Henry Moore and Stone: Methods and Materials
Sebastiano Barassi and James Copper
A lifelong fascination
The English tradition
Methods and materials
A relatively straightforward solution, which Moore adopted for one of the earliest of such commissions, was to use for the sculpture a material used for the building by which it would be sited. Thus, for Reclining Figure of 1957–8, commissioned for Unesco’s new Parisian headquarters, Moore decided to use travertine, a traditional building material that the architects Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss had used in combination with modern materials such as concrete, glass and steel to suggest a dialogue between history and the present. By echoing the straight lines of the architecture in the natural horizontal patterns of the stone Moore sought a sense of unusual unity between his work and the setting for which it was conceived (fig.4).
During his career Moore used at least forty-one different types of stone, both sedimentary (such as Ancaster, Hornton and Roman travertine) and metamorphic (including Serpentine, African Wonderstone and at least ten different types of marble).29 This variety shows how he always remained eager to experiment with new techniques and materials, even if this meant exploring approaches that contradicted earlier stances, as his changing views on the principle of truth to materials suggest. It was not until after the Second World War, however, that, thanks to his growing financial success, he was able to use his stone of choice for all his works. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he often had to settle for whatever stone was available, occasionally using marble and alabaster blocks which he acquired from stonemasons and salvage yards, in the form of offcuts, old church statuary or discarded architectural features. This meant that in those years Moore had to make the most of each piece of stone. At times, he would reuse offcuts from larger works to carve the smaller individual elements for one of his multi-part pieces: the Cumberland alabaster forms in Four Piece Composition: Reclining Figure 1934 are believed, for example, to be offcuts from the block from which he had made Composition 1931 (figs.6 and 7). When he could afford to buy the material of his choice Moore often visited quarries and suppliers in various English regions, mainly in the Midlands and the North. In Cumberland he bought blocks of the local alabaster, which had first been used for sculpture by John Skeaping (see Mother and Child 1930–1); in Derbyshire he acquired Hopton Wood stone, which Jacob Epstein had used for Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris (see Head 1937); and from Edge Hill in Warwickshire he purchased green and brown Hornton stone (see Reclining Woman 1930). These stones are predominantly fine-grained limestone which, unlike the more friable and flat-coloured sandstone that is more common in Yorkshire, allowed Moore to achieve a better finish by exploiting the greater surface tension. From the late 1920s Moore also began to acquire materials from London suppliers. These offered a wider selection of stones from places including Scotland, Ireland and South-Western England (for example, the Portland and Purbeck quarries), as well as more unusual materials such as the Styrian jade he used for Mother and Child 1928 and the African Wonderstone of Head and Shoulders 1933.
One of the reasons for Moore’s preference in his early career for rougher and vivid stones such as Hornton was the fact that, unlike white marble and alabaster, they do not look pristine even when freshly carved. Moore tended to use Hornton stone for heavier, more powerful forms, saving marble and alabaster for the more serene works: compare, for example, the alabaster Mother and Child 1930 with the Hornton stone Mother and Child 1924–25 (figs.9 and 10). His explanation of how he chose the material for the late carvings of the 1960s and 1970s is based on a similar principle: ‘In carving a sculpture, it is very important to match the right material with the particular subject in mind. In using white marble I give the forms a precision and refinement and a surface finish that I wouldn’t try to obtain with a rough textured stone such as travertine.’32
Mid-career and late carvings
James Copper is Sculpture Conservator at the Henry Moore Foundation.
How to cite
Sebastiano Barassi and James Copper, ‘Henry Moore and Stone: Methods and Materials’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www