A Henry Moore sculpture called 'Large Reclining Figure' on a grassy hill against a background of a cloudy blue sky
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An Introduction to Artist Henry Moore

From Yorkshire miner’s son to world-famous artist who revolutionised sculpture in the 20th century.

Henry Moore was an English artist best known for his monumental sculptures inspired by the human body and natural forms, such as rocks and bones.

A black and white image of British sculptor Henry Moore working in his studio
Henry Moore in his studio at Hoglands, Perry Green in Hertfordshire, working on ‘Reclining Figure’ for the 1951 Festival of Britain. © Historic England Archive. OP32771.

The undulating forms of his reclining figures have been compared to the landscape and hills of his Yorkshire birthplace.

As well as his bronzes, Moore produced a vast body of other work: thousands of drawings and prints, designs for textiles and tapestries, and sculptures of wood, marble and stone.

By the time he was in his thirties, he was one of the foremost avant-garde sculptors in Europe; by the 1960s, when Moore was at the height of his artistic powers, he was an international celebrity.

Moore’s early life

Born in 1898 in the small mining town of Castleford, Yorkshire, Moore was the seventh of eight children. His father was a miner, who was a socialist and self-taught in the arts, and had other ambitions for his children.

Moore said he decided to be a sculptor aged 11 after he heard a talk about the Italian sculptor and painter Michelangelo. However, his parents were firmly against this and made him train as a teacher. He taught briefly at his old grammar school in Castleford.

A black and white image of a wheel sticking out of a paved area in front of a row of terraced housing
The former pit wheel from Wheldale Colliery in Castleford, Wakefield, West Yorkshire. © Crown Copyright. Historic England. AA93/01068.

When he was 17, Moore enlisted in the British Army during the First World War, where he was gassed at the Battle of Cambrai and returned to England to convalesce.

After the war, he received an ex-serviceman’s grant that enabled him to become a sculpture student at Leeds School of Art. This is where he became friends with fellow artist Barbara Hepworth.

In 1921, Moore won a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Art. As a student, he was a frequent visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, where he made numerous sketches of the art and sculpture on display, filling many notebooks.

Making his artistic mark: 1920s and 1930s

Moore made his first carvings in 1922, inspired by his study of ethnographic art and works by sculptors such as Jacob Epstein, whom he met in 1926 and saw his renowned African and Oceanic art collection. He was also influenced by leading artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso. In his own work, Moore moved away from the perfection of classical sculpture towards non-Western styles of art and direct carving.

A black and white image of a statue in a reclined position
An example of a 9th century Mayan Chacmool sculpture, Mexico. Moore first saw one in a Parisian museum in 1925. The Chacmool influenced one of the recurrent themes in Moore’s work, the reclining figure. Image in the Public Domain.

This ‘truth to materials’ was a revolutionary technique at the time. It involved no preparatory modelling, and embraced tool marks and the natural imperfections of stone or wood as an integral part of the finished sculpture.

In 1926, after returning from a scholarship in Italy, Moore began work on the first of his many depictions of a reclining woman, as well as carving masks and heads made from stone.

A black and white image of the British sculptor Henry Moore working on a sculpture with a hammer and chisel
Henry Moore working in his Hammersmith studio, between around 1925 and 1926. © The Henry Moore Foundation.

Moore held his first solo exhibition at the Warren Gallery, London in 1928. He moved to a studio in London’s Hampstead the following year with his new wife, Russian-Austrian painting student, Irina Radetsky. In the 1930s, Hampstead was a focal point for many avant-garde artists and architects, including those fleeing from Nazi Germany.

Moore was associated with the leading young players of England’s cultural life. He became a member of ‘Unit One’, which included several artists such as founder Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth and her husband, Ben Nicholson.

The group promoted European Modernist ideas about art and architecture to an insular, largely uninterested British public who had virtually no access to art galleries, foreign travel or television at the time.

A small wooden carved sculpture by Henry Moore called 'Figure'
‘Figure’, a carved beechwood interpretation of a female form, 1931. © The Henry Moore Foundation/Tate.

In 1931, Moore held another solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London, embraced by enthusiastic supporter Epstein, but was met with vitriol by most of the British press. The London Morning Post, for example, wrote: ‘it is almost impossible to believe [the work] came from the hands of a man of normal mentality.’

Moore became artistically notorious and increasingly well-known. His first sculptures shocked and outraged the public. Some were decapitated, others daubed with paint. 

However, he was forced out of his teaching post in the sculpture department of the Royal College of Art by hostile colleagues and an antagonistic press, moving to London’s Chelsea School of Art to set up a Department of Sculpture in 1932.

War on the home front: 1939-1945

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 saw Moore, who at 41 was too old to be conscripted, resign from his post at the Chelsea School of Art after the college relocated out of London to Northampton.

When his Hampstead studio was damaged during the Blitz in October 1940, the Moores moved to the safety of the countryside to a late medieval farmhouse named Hoglands in Perry Green, Hertfordshire. It was here that Moore joined the local Home Guard.

The exterior of a house that is the headquarters of the Henry Moore Foundation
The Grade II* listed Hoglands in Perry Green, Hertfordshire, where Moore lived and worked in several studios from 1940-1986. © Image via Creative Commons.

Art materials were in short supply during the war, so Moore concentrated almost exclusively on drawing.

The Ministry of Information, the government department responsible for wartime information and propaganda, set up the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) in 1939. It was chaired by art historian, broadcaster and Director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark.

Clark became Moore’s influential patron. On behalf of the WAAC, he bought several drawings Moore had made following visits to London Underground stations that had been converted into air raid shelters. Clark appointed Moore as an Official War Artist in 1941, commissioning him to create further drawings of the Underground for display around the country, with the stoicism of Londoners helping to raise morale.

An artwork by Henry Moore called 'Shelterers in the Tube'
Shelterers in the Tube‘ by Henry Moore, 1941. © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0.

These compassionate drawings remain some of the most powerful and iconic images of the Second World War on Britain’s home front. As well as boosting Moore’s profile with the British public, who became more sympathetic to his work, the drawings introduced him to American collectors.

In August 1941, Moore was commissioned by the WAAC to draw miners working at the Wheldale Colliery in Castleford. It was a project of personal significance, returning to his home town and the pit where his father had been employed for many years. Moore went deep underground, sometimes crawling on his hands and knees, depicting the dignity of the harsh physical work that was essential to the war effort.

An artwork by Henry Moore called 'At the Coal Face'
‘At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub’ by Henry Moore, 1942. © IWM Art. LD 2240.

The humanist artist: 1940s and 1950s

When Moore’s daughter, Mary, was born in 1946, his work was already undergoing a profound change. He largely abandoned direct carving and increasingly used plaster and bronze. In a move away from experimentation in the 1930s, particularly Surrealism, he had started exploring more humanist subjects, returning to one of the themes that preoccupied him throughout his career: mother and child groups.

Moore continued to create family groups, while still working on reclining figures and internal/external forms, where one figure is protected within another form. He made small terracotta maquettes (models) of the Madonna and Child, most under 20cm, casting some in bronze.

A sculpture by Henry Moore called 'Mother and Child'
‘Mother and Child’ in the Grade II* listed Church of St Matthew, Northampton, created in 1944. Source: Nicky Hughes.

Between 1944 and 1947, he cast dozens of small bronzes in editions of seven or nine, sold globally to museums and collectors. Throughout his lifetime, Moore would continue to make numbered editions of his sculptures and prints, as well as gifting hundreds of works, including to the Tate in 1978, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and institutions abroad.

A sculpture by Henry Moore called 'Three Standing Figures' against a background of trees and bushes
Henry Moore’s Grade II listed ‘Three Standing Figures’ in Battersea Park, London, created in 1948. © Historic England Archive. DP164312.

Moore’s more humanistic work, along with a first retrospective exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1946, and winning the prestigious International Sculpture Prize two years later at the Venice Biennale, helped cement his international reputation.

The late 1940s and 1950s were a period of intense creativity. Moore received many commissions, allowing him to increase the scale and scope of his output. He began employing assistants, including Anthony Caro, who later became a renowned artist in his own right.

A Henry Moore sculpture called 'Falling Warrior'
Henry Moore’s Grade II listed ‘Falling Warrior’ at Clare College Memorial Court, Cambridge, created between 1956 and 1957. © Historic England Archive. DP167103.

Sculpture for everyone: 1950s to 1970s

In post-war Britain, there was a shift from commemorative sculpture towards the idea of public sculpture being art for all. England’s first New Towns, including Stevenage and Harlow, were being established not far from London under the New Towns Act of 1946.

It was a time of optimism. Free education up to the age of 15 was introduced in 1947 after the 1944 Education Act, and the Welfare State came into being in 1948.

Two Henry Moore statues called the 'Family Group'
Left: Henry Moore’s Grade II listed ‘Family Group’ at The Barclay School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire, 1951. This was Moore’s first large-scale public bronze. Right: Moore’s ‘Family Group’ in Harlow, Essex, 1954-55. © Historic England. IOE01/0392717, AA98/06947.

While public sculpture became an emblem of post-war renewal and progress, Moore’s Harlow ‘Family Group’ initially suffered scathing public criticism, with the heads vandalised with a tea cosy and green-painted whiskers and the baby’s head broken off. Over the decades, Moore’s work periodically suffered from vandalism, theft and fakery.

However, during the 1950s, newspapers, television and radio brought modern art into people’s homes, with Moore frequently appearing on television programmes.

A Henry Moore sculpture called 'Bronze Knife Edge Two Piece'
The Grade II* listed ‘Bronze Knife Edge Two Piece’, College Green, Westminster, London. Unveiled in 1967, the sculpture was a gift to the nation by Moore and the Contemporary Arts Society. Image via Creative Commons.

Moore’s creative output was enormous. He received increasingly important commissions, including a bronze ‘Reclining Figure: Festival’, commissioned by the Arts Council, which was exhibited at the seminal 1951 Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank. Commissions also included the immense 5 metre long marble ‘Reclining Figure’ (1958) for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and the monumental bronze 8.5 metre high ‘Reclining Figure’ (1965) for the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

By the end of the 1970s, there were around 40 Henry Moore exhibitions a year in Britain and around the world, from the modest such as a small loan to a school, to popular touring exhibitions and landmark retrospectives.

A black and white image of a sculpture by Henry Moore called 'Mother and Child with Apple'
Henry Moore’s ‘Mother and Child with Apple’ at an exhibition in The Moot Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1962. © Historic England Archive. AA082033.

Moore was now revered by the public and feted by the great and the good. By travelling the globe to supervise his exhibitions, he became the most famous British sculptor in the world. 

He received many honours, accolades and awards throughout the decades, internationally and in Britain. Although, as a moderate socialist and not wanting to be perceived as an establishment figure, he refused an earlier offer of a knighthood.

Moore’s later years and legacy

As he got older and started to suffer from arthritis in his hands, Moore seemed less concerned with his public role as a modern sculptor in favour of other interests, although he did still accept commissions.

A Henry Moore sculpture called 'Arch 1'
Arch 1, Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green. © Jerry Young.

Moore became a prolific print-maker, creating hundreds of etchings and lithographs, including ones of Stonehenge and reclining figures, as well as drawings of the sheep on his estate. These were often made in small editions, making them affordable to the wider public.

As he grew older, Moore became concerned about his legacy and the possibility of his estate being dispersed to pay death duties. In 1977, he and his daughter, Mary, established the Henry Moore Foundation to conserve his work and to promote the arts, particularly sculpture. He bequeathed the trustees his 30 hectare Perry Green estate, his collection of works, and the Henry Moore Archive, which includes 750,000 items collected throughout his lifetime.

A design studio with many miniature models on display
The Bourne Maquette Studio showing some of Moore’s vast collection of natural forms such as flints, rocks, shells, bones, along with some of the maquettes of varying sizes he created before making his some of his colossal sculptures. © Jerry Young.

In 1982, Queen Elizabeth II opened the Henry Moore Sculpture Gallery and Centre for the Study of Sculpture in Leeds.

Henry Moore kept working into his eighties, dying at Hoglands, aged 88, on 31 August 1986.

Henry Moore’s reputation took some knocks in later years, and his work fell out of fashion. He was viewed as too commercial, too establishment, an anachronism. Moore was a paralysing force for some younger artists, casting a giant creative shadow.

However, for many, Moore was a titan of 20th century art. His work is held in almost every major public and private collection globally, with more sculptures in the public realm worldwide than any other sculptor in history.

A Henry Moore sculpture called 'Sheep Piece'
‘Sheep Piece’, one of four bronze casts, 1971-72, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas, USA. Image via Creative Commons.

Written by Nicky Hughes

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