Artillery Row On Art

The timelessness of Henry Moore

How a modernist bogeyman became an Old Master

At Hauser & Wirth, a smart modern gallery in a converted farmhouse in Somerset, Mary Moore is showing me some of her father’s sculptures. The familial resemblance is uncanny — she’s instantly recognisable as Henry Moore’s daughter — but what’s far more notable is her deep understanding of his work. “Sculpture is very physical,” says Mary, as she leads me through The Arch, the gigantic sculpture which forms the gateway to this life-enhancing show.

Mary grew up in a farmhouse a lot like this one, a place called Hoglands in Hertfordshire, where Moore lived and worked for the second half of his long life. Moore moved there from London in 1940, to escape the Blitz, and stayed there until he died, so it feels fitting to see his sculptures here, in a setting so similar to the one where so many of them were made.

Mary was an only child, which may account, in part, for her empathy with these artworks. Growing up in Hoglands, her father’s sculptures were all around her. She witnessed every stage of their evolution. Now Hoglands is a museum and sculpture park, with a permanent collection in the grounds and special exhibitions in the gallery, but if anything this exhibition is even more comprehensive. 

Henry Moore has disappeared into the foreground

It’s a survey of Moore’s work which spans 60 years, from the 1920s to the 1980s, from his twenties to his eighties. In an age when sculpture can mean anything, from unmade beds to pickled sharks, this ethereal, uplifting show is a reminder that, despite his avant-garde reputation, his work was closely connected with the ancient past.

Moore was born in 1898, a miner’s son, the seventh of eight children. He grew up in a terraced house in Castleford, a mining town in Yorkshire, and fought on the Western Front in the First World War. Throughout his life, he went about his work in the same no-nonsense manner. Down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, he let his chisel do the talking. Incredibly productive, he left behind a vast legacy, with sculptures on every continent, in virtually every major city in the world. His artworks are timeless and universal. Anyone can understand them. They’re about how it feels to be alive.

Nearly forty years since his death, in 1986, at the grand age of 88, Henry Moore has disappeared into the foreground. A victim of his own success, his work is now ubiquitous. No public building is complete without one of his monolithic sculptures on the forecourt — and so they’ve become virtually invisible, part of the fabric of our daily lives. You need to see them here, in this rural setting, to be reminded of their elemental beauty — how they broke new ground, and also forged fresh links with antiquity.

Moore’s contribution to modernism is widely acknowledged, but his intimate connection with art history is equally important and frequently overlooked. Walking around this exhibition, you realise that his work was archaic, not futuristic. The Renaissance was his lodestar. His favourite artists were Old Masters. He was fascinated by classical and Neolithic art.

He ended up with an Order of Merit, a bastion of the establishment, and yet for half a century Moore was a modernist bogeyman, derided by many within the art world and mocked by much of the popular press. How come? Classical and Renaissance artists would have recognised his busts and torsos, his reclining nudes. Sure, they’re not realistic, but anyone can see that they are figurative. Even his abstract sculptures make close and constant reference to the human form. No wonder Kenneth Clark was a champion of his work.

Moore’s influence on British art has been so far-reaching that it’s easy to forget how radical his work seemed in his youth. Today his gentle modernism seems positively benign, but that’s not the way it appeared in Britain between the wars. “The Cult of Ugliness Triumphant” ran a typical headline, in The Morning Post, above an intemperate review which claimed that “Moore shows an utter contempt for the natural beauty of women and children.” When Moore was teaching at the Royal College of Art, where he’d been a star pupil, some of his students signed a petition to dismiss him.

Why did so many people feel so threatened? Looking back, it’s hard to say. Britain had never embraced modernism. During Moore’s student days even Post-Impressionist paintings were treated with intense suspicion. Abstraction fared even worse. Yet if anyone could persuade Britons to give modern art a go, it was Moore. A working-class war veteran, he could hardly be dismissed as elitist. His public statements were measured and level-headed. Slowly but surely, the substance of his art turned public taste around.

Moore was admired by the cognoscenti before the Second World War, but it was the Blitz which transformed him into a national treasure. Too old to fight, he became an official war artist, focusing on the Home Front. His drawings of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in tube stations captured the imagination of the public, showing that modern art could be populist and patriotic. If Hitler had invaded Britain, Moore would have been a marked man. The Hamburg Kunsthalle, one of Germany’s leading public galleries, had been a pioneering collector of his work; consequently he was the only British artist denounced by the Nazis as “degenerate”.

The Fifties, Sixties and Seventies were a golden age for Moore. As Britain and Europe rebuilt their cities, in steel, glass and concrete, Moore’s sculptures added the human touch to these brave new worlds. However his heart was always in the country, not the city, and it’s telling that it’s in the countryside that his work feels most at home. Embedded in the heart of rural Somerset, Hauser & Wirth’s farmhouse and farmyard gallery is a fitting forum for these works, which feel rooted in the earth, a part of the landscape that shaped them.

Moore’s relationship was with the eternal

There’s no overriding theme in this exhibition, and it’s all the better for it. It’s more like a compact retrospective, touching on virtually every era and every avenue of Moore’s long and versatile career. A lot of the works are familiar, and it’s a thrill to see them again, but for me the big surprises are his lithographs of Stonehenge. I’d seen a few of them before, but never so many of them together, and the collective effect is stunning. These pictures are so unusual and so energetic, they deserve a show all to themselves. Moore was intrigued by the history of Stonehenge, but above all he was excited by its status as an interactive work of art. That excitement is transmitted in these muscular, graceful pictures, which find entirely new ways of looking at that iconic monument, depicting it in a completely different light.

Moore felt a potent empathy with Stonehenge and the people who made it. “He carved outside, he carved in daylight,” says Mary. “People millennia before him would have carved outside. They would not have worked within a studio.” Working outside, in natural light, the conditions are always changing. Moore’s Stonehenge pictures forge an intimate connection with our ancestors, people who would have carved these stones in much the same way. As Mary explains, “A lot of what he’s talking about is light and depth, and space and bulk.”

Moore’s relationship was with the eternal, rather than the here and now. “Every year when we went on holiday, we would pick up stones on the beach. He picked up stones all through his life, and he kept them as a kind of library.” Like all great artists, he saw artistry and beauty all around him. He could have made sculpture out of anything; the whole world was his gallery, and so he never stopped working. “He hated going on holiday — he always wanted to work!” says Mary. “Family holidays were very short.”

Mary is a rare phenomenon, and a precious asset for art historians. As his only child, the product of a happy marriage and a happy home, she enjoyed a close relationship with her father, but she also has a critical insight into his work that’s extremely unusual for such a close relative. “The remarkable thing about my father was that he had this extraordinary understanding of scale,” she says. “He worked using a small turntable and he modelled in a very small way, so the models are really quite small — but he’s able, from simply making it on the table, to envisage how it will be.” Hence, his maquettes don’t seem like working models, but miniature sculptures in their own right.

“He had within him this ability to relate to form and size. I think what he really does is take landscape or a natural form, like a tree, and interchange it with human form, so that you see in Moore the landscape in the body and the body in the landscape. I think that was a big part of what he did.”

When Moore died, in 1986, he was the most celebrated British artist of the century, the most famous sculptor in the world. After he died the art world moved on. For a while his work fell out of fashion, but lately something surprising and rather wonderful has happened: the decades since his death have brought distance and perspective to his oeuvre. He has ceased to be a modern artist and become one of the Old Masters he admired.

“Henry Moore — Sharing Form” is showing at Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, until 4 September 2022.

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