quickly translate, by the joining up process, into fantastic deformities, for which the only solution was to cut back all the hard work with an axe, preferably before Moore laid eyes on it.
The maquettes themselves became quite wonderful, like votive objects, through markings and repeated handling. Their bald plaster surfaces would become rich and waxy. There were other eventualities. Working on one of the parts for Three Piece No. 3 Vertebrae (Fig. 60), I dropped the maquette, which shattered. Although the anxious repairs I made were completely successful, nothing could disguise the effects upon the surface, which now had an extra rich marble veining like a restored terracotta. I never mentioned it, and nor did Moore.
Twice a day we would all go up to the house for coffee or tea in the conservatory, like so many school-play ghosts, covered in plaster and dust, which Moore called ‘clean dirt’. His secretary, Mrs Tinsley, was always there, and sometimes his wife, Irina, and Mary, his daughter. Such occasions were no different from the normal English ritual, but they did provide a regulated opportunity to report on how the work was progressing, to order more materials, etc. Memory suggests that the Arts Council came to tea on Tuesdays and the British Council on Thursdays. Moore would talk quite straightforwardly about the work – say things like goldfish growing to their appropriate size depended on the size of the pond they lived in. He could also be affectionately mischievous and maintained that he had witnessed Anthony Caro, in his time as an assistant, cut through the branch of an apple tree he was sitting on.
Back in the studio our labours to mimic the maquette were necessarily dominated by a simple work ethic. Refuge lay in the transistor radio and a brisk trade in well-worn stories. The one about Irina locking Moore in his Parkhill Road studio to make him work, and Moore sneaking in a good book, would raise a wry smile!
Our final contribution was to work up the surfaces. I hated it. We used cheese-graters to cut back the plaster. Although this ensures a nervous surface, it falls between carving and modelling. Taken together with the process of inflating the maquette, this was obiously no time to think about ‘truth to materials’. Moore would visit us briefly most days, visits which were often a prelude to vigorous use of the axe. As the pieces became more refined, they would gradually slip away from us, until finally disappearing like the snowmen of childhood. I was never clear as to what exact adjustment were involved in Moore’s finishing touches, but coming back after a weekend, a piece would often have vanished, carried off by the hauliers to Noack in Berlin for casting.
The variety of artisan production that I have described implies disconnection and separation. I still find it strange to come upon any of the three pieces I worked on, in their final, patinated, cast state. In a way they will always remain impregnated with the thoughts and moods of a nineteen-year-old, with the sound of Sergeant Pepper, crackly telephone interviews with Dr Christian Barnard, and hourly news bulletins on the progress of Philip Blaiberg, the world’s first ever heart transplant patient. I never met Moore again.

How to cite

Richard Wentworth, ‘The Going Concern: Working for Moore’, in Burlington Magazine, vol.130, no.1029, December 1988, pp.972–78, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/richard-wentworth-the-going-concern-working-for-moore-r1173011, accessed 03 March 2024.