I think of prehistoric Britain when I see Henry Moore’s sculptures, now on exhibit at Kew, but he was a modern man and a force of nature, carving his way through life like a turbulent river. In the small families of today he would never have been born – he was the seventh of eight children - and in 1898 it must have seemed unlikely that the son of a miner would become one of the world’s most famous modern artists. That he did is due partly to his self-taught father, who was demanding, and to his affectionate mother, who was “the absolute stability, the rock, the whole thing in life that one knew was there for one's protection" (Henry Moore: Writings, 33, Oxford DNB).
Moore decided to become a sculptor when he was still a boy, but as World War I began, he joined the Civil Service Rifles as a volunteer, and in 1917 was gassed at Bourlon Wood in the battle of Cambrai. Under a major German assault, “the losses were appalling and Moore was fortunate to survive” (DNB). This was sheer good luck, as was his absence from home when his London house and studio were bombed during the Blitz. Moore’s success as an artist – he made a fortune and left a foundation dedicated to promoting the arts – was the result of his hard work, his vision, and his energetic and overwhelming intelligence and charm.
He was indifferent to early critics, and forged his own way, often employing assistants to help create the armatures or large blocks of polystyrene for his cast bronze sculptures, which are found in cities all over the world. I like the sculptures that are in the country and that have “something of the energy and power of great mountains” (Henry Moore: Writings, 188, DNB). They make me think of a race of vanished giants. Sometimes a man and woman, sometimes a mother and child, sometimes alone, they gaze out of a mysterious past into a distant future.
Or, as the figure above seems to suggest, relaxing at a picnic.
Moore's sculptures don't tell us what to think. They invite our speculations.