Heritage: Henry Moore - From miner’s son to sculptor with peerless reputation
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima
In the latest of our series exploring the lives and times of people commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin looks at the life of sculptor Henry Moore, from his working-class roots to people and experiences that inspired him.
Henry Moore’s early influences included the works of writer DH Lawrence, who was like him, the son of a miner. But from humble beginnings he went on to be awarded the Order of Merit and become Britain’s most famous sculptor. At his memorial, in 1986, poet Sir Stephen Spender, who gave the eulogy, said: “All people to him were equals simply in being human.”
Henry Spencer Moore (1898–1986) was born in Castleford, Yorkshire, the seventh of eight children.
His father Raymond was something of a “self-improving” man and instilled a love of art and literature in his children. Henry later recalled that his father believed his children should not “have the suffering, the drawbacks and the restricted life he’d had, and he saw that we didn’t”.
One of Moore’s earliest and most significant sculptural experiences was when he gave his mother Mary a back rub. She suffered from severe rheumatism and the young boy would often massage her with liniment. It was noted: “He never forgot the contrast between the soft, yielding, fleshy parts of the back and the hard framework of bone beneath.”
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Later in life Moore explained his preference in his sculpture for matronly women by his relationship with his mother.
‘Big, bleak lump’
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Another key moment in his formative years was while he was out walking in the country with his father. Moore came across Adel Rock (as he later called it), an enormous outcrop of stone.
He recalled: “For me, it was the first big, bleak lump of stone set in the landscape and surrounded by marvellous gnarled prehistoric trees. It had no feature of recognition, no element of copying of naturalism, just a bleak, powerful form, very impressive.”
The final experience and perhaps the “clincher” in choosing his path in later life came when Moore was aged 10 or 11.
Having sat through a Sunday school sermon, he heard the superintendent speak of Michelangelo, “the greatest sculptor who ever lived”. The sermon was soon forgotten but those words stuck and when Moore returned home he leafed through his encyclopaedia seeking the great artist’s name.
Once he had read the entry he was convinced. From that day on, he always maintained that he wanted to be a sculptor.
Taking his father’s advice, Moore first trained as a teacher before pursuing his dream. He gained a place at Leeds School of Art and within his first year, 1919, managed to complete the two-year drawing course.
At the end of the year he was awarded, along with his lifelong friend, the painter Raymond Coxon, a third of the prizes for the nine categories of drawing.
It was at this time Moore first met the sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth and the two became friends and enjoyed a friendly rivalry that lasted many years.
In his second year at Leeds, Moore asked the principal whether he could study sculpture. The principal agreed and even hired a tutor, who went on to set up a department with Moore as its only full-time student.
At the end of that year Moore won a scholarship worth £90 a year and secured a place at the Royal College of Art in London.
In 1928 Moore met an art student, Irina Anatolia Radetzki (1907–1989), at a college dance. The couple were married in London on July 29, 1929.
“After getting married I moved from the digs I was in,” Moore said. “I had rented in advance 11a Parkhill Road, NW3, so when Irina and I were back from our honeymoon we went straight there.
“It was near other friends Barbara [Hepworth] and Jack Skeaping when they were married – in fact I think they found that 11a was to let and told me about it.”
The couple lived at the address until 1940 and in 2004 a plaque was unveiled by their only child, Mary.
In a 1975 Sunday Times article, Moore said: “We had wonderful times with them [the Skeapings]. My wife and I would go over and we would have long discussions or play skittles; shove ha’penny was another great game of ours.”
The critic Herbert Read described the area in the 1930s as a “nest of gentle artists”, housing a talented community of writers and artists including Paul Nash, Cecil Stephenson and Naum Gabo with Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who were based at the Mall Studios, off Tasker Road, Belsize Park.
Reflecting on the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition, which Moore helped organise, he said: “Everyone was getting fed up and starting to leave when suddenly there was an enormous bang and a great puff of smoke and, as it cleared, there was Dali standing in a diver’s suit with a diving helmet, giving his lecture [on paranoia]. Anything for publicity.”
During the Battle of Britain Moore and his wife ventured out to the West End one night for dinner. The couple returned to Belsize Park on the Underground.
“As a rule, I went into town by car and hadn’t been by Tube for ages. For the first time that evening I saw people lying on the platforms at all the stations we stopped at,” Moore recalled.
“When we got to Belsize Park we weren’t allowed out of the station for an hour because of a bombing.”
The experience was immortalised in the well-known series of sketches Shelter Drawings.
Moore explained: “I spent the time looking at the rows of people sleeping on the platforms. I had never seen so many reclining figures, and even the train tunnels seemed to be like holes in my sculpture.”
Photographer and long-time collaborator Gemma Levine said: “He was a true Yorkshire man and nothing would stop his creativity”.
In her forthcoming book, Just One More – A Photographer’s Memoir, Levine recalls Moore’s beliefs.
“There is an infinite amount to be seen and enjoyed. Everything in the world of form is understood through our own bodies.
“From our mother’s breast to our bones, from bumping into things, we learn what is rough and what is smooth.
“To observe, to understand. To experience the vast variety of space, shape and form in the world. Twenty lifetimes would not be enough. There is no end to it.”