Henry Moore and Direct Carving: Technique, Concept, Context
Sarah Victoria Turner
There is a chronology for Moore’s carved works, by which I mean one can trace different concerns, interests and influences on his practice as a carver at different moments in his career. For example, the primitivism of his carvings of the 1920s feel and look different to, say, the more abstract works of the 1930s and 1940s, or the larger Elmwood reclining figures of the 1950s and 1960s. But carving was also something of a constant, as a pursuit and idea that Moore returned to again and again throughout his life. He refined it, approached it differently and in different materials, and articulated what carving meant to him and his practice differently at times, but carving was always there. If it has been the early works in English stone such as Mother and Child (fig.2) that have received critical attention in relation to Moore’s practice as a ‘direct carver’, the carved work of his mid and late career are nonetheless worthy of serious of attention, not only in exploring how Moore’s approached carving throughout his career but also in charting the persistence of the idea (or concept) of carving from the time of his first carved works as a student through to his later pieces executed when he was one of the most well known and successful artists of the twentieth century. This essay, however, is not intended to be a chronological survey of his carvings, nor a summary of the voluminous pieces of writing about by Moore, or on Moore, and direct carving. Instead, it offers a critical discussion of the centrality of the practice of ‘direct carving’ which, hopefully, neither overplays or romanticises this aspect of his sculptural practice, nor underplays its significance, and even radicalism, for Moore. It makes the claim that we need look at direct carving across the span of his career rather than privileging just the early works and statements about this aspect of his working process, and that we also should view carving within a complex network of other techniques, aesthetic ideas and artistic contexts – as one of many modi operandi rather than in isolation as something which has, at times, accrued an almost cultish association and mystique.
Moore was at college to do what he called ‘college work’ – work that was required of him in order to complete the teaching diploma he had registered on at the RCA. One of his earliest pieces of carving, Head of the Virgin (fig.4) can be seen as both the fulfilment of the diploma’s requirement to successfully copy a piece of Renaissance sculpture, in this case a piece attributed to Domenico Rosselli and titled The Virgin and Child with Three Cherub Heads (fig.5), and a playful and purposefully recalcitrant response to frustration he felt at being made to endlessly copy, which was something of standard pedagogic practice within art school training in the early twentieth century (especially at the RCA which drew heavily on the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum for teaching).18 Moore’s marble Head of the Virgin is not the primitivist-inspired, ‘free carving’ associated with Moore’s turn to ‘direct carving’ in the 1920s but it nevertheless has a lot to tell us about his growing commitment to the ideological basis of carving directly, as opposed to copying in stone using the intermediary device pointing machine advocated by his RCA tutors such as Barry Hart and the then Professor of Sculpture, Derwent Wood. Moore persuaded Hart to let him carve the piece without the aid of the pointing machine but had to add false pointing marks to the piece to convince Professor Wood that he had been a diligent student and executed the task as set out in the curriculum. As art historian Margaret Garlake has remarked, Moore chose to omit much of the detail of Rosselli’s carving, namely the background thick with an angelic host and also altered the Virgin’s mouth to give her a knowing, Renaissance smile from one angle, and an altogether more lopsided, petulant look from the other side. In its wilful omission of important detail and the addition of others (such as the fake marks of the pointing machine), it was a work to use Garlake’s phrase, of ‘conscious defiance’.19 With hindsight, the piece seems to openly mock its assessors through the proximity of the smooth surface of the Virgin’s halo and the choppy, hacked-off stony background left very visibly where there should have been three cherubs and its uneven smile. If stone could speak, surely this rough work surrounding the Virgin would say, ‘I am not a slavish copy’. Ultimately, carving for Moore, was not about copying but translating an artist’s ideas into the material without the intermediary of machine or mason. This, as we shall see, was a position that became difficult, even impossible, to hold fast to, but it was this vision of carving as direct, defiant and determined which shaped the narrative of the relationship of carving and British sculpture in the twentieth century.
Carving as resistance
Carving an image
31 Here Moore has stepped back from his work and edged into a corner of his studio crammed with stone, tools, drawings and art works in various states of finish. Some objects are clearly recognisable. On the floor to the left, next to an abandoned mug, is Woman with Upraised Arms 1924–5 (fig.9). Drawings are pinned to the wall, others litter the dusty floorboards. Some works glimpsed here no longer survive, such as the large, part-finished stone sculpture, whose clenched fists raised up near the face have the look of the pose of a boxer ready to throw a punch. Smaller works such as heads, masks, and torsos stand on the floor and on blocks of stone. Another standing figure has toppled over and is resting against the larger piece. In the shadowy corner of the studio Moore appears outnumbered and somewhat overwhelmed by his stony creations. He looks almost defeated and certainly exhausted as he props both tired arms atop two of his sculptures. There is a sense in this unconventional photograph of the studio as a place of creative turmoil; Moore is at work on many things here. Carving, as he stated, trained him to ‘sustain idea’ and to necessarily work slowly and methodically as he chipped away at the stone. This enigmatic photograph suggests that this process of harnessing ideas and translating them in stone was not always an easy one. As these two photographs reproduced here imply, and as Jon Wood has explored in his work on the image of the sculptor’s studio through the camera lens, Moore used photography from an early stage in his career to represent himself as the sculptor-carver, alone in the studio with only his work for company, and to project as image of the physical effort of his aesthetic labours.32
Herbert Read wrote in his introduction to his book on Moore in 1934 that what was important was ‘that the effects of one set of tools on one kind of material should not be imitated in another material by another set of tools’, it sounds as if he might be repeating verbatim something Moore had said to him – a snippet of the craftsman’s wisdom.53 Moore was also photographed with his tools, and made photographs of them (figs.15, 16). These images convey what the philosopher Richard Sennett, writing about photographs of tools in his book The Craftsman (2008), calls a ‘message of clarity, of knowing which act should be done with which thing.’54
In both wood and stone Moore often left traces of the mark of the tool, especially the groves made by a claw. He also sometime carved into his plaster maquettes before they were sent to the foundry so that these physical marks of making would appear on the surface of works in bronze as can be seen in Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5 (Tate T02296; fig.17).57 The use of the tools was not just part the process of making for Moore but an essential part of the aesthetic appreciation of the finished piece. ‘In sculpture the surface textures should be the result of the way you make the piece, of the tools you use’, he observed in an interview in the 1980s.58 Moore thoroughly exploited the natural grain of wood in achieving the final form. Take, for example, Composition 1932 (Tate T02296; fig.18), where the dense rings of the African wonderstone coalesce around the prominent, round swellings, encouraging the viewer to follow the shape of the sculpture and move around the piece. Following the undulating grains of the wood also encourages our haptic sense of vision – in other words, looking evokes touching. This was certainly true for the first purchaser of Moore’s third Elmwood reclining figure, the surrealist painter Gordon Onslow-Ford: for him, the surface was ‘subtle and invited the touch.’59 Moore was tremendously skilled in using the grain of the wood and making it an essential part of the overall effect of the sculpture. Again, Onslow-Ford seems alive to these effects when he described walking around the sculpture and catching ‘the essence of well-loved rolling landscapes that had been transposed into anthropomorphic forms’. This fusion of natural material and the symbolic forms of Moore’s female figure had a powerful effect on the painter. ‘I felt that I was in the presence of the Mother Earth Goddess,’ he later recalled.60
Carving and the ‘world tradition’ of sculpture
On carving: writing about making and process
How to cite
Sarah Victoria Turner, ‘Henry Moore and Direct Carving: Technique, Concept, Context’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www