The sculptor Henry Moore (1898 –1986) is a rare example of a British artist whose subjects and themes achieved a familiarity and relevance that made him a household name during a career that spanned most of the 20th century. Along with his contemporaries, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Moore was a considerable influence in developing British art and modernism as a movement. He became a confident advocate for art in post war Britain by establishing a strong visual language applied throughout his work, that is immediately identifiable. His prolific output combined with his role as a teacher and mentor for young artists throughout his career has been well documented. Aside from the quality of his sculptural work, it may be his influence as an educator that accounts for his lasting relevance as a practitioner. It is Moore’s lifelong commitment to art education that will be traced here.
EARLY YEARS: FAMILY AND EDUCATION
Born in Castleford Yorkshire, an industrial town in the north of England, Henry Moore showed his talent for drawing early on, as a young man. The seventh of eight siblings he was the son of a miner. His father later became the manager of a mine. Moore’s father was self-educated and the family were not wealthy, yet the young Henry, with the help of a scholarship, was encouraged by both his parents to pursue a formal education. Education was not accessible to all and for a family of a certain size and from a working class background access to school would have been limited if available at all. Clearly Moore’s parents believed in the importance of an education as his father insisted that Henry direct his talent for art toward teaching rather than apply for a scholarship to attend the local art college.
Having completed his teacher training, Moore taught at Temple Street Elementary School, the school he had attended as a boy. After a relatively short period teaching, he enlisted in the army. Moore’s combat experience in WWI was traumatic. His regiment was badly gassed in northern France. He was fortunate to survive and required a period of leave for recuperation, after which he was reassigned as an instructor teaching recruits. As armistice was declared he returned briefly to France before re-introduction to civilian life. Moore took up his teaching post at Temple Street School again, from where he used his ex-serviceman’s grant to support his studies at Leeds School of Art.
Moore was at Leeds School of Art between 1919 – 21, enrolling when he was 21. It was not until his second year that he started to work as a sculptor. While at Leeds he met fellow students Raymond Coxon and Barbara Hepworth who were to become life long friends. In 1921 Moore attained a scholarship to continue his studies in London at the Royal College of Art (RCA). Coxon and Hepworth also applied successfully to the RCA that same year.
It was during his time in London while at the RCA Moore developed an interest in non-western cultures through the collections at the British Museum. He understood that tribal art offered another take on the human form. This personal discovery together with inspiration taken from the natural world, informed his pursuit of more academic preoccupations. Like his fellow students at the RCA, he copied the work of Greek and Renaissance masters often from plaster reproductions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, like Domenico Rosselli’s Virgin and Child, under tutelage of Professor Francis Derwent Wood. This kind of classical appreciation was considered essential to a sculptor’s training at the time. Despite confounding his instructor by carving his copy of Virgin and Child by hand and simulating the marks left by a pointing machine, the approved means of copying three dimensional objects to scale, he attained his diploma from the RCA in 1924.
Moore later recalled:
‘I had a double goal, or double occupation: drawing and modelling from life in term-time and daytime. And the rest of the time trying to develop in pure sculptural terms – which for me, at that time, was a very different thing from the Renaissance tradition … When I was a student direct carving, as an occupation and as a sculptor’s natural way of producing things, was simply unheard of in academic circles … I liked the different mental approach involved – the fact that you begin with the block and have to find the sculpture that’s inside it.’ (John and Vera Russell, ‘Conversations with Henry Moore’, Sunday Times, 17 December 1961, reprinted in Wilkinson 2002, pp.47, 230)
In 1922 members of the Moore family moved from Yorkshire to Norfolk. While studying in London at the Royal College of Art, Moore would visit his sister Mary who was the Headmistress at Wighton School near Wells-next-the-Sea. There was enough room for him to carve stone in the little garden. In later years his visits coincided with visiting artist friends like Ivon Hitchens, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson.
While in their second year at the RCA Moore and Raymond Coxon traveled to Paris in 1922, for the first time. Moore was particularly impressed by the work of Paul Cezanne, relishing the monumentality of a large canvas The Large Bathers 1900–6. Assimilating these diverse influences Moore found the building blocks for his own sophisticated visual language encouraged by his studies and inspired by the coastal features and natural landscape of eastern England.