A couple of months ago Ellie & I visited the Henry Moore Studios and Gardens, the workplace and family home of world-famous 20th century sculptor Henry Moore. The vast estate stretches over 70 acres of land near Stansted Airport, about 2h20m (sic!) by public transport, or half that by car, from London. Spread all over the fields and gardens are more than 20 of the big man’s monumental sculptures.
SIX HENRY MOORE STUDIOS
While visitors are not permitted to enter the main building, you can have a close look at the six different studio spaces. One is for maquettes, another one for carving, one for etching, one for drawing, and so on. A lovely, perfectly restored 16th century barn is the only place in the world to see Moore’s unique tapestries.
EDMUND DE WAAL’S ‘THIS LIVING HAND’ AT HENRY MOORE STUDIOS
At the moment, one of the larger side buildings is showing Edmund de Waal’s small exhibition This Living Hand. It is intended to explore the role of touch in Moore’s sculpture. You are encouraged to touch the sculptures.
I always thought people touch the bigger sculptures anyway, if they please. So being specifically encouraged to touch certain sculptures feels arbitrary and perhaps silly. Equally, I didn’t quite get the point why this was the only place on the premises where you were not allowed to take pics. Is it in case visitors should descend into touching orgies with the sculptures and both the visitors’ and the sculptures’ privacy should be protected in these intimate moments?
THE BEAUTIFUL GARDENS
We took our time and spent around two hours wandering the gardens and fields. In particular the first and main garden is rather beautiful. 5 or 6 monumental sculptures are spread all over the lawn amidst lavish vegetation. This football-field-sized area exudes tranquillity, it’s mesmerizing.
GOOD ART WITH A FULL BELLY?
I have always liked the sculptures of Henry Spencer Moore OM CH FBA (1898 – 1986), even as a child. A lot. That said, I’ve never loved his art. I think it’s because of my outdated and outright terrible conviction that money corrupts (not normal people money, filthy rich people money). My conviction, that true art comes not necessarily with a lot, but at least with a little bit of pain, demonic passion, pushing your limits, taking risks.
In my mind Moore was always this ultra-rich guy who had found his niche early on and just started printing money, big time, taking no risks at all. Government-commission after government-commission.
A MILLIONAIRE ARTIST, EARLY ON
Our visit to the Henry Moore Studios and Gardens did change my perceptions to some extent. True, he made millions very early in his career, and soon tens of millions. True, he made sure he had the best tax advisors setting up efficient structures for him. Yes, the charity he registered has the purpose of ‘encouraging public appreciation of the visual arts, and in particular the works of Henry Moore.’ Works, Henry Moore kept on selling for millions.
FACING POVERTY IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
On the other hand, he’s not one of those guys that did the usual Eton-Oxford-Get-Rich thingy. His Irish father had started out as a coal miner in the back then bleak north of England, gradually working his way up to become one of the mine’s under-managers. Moore was the seventh of eight children. His family often struggled to make ends meet during the first few years of his life.
A DETERMINED, COAL-MINING FATHER
Luckily, Moore’s father was determined to get the children a good education, so that they would never have to work in a coal mine. He tried his best to get the kids a solid grounding. However, he never wanted his son to become a sculptor. Art, to Moore’s father, was manual labour, menial work with no career prospects. Nonetheless, Moore started carving in wood and modelling in clay during his elementary school days.
FROM CREATING PLAQUES FOR SOLDIER BOYS TO BECOMING A SOLDIER AT 18
During his time at Castleford Secondary School, his talent was recognised and he was commissioned to carve a plaque commemorating the boys from his school who had gone to fight in WWI. After graduating and just a few months training, Moore became a teacher at his school at age 17. A year later he volunteered to go to war and became the youngest man in the Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles regiment.
SURVIVING A GAS ATTACK AND BECOMING A PACIFIST
In a 1917 gas attack he was severely injured. After recovering in hospital he became an army training instructor. He later recalled, “for me the war passed in a romantic haze of trying to be a hero.” As soon as he was able to collect his thoughts, he became a life-long pacifist. What an amazing young man he must have been.
JUST SCULPTURES OF PICASSO’S CHUBBY WOMAN PAINTINGS?
Me being evil me, I had also in the past doubted Moore’s genuine growth as an artist. Quite often his most famous sculptures to me had seemed like they were simply those chubby, voluptuous female figures Picasso had painted, put in bronze or carved in marble or wood. Moore’s Reclining Figure, 1936, for example, carved in elmwood, has been compared by many with Picasso’s somewhat similar-looking La Source from 15 years earlier.
ANCIENT SACRIFICIAL CEREMONIES INVOLVING SLAIN ENEMY WARRIORS
Talking with the knowledgeable and clearly very enthusiastic wardens and doing my own research for this post, I realised that many of the Picasso works I had wrongly seen as inspiration for Moore’s art, had actually been created after 1936. I also hadn’t known about Moore’s inspiration from pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture, in particular from Chacmool.
These are sculptures of reclining figures. The body of a slain enemy warrior, with its head facing 90 degrees from the front, is resting on its elbows and carrying sacrificial offerings in a bowl upon its stomach.
DON’T MISS OUT ON HENRY MOORE STUDIOS AND GARDENS
We will definitely visit Henry Moore Studios and Gardens again. 5 out of 5 in our book.
Looking for more artsy-fartsy stuff? Feel welcome to eyeball our posts about the immersive experience ‘Van Gogh Alive’, Frieze London 2021, Chihuly in Kew Gardens, JR Chronicles at Saatchi, Alice, Curiouser and Curiouser at the V&A, or the Ryoji Ikeda Exhibition at 180 The Strand. I’ve also blogged about my motocross taster course, the time Ellie & I went caving, and our hike around Panshanger Park and Hertford Castle.