On somewhat of a whim because there was little else to do we went to the Henry Moore studios and gardens in Hertfordshire yesterday. I’m glad we did.
I’ve known a little of Moore’s work from a module on sculpture I studied as part of an uncompleted Art History course I did many moons ago.
I quite like sculpture as an art form – how it interacts with light and its environment, how different angles transform the vista and how the more abstracted forms make you ponder the meaning.
It was a beautiful, clear, crisp Autumn day and our journey to this upmarket rural part of the Home Counties took somewhat longer than anticipated.
That turned out to be a blessing, as by the time we arrived the sun was already low in the sky enabling the piercing bright light and the long dark shade to afford the most stunning views of his works, particularly the large scale casts.
I was particularly taken by Large Reclining Figure which when you first it glimpse from a distance feels both unsettling and unworldly.
It is the product of Moore’s fourth and final collaboration with the architect I M Pei. In 1976, one of Pei’s most ambitious projects opened in Singapore, a 52 storey skyscraper – then the tallest in South East Asia – for the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation.
Pei had wanted to site a major sculptural commission at the base of the building, but it was several years before a suitable space became available. When Pei approached Moore about the commission, he was fearful of his response.
Moore, by now in his eighties, had already told Pei that he was no longer producing monumental sculptures and that he was concentrating on producing drawings for the Foundation.
He conceded, however, that it might be possible if the commission were based on an existing work. Together, Moore and Pei selected Reclining Figure 1938 – a 33cm sculpture – as an idea suitable for enlargement.
At over 9 metres long and weighing 4 tons, the final work is Moore’s largest to be cast in bronze. Only two bronze casts were made, the one destined for Singapore was sent by sea in 1984, and the second the one I saw yesterday is sited at Moore’s former home in Perry Green.
It sits atop a small Tellytubby type hill created to Moore’s design. Originally a pyramid of waste gravel, he had it bulldozed into a more rounded shape to accommodate a sculpture.
The siting exemplifies Moore’s belief that the contrast between solid and void makes the sky the perfect background for sculpture. Seen across the fields, the work’s cleft head, pointed breasts and molten backbone punctuate the horizon, achieving a real wow factor.
Sadly Moore did not live to see Large Reclining Figure placed on the hill in Perry Green, but the posthumous realisation of this ambitious vision serves as a powerful reminder of the creative energy that characterised his career.
By the end of his career, Moore – born in 1898 in Castleford, Yorkshire, the son of a miner and the seventh of eight children – was the world’s most successful living artist at auction. In 1982, four years before his death, Sotheby’s in New York sold a six feet Reclining Figure (1945), for $1.2 million.