Reclining Figure Draped; photo: Jonty Wilde © The Henry Moore Foundation

Making More of Moore

21st April 2017

A new exhibition – Becoming Henry Moore – marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Henry Moore Foundation, and coincides with the opening of a new visitor centre and archive. Jill Glenn went along to Perry Green, near Much Hadham, to find out more. Or Moore.

Perry Green, Henry Moore’s former home and workplace, near Much Hadham in East Hertfordshire, is barely 25 miles from central London… and yet there is a palpable sense of shedding the city and all its preoccupations. There is a quality of otherness about this vast sculpture park (to call it a garden gives no sense of the scale) that beguiles you from the moment you approach. It’s green; it’s grounded; it is – particularly on a sunny day – quite, quite lovely.

Moore first came here to escape the bombs in Hampstead in 1940, and remained until his death in 1986, gradually buying up neighbouring properties and land to create an estate of some 70 acres, with studios, galleries, barns and space to showcase his immense and dramatic bronzes. The Henry Moore Foundation, established by the artist and his family in 1977, is now celebrating its 40th anniversary – and has marked the occasion by redeveloping both public and private space on the site. The architects have reused and extended existing buildings cherished by the Moores: a philosophical approach entirely in keeping with Henry Moore’s known parsimony and fondness for ‘making do.’ Of course, the result – an expanded visitor centre-cum-café with huge floor-to-ceiling windows, and a re-imagined state-of-the-art archive (with six climate-controlled rooms and a project space for the digitising, re-housing and conservation of materials) – does much more than ‘make do’: these new structures are robust, economical, highly energy efficient and sensitively integrated… but there’s something very satisfying about the wraparound link-to-the-past approach.

The Foundation is also capitalising on its anniversary with a new exhibition, Becoming Henry Moore, which looks at the early years of his artistic career, from 1914 to 1930, charting his creative development from talented schoolboy to established sculptor. Moore, the seventh of eight children, was born in Castleford, Yorkshire, in 1898, and showed a talent for drawing from elementary school onwards. His miner father, a man with an interest in art and music, was keen that his offspring should not work for the colliery too, and saw education as a route out – but was sceptical of his youngest son’s desire to be a sculptor, an ambition first conceived at the age of 11, after hearing in a Sunday School lesson about the achievements of Michelangelo.

As a result of his parents’ reluctance, Moore worked initially as a student teacher, before joining the army in 1917. It was only when the war was over that he was able to enrol at Leeds School of Art, on an ex-serviceman’s grant. In Leeds he met other young artists, including Barbara Hepworth, and was, for the first time, surrounded by like minds and fully able to explore ideas, genres and forms. From Leeds he went on to London, to the Royal College of Art, where his cultural horizons were extended even further. It is the 1920s that is key to the Becoming Henry Moore exhibition, which shows his work ‘in dialogue’ with that of artists and sculptors – from British contemporaries to European avant-gardes, from earlier masters to examples of African and Aztec art – who inspired and/or worked alongside him.

After the section devoted to his early, formal experimentation, it is fascinating to witness his own personal style and interests coalescing. The mother-and-child motif, with which he is so profoundly associated, appears as early as 1922. Moore rapidly saw the potential of the combination of two independent forms – one large, one small – which allowed him to dispense with a narrative content and focus on ‘pure formal invention’, as Sebastiano Barassi, the Head of Collections & Exhibitions at the Foundation explains. It was the beginning of Moore the master.

The new exhibition has its own appeal, although it is, to be fair, a little low key. I wanted more. Its success, though, will be in tempting people out of London or around the M25, to renew or establish a connection with the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens. Don’t miss the Aisled Barn, which houses fabulous tapestries, beautifully dyed and meticulously created, based on original Moore drawings. Don’t miss the Maquette Studio, where Moore worked on the tiny plaster models that would become grand sculptures, and where he sat at an old desk in front of a wide window giving on to a field of sheep, whose descendants still graze there today. Just around the corner is Sheep Piece, burnished by the animals themselves, who find shelter there in winter and coolness in summer. Wherever you look at Perry Green you can see colossal sculptures, the culmination of all those early interests and influences hinted at in Becoming Henry Moore.

Moore was, in many ways, our first internationally recognised artist. Others have had influence – think Turner, think the Impressionists – but, as the Foundation’s director, Godfrey Worsdale, points out, ‘no-one did what he did’. There are pieces by Moore in 60 European cities, for example, and in most developed US cities. You can find him in nearly 40 countries across the globe. And yet nowhere do you find him more vividly, more immediately, than here in this landscape.

Becoming Henry Moore continues at the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, Perry Green, Much Hadham, until 22 October •

Find Your Local