by Roderick Conway Morris

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Credit Henry Moore Foundation/Photo by Jonty Wilde
'Reclining Figure: Angles,' 1979, by Henry Moore, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Henry Moore and the Land

By Roderick Conway Morris
WAKEFIELD, England 24 June 2015


When Henry Moore was about 9 or 10 years old, he was taken to see Adel Rock, a famous craggy outcrop in Leeds, near his home in the north of England.

'Looking back I can now see that this was a crucial and potently formative experience, from which so much of my fundamental attitude to sculpture emanates,' he recalled later. 'The sense of scale, the feeling for stone, the need to think of sculpture as something essentially monumental: something to be placed out of doors, and, so far as possible, in a way that best reveals its inherent monumentality.'

Early in his career, in his determined struggle to revitalize sculpture as a means of expression, Moore attracted notice for his rejection both of traditional Greco-Roman models and of the use of bronze casting and marble. Equally well known is the inspiration he drew from pre-Columbian Mexican, African and South Sea Island sculptures; his practice of 'direct carving'; and his preference for native English stone, notably Portland, Blue Hornton and Corsehill.

What has received less attention — the role that nature and landscape played in the development of his work — is now the subject of 'Henry Moore: Back to a Land,' a thought-provoking exhibition of more than 120 works distributed across the Formal Gardens, the Underground Gallery and the rolling Country Park at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until Sept. 6.

Moore was the seventh child of eight, born into a coal mining family, in 1898, in Castleford, which lies a few minutes' drive northeast of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

'At the time my father lived there, it was very industrialized: It had five mines, two glassworks, a chemical factory, some potteries and slag heaps,' the artist's daughter, Mary Moore, said on the eve of the exhibition opening. 'And yet two miles away there was open countryside, and a very rugged countryside.'

Ms. Moore has contributed to the show at the Underground Gallery a selection of her father's collection of artifacts, maquettes, found objects, tools, notes, sketches and photographs.

The exhibition subtitle is an allusion to 'A Land,' a romantic evocation and investigation of Britain's geology and archaeology, written by Moore's friend Jacquetta Hawkes and published in 1951. The artist provided illustrations for the book, two of the originals of which are on show in the Underground Gallery, along with over 70 other graphic works that demonstrate Moore's lifelong commitment to drawing and painting landscape, often in a highly imaginative manner, and sometimes placing his own sculptures in them.

Moore was particularly drawn to rock landscapes, but his close-up examinations of other objects also produced what took on the appearance of extraordinary geological formations, fissures and caves, as in his 'Elephant Skull' etchings and 'Stonehenge' lithographs from the late 1960s and 1970s, on display here.

These are juxtaposed with some of the artist's smaller and medium-size sculptures, which also suggest how natural phenomena influenced the forms and modeling of his figures. 'Moore said he wanted to work materials in the way nature had,' Helen Pheby, the curator of the exhibition, said. 'So he wanted to work the stone in the same way the wind and the rain had eroded it, to have the same natural impact, and to carve wood in the same way the tree had grown.'

This blending of natural and human form is compellingly illustrated by such works as 'Reclining Figure: Bone' (1975) and 'Draped Reclining Figure' (1978), both in Travertine marble; and 'Reclining Figure: Holes' (1976-78) in elm wood.

Another formative childhood experience for Moore was his exploration of the caves in some local sandpits. His activities as an official war artist during World War II took him underground again — and brought his name to a wider audience — when he made sketches of sleeping figures sheltering from the Blitz in London's Tube stations and of miners toiling deep beneath the earth's surface in the Wheldale Colliery, where his father had once worked.

On show alongside these powerful images drawn from life are wonderful imaginary scenes inspired by these experiences, such as 'Odysseus in the Naiad's Cave' (1944).

Larger sculptures in the open-air Formal Gardens around the Underground Gallery continue the theme of Moore's absorption of natural forms into his figures: these include the serpentine, swaying, almost tree-like 'Large Interior Form' (1982); 'Two Piece Reclining Figure' (1959), which appears to be directly inspired by Adel Rock; and 'Reclining Figure: Hand' (1979), which survived an IRA bomb attack in 2001 while it was installed outside a BBC building in London.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park offered an unprecedented environment for Moore to realize his ideal of exhibiting his works 'out of doors,' and he became its first patron in 1979. Since then the Country Park has been home to a number of his later monumental bronze pieces, his enormous 'Two Forms' (1966-69) among them, on long-term loan from the Henry Moore Foundation at the farmhouse at Perry Green in Hertfordshire, to which the artist and his wife moved in 1940. Four of these pieces have been resited for the current exhibition.

'My father said he liked the Hertfordshire landscape because it didn't really impose itself,' Mary Moore said. 'It was a kind of blank canvas. He said he couldn't really work in a dramatic landscape that was constantly changing and catching his attention with changes in the weather and the light.'

But, she said, it was only during the preparations for the exhibition that she understood quite how profound the influence of Yorkshire's countryside had been on him. 'At the end of his life my father's eyesight was failing and he was housebound,' she said. 'He drew every day, what seemed to me internalized, memorized or fantasy landscapes.' But as she was in Yorkshire preparing her part of the exhibition, she said, 'I looked out of the window and saw these trees and this landscape and realized that the landscapes he was drawing were the landscapes of his youth.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024