Much more on Henry Moore

Dr Hannah Higham traces the shifting influences of the ancient world on the work of Henry Moore – from Sumerian art to Greek Classicism


This year the Henry Moore Foundation is celebrating its 40th anniversary and marking the occasion with an exhibition, entitled Becoming Henry Moore, which gives an insight into the artist’s early inspiration, revealing the interesting relationship he had with the ancient world. It is currently on show at his former home and studios at Perry Green in Hertfordshire until 22 October, before it tranfers to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds in November.

Moore in front of the small Ionic temple of Athena Nike in Athens, 1951.

Many different things shaped Henry Moore’s sense of sculptural form from a young age. During his childhood in Castleford, Yorkshire, he was surrounded by pyramidal slag heaps above the cavernous world of mines below and, as a boy, he spent his weekends exploring the rocky outcrops of the surrounding moors. Whether he was conscious of this or not, a landscape of ancient structures seems to have been formed in the mind of the artist.

His decision, at 11, to become a sculptor, is credited to a Sunday school class in which he heard the legendary story of Michelangelo carving a faun – a copy of an antique sculpture then in the collection of Lorenzo de Medici. School trips to local churches revealed medieval carvings which also left their impression on him. Both in form and imagination a sense of history and pre-history appears to characterise the origins of Henry Moore’s artistic development.

Henry Moore, Two heads, 1924–25, Mansfield stone. The nose shows the influence of early Greek art from the Cycladic Islands. 31.7cm x 26.5cm x 22.6cm.

In September 1919, he enrolled at Leeds School of Art and was finally able to pursue his dream of becoming a sculptor – this was after an aborted attempt at teacher-training, and active service during the First World War. Moore subsequently went on to the Royal College of Art in London in 1921. During his student years, when he began to develop his own style, his relationship with history and tradition was both crystallised and complicated.

In the 1920s, particularly in the environs of British art academies, the Classical ideal and, more specifically, the sculptural style of antiquity held a central position on the syllabus. An engagement with the Graeco-Roman world, which had captured the imagination of the British cultural elite since the 18th century, was unavoidable. Moreover, it was mediated through casts of antique sculpture that had received an annual whitewash, blurring any sensitivity of form. Moore considered such ‘tired forms of classicism’ as having little to offer and he determined to remove ‘the Greek spectacles from the eyes of the modern sculptor’.

Such an academic focus may have left the sculptor decidedly estranged from Classical antiquity but, in seeking alternative inspiration, a more nuanced relationship with the ancient world developed. Moore’s sketchbooks from this period show a fascination with Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian and Byzantine art.

Henry Moore, Seated Figure, alabaster, 1930. 46.1cm x 27.7cm x 19.6cm. Photograph © Art Gallery of Ontario.

He was buoyed by the writings of the painter and art critic Roger Fry and the work of avant-garde artists, such as Epstein, Picasso, Brancusi, Archipenko, Modigliani and others, not least his mentor, the artist Leon Underwood (1890-1975), who championed a new visual language informed by ‘primitive art’.

This rather indiscriminate term was used to describe everything from Aztec stone deities and African masks to medieval statuary and cave painting. For Moore, such artwork not only provided simplified and abstracted formal properties that he could assimilate into his own work but it had an immediacy which spoke of essential truths. To incorporate such influences was to retain a link with archaic art forms that had universal and timeless qualities.

From his first visit in 1921, the collections of the British Museum shaped Moore’s understanding of sculpture perhaps more than any college class. He describes going there at least twice a week to explore the galleries of Pre-Columbian, African and Oceanic art.

He apparently ignored the museum’s renowned collections of Classical sculpture from ancient Greece, preferring the archaic works from the Cycladic islands. His Two Heads (2) of 1924–25 carved in Mansfield stone is directly inspired by an appreciation of the bold and yet refined qualities of Cycladic sculpture, the simplified heads economically animated through the incorporation of the wedge-like nose of Cycladic figures.

The cover of The Listener, 5 June 1935, in which Moore’s lecture on Mesopotamian art was published. On the cover is an image of the Sumerian statue of Gudea, the ‘temple-builder’, with his hands clasped – a posture that caught Moore’s imagination and which he used in his own work. Photograph: courtesy of Henry Moore Institute.

In a national lecture that Moore gave and wrote up for The Listener in June 1935, he expressed his deep admiration for Mesopotamian art – in particular for an ancient Sumerian sculpture, known as Gudea, Ruler of the City-State of Lagash (3), which was then in the British Museum. Moore’s probable acquaintance with this sculpture, before it entered the collection of the museum, and the particular focus it had for artists in his circle, is eloquently explored by Jon Wood in his essay in the Becoming Henry Moore catalogue.

Gudea had a profound effect on Moore, as can be seen in a number of his sculptures from 1930–32, which echo the Sumerian ruler’s gesture of clasped hands (4). The formal properties of the sculpture aside, as a historical figure Gudea was perceived as an instigator of cultural regeneration, a ‘temple-builder’, not a military leader but a hieratic figure. Moreover, he hailed from a society pre-dating the Egyptian, Assyrian, Etruscan and Graeco-Roman civilisations.

Henry Moore, Study for ‘Row of Sleepers’, 1941, pencil, wax crayon, coloured crayon, watercolour, wash on paper. 204mm x 165mm.This drawing was made during the Second World War when people were sleeping in London’s Underground stations to shelter from the German bombing raids.

Moore placed specific focus on the motif of clasped hands, which he discussed in his 1935 article and imbued with a ‘wealth of meaning’. Within Gudea’s tightly held palms is an enclosed space of concealed energy. It is argued by Wood that this may be related to notions of creative authority, which Moore identified within his own artistic production. Sumerian sculpture offered Moore both a formal example, in its still and dignified aesthetic, and also an ancient example through which he could mediate ideas of human creativity.

Pre-Columbian Art arguably had an even greater impact on Moore. The stone-carved deities of Mexican sculpture seem to have been the first archetypal influence on the formation of his anti-Classical aesthetic ideal.

Henry Moore Reclining Figure, 1929, brown Hornton stone. 54cm x 82cm x 37cm. Photograph: courtesy of Leeds Museums & Galleries.

In this so-called ‘primitive art’ Moore and his contemporaries not only sought a new lexicon of forms, but the production and fabric of these works reinforced their cherished ideas of ‘direct carving’ and ‘truth to materials’. It is notable that in his comments on Aztec sculpture Moore singles out their ‘stoniness’ for particular praise.

It is a Toltec-Mayan carving of a reclining Chacmool figure, which he first encountered in a book, before searching out an example in the British Museum, that is responsible for the development of the artist’s iconic Reclining Figure of 1929 (5). Carved in native brown Horton stone, the work incorporates the Chacmool pose, which sees the deity reclining on his back with his knees raised and head twisted to the front. In this figure, Moore realises the first major manifestation of a theme that would occupy him for the rest of his career. The subject of the recumbent figure, which was popular in late Roman sculpture, has a perfect Classical pedigree but Moore’s work is deliberately and powerfully anti-Classical, in contrast to later experimentations with the theme. Although such later works are beyond the scope of the exhibition, they can be seen displayed throughout the grounds of the Perry Green estate. Indeed, Moore’s development of the reclining figure motif and his relationship to the Classical tradition changed significantly during the final years of the 1930s and the early 1940s with the onset of the Second World War.

Henry Moore, The Three Fates, 1983–84, cotton warp, linen and wool weft. 243cm x 350cm. Tapestry woven at West Dean College, West Sussex, based on a drawing made during the 1940s.

At this time, Moore’s ability to make sculpture was limited, and it was through drawing that he expressed and cultivated his ideas. Perhaps his most famous drawings of this period are the so-called Shelter Drawings (6). On his way home one evening with his wife Irina, Moore was struck by groups of people wrapped in blankets sleeping in the tunnels of the London Underground – he saw a sea of reclining figures.

His initial sketches were later developed as he became an official War Artist, and complemented by a series of drawings of miners at the Wheldale Colliery where his father had once worked. Not only is it tempting to link these subterranean figures with anthropological notions of cave dwelling, protection and even entombment but one can also read mythological overtones in Homeric themes of the underworld. Formally, the reclining shelterers wrapped in blankets allowed Moore to explore the possibilities of draping the human figure – which further lent them a Greek character.

Henry Moore and the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991) visiting the pre-Columbian site of Xochicalco in Mexico in 1953.

An explicit response to Greek mythology came towards the end of the War when Moore produced two groups of drawings for Edward Sackville West’s The Rescue and André Gide’s translation of Goethe’s Prometheus. The Rescue, based on Homer’s Odyssey, was broadcast on BBC radio in 1943 with a musical score by Benjamin Britten. When published in 1944, six drawings by Moore illustrated the deluxe edition. The modern re-telling of the epic tale of Odysseus’s heroic resistance in the face of adversity reflected something of the wartime spirit and parallels were drawn between ancient Greece and the international situation.

The Rescue Sketchbook contained ideas on standing figures that would find expression in a number of guises throughout Moore’s career. He elaborated the groups of weaving characters into a drawing of the Three Fates in 1948, variations of which fill his Prométhée Sketchbook and which, in 1983–84, he had woven as a tapestry (7).

The Prometheus project was initiated in 1949 and launched at a presentation given by the British Council in Paris in 1951. The concept of a Titan who progressed by reason rather than force and who had stolen from the gods to help mankind regardless of punishment, appealed to Moore.

Increasingly responsive to public needs during these post-war years Moore’s attention turned to traditional humanistic subjects disseminated through the medium of print to reach larger audiences. This was reinforced by a Stoic Classicism which can be detected in a number of his draped figures in the sketchbook.

In 1951 a touring exhibition of Moore’s work organised by the British Council reached Athens and prompted the artist’s first visit to Greece (1). The trip was a catalyst for a body of work produced in the decade that followed with a distinctly Classical influence. Moore’s previous rejection of the tradition, which had already begun to diminish in the 1940s, would seemingly be rescinded completely.

Henry Moore, Warrior with Shield, 1953–54, bronze. H. 155cm.

His Draped Reclining Figure of 1952–53 (11) existed as a maquette before Moore left for Athens, and was worked on vigorously when he returned. In it he synthesises the pose of the Chacmool with an agitated drapery that finds its origins in numerous Greek antecedents.

As mentioned, the blanketed figures of the Shelter Drawings first introduced the idea of drapery into Moore’s work. Now he was able to investigate in sculpture what he had previously only explored through drawing. Moore revelled in the spreading and uneven pleats and wrinkles of drapery, which could stress the sculptural form of the figure and serve to accentuate the body’s tension, occasionally distorting yet providing energy.

Henry Moore, Helmet Head No.1, 1950, lead. 41.5cm × 35.5cm × 26.5cm.

Moore’s Draped Torso (12) is a sculpture derived from the Draped Reclining Figure – the artist having been taken with the idea of the torso after seeing one of his intermediary models sectioned and cut for enlargement. This sense of the fragmentary and its connection to the Greek precedents known to Moore, which were almost always headless, limbless or otherwise eroded, was not lost on the artist. Indeed, Moore could be said to take up the poetic theme of the ruin as a channel for modern human emotion (as he had begun to do in the mythological drawings), in his subsequent series of warrior sculptures.

Warrior with Shield of 1953–54 (9), was one of several consciously Greek figures of wounded or fallen combatants which Moore produced in the 1950s. They, too, resound with a residing trauma of the Second World War and here, where the soldier holds his shield high to ward off attack from above, the recent experience of the Blitz is evoked.

Henry Moore, Draped Reclining Figure, 1952–53, bronze. L. 157.5cm. Photograph: Jonty Wilde.

On the whole though, amputated and contorted, these male figures are defiant and dynamic, much like the fragmentary examples of Classical sculpture that inspired them. The ancient round shield also allowed Moore to experiment with a further preoccupation of his, the relationship of internal and external spaces. Inside the curved void of the shield Moore’s warrior has a concave, almost bludgeoned chest. While this enclosed hollow conveys notions of bodily sacrifice, it is also reminiscent of the contained power within the clasped hands of Gudea. Moore’s fascination with armour and its protection of softer internal forms may date back to his student visits to the Wallace Collection in London, which he described in connection with his series of sculptures, each entitled Helmet Head (10). The Helmet Head series, which originates in drawings made in 1939, conflate skull with helmet, yet often include indistinguishable interior elements. The sculptures are perhaps further evidence of Moore’s subversion or reinterpretation of ancient icons to reflect contemporary anxiety.

Even a cursory survey of the life and work of Henry Moore reveals a deep and varied engagement with the ancient world. Trips to prehistoric sites, such as Stonehenge and the painted caves of Altamira in Spain, and the pre-Columbian site of Xochicalco in Mexico (8), all left their mark on the artist.

Roger Cardinal, in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore in the Light of Greece (2000), appraises Moore’s debt to the country’s cultural heritage, when he says we are but ‘plucking out a single thread from within an extremely rich and tangled tapestry’. What is apparent is that what began as a student, with a desire to think about a world tradition of sculpture, rather than just a Classical one, soon incorporated both and, in doing so, themes and forms that transcended time and geography emerged.

Henry Moore with his sculpture Draped Torso, 1953, bronze, H. 89cm, in his garden at Hoglands, Perry Green, Hertfordshire.

In Becoming Henry Moore we witness the origins of a visual archive of form and meaning, which would inform the sculptor’s work for the rest of his life and nourish in him a sculptural language with which he could address the universal human condition. n

Becoming Henry Moore is on show at the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green Hertfordshire ( until 22 October 2017 and at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds ( from 30 November 2017 to 18 February 2018.

All images reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation unless otherwise marked.