The man behind the monuments

Big bronze reclining figures set in parkland. Abstract works in city squares. Twenty-five years after his death, Henry Moore’s work still lingers in our vision of public art. But the pre-eminent British sculptor of the mid-20th century looms less large with those under 35 and few people today – whatever their age – would expect a Henry Moore show to surprise.

Yet this summer’s exhibition at the Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, Hertfordshire does just that. On show are the artist’s plasters, the carved or modelled pieces from which his bronzes were later cast. Focusing on this little-known aspect of Moore’s oeuvre enables us to explore his methods and intentions and better grasp the man behind the monumental art. Armed with these insights, it’s worth continuing on to nearby Hatfield House, the childhood home of Elizabeth I, to reappraise the large-scale Moore sculptures displayed in the grounds.

Moore moved to Perry Green in 1940, when his Hampstead studio was damaged by bombs, and remained until his death in 1986. Through many small works and a handful of large ones on show there this summer, you discover Moore the scavenger, forever looking for ways to incorporate found objects into his work. You can appreciate the keen eye that enabled him to find an affinity between bones, stones, tree-roots and the human form. Hand­-coloured with soft green or brownish washes, the plasters have a delicacy and an emotional resonance that’s missing in the big bronzes.

“For me, the plasters are the original, unique object,” says Anita Feldman, head of collections and exhibitions, as we walk around the show. “A lot of them date from just after the war. Before that Moore had been carving directly from stone or wood. The reason he switched was to open out form.

“The plasters have a fragility that’s not just the fragility of the material – it’s like the fragility of mankind coming out in that period at the end of the war.”

Step into the barn-turned-gallery housing the show and that fragility is immediately apparent in a cabinet containing five tiny plaster maquettes. At one end, “Reclining Woman” (1952), a piece never cast, floats on one curvy hip, her legs raised in the air. She might well be a relic dug-up on a Greek archaeological site. At the other end, the vertical “Girl Torso” (1966) gleams as if made of polished alabaster. Moore’s giant outdoor pieces are a world away from these little ones that would fit in the palm of your hand.

Traditionally, plasters have been seen as preparatory works to be discarded once a bronze was cast. Early in his career Moore too destroyed his plasters, eager to avoid unauthorised casts being made in the future, as had happened to Rodin. Then one day a friend from the Victoria and Albert museum arrived when Moore was breaking up some plasters and persuaded the artist that the piece he was destroying was actually “nicer” than the finished bronze. “He was right,” reflected Moore. “Especially to begin with it was difficult for me to visualise for sure what the plaster I was doing would look like in bronze.” From then on Moore preserved his plasters, though they have never been included in his catalogue raisonné.

Four years of work on the part of conservators at Perry Green has gone into restoring some of the plasters shown in this exhibition, including the full-scale “Reclining Figure: Angles” (1979) and “Three Way Piece No 1: Points” (1964), which dominate the show’s main room. Their creamy white surfaces reveal a host of delicate marks and scrapings (for this Moore used everything from cheese-graters to dental tools) that are less noticeable on the finished bronze. More striking, though, I think, are the smaller, earlier works in the room, in particular two female forms dating from 1957. The distorted figure of “Girl Seated against a Square Wall”, with its insect-like head, and “Reclining Figure”, with its sharply angled knees and skinny arms, convey an anguish not evident in Moore’s later work, almost as if a part of him is still responding to the horrors of war.

You reach the main room by way of another one containing studies from Moore’s sketchbooks, including some for the shelter drawings (made in the London Underground during the Blitz). In one study, using a mix of washes, pen and ink and wax crayon, Moore has quickly captured the contours of a group of sleepers, finding beauty in their huddled bodies, yet pencilling above it the comment: “Two or three people under one blanket; uncomfortable position, distorted twistings.” These studies hang alongside others for his sculptures, which highlight the connection Moore felt between the forms of the natural world and the form of the human body. “Tree forms as Mother and Child” runs the title of one set of sketches.

The handy thing about a temporary exhibition at the Henry Moore Foundation is that permanent exhibitions are on hand to explore as well. Moore’s large sculptures are dotted across the 70-acre estate. You can stroll among apple trees and into fields of sheep to find them – the artist apparently thought sheep were just the right size for his work; cows would have been too big. After Moore’s wife Irina died in 1989 their house remained sealed up for years but today you can arrange to explore the couple’s intriguing mix of domestic clutter and world-class art.

‘Hill Arches’ bronze sculpture at Hatfield House

The real treat, however, is the maquette studio, where you step past the skull of an elephant and a box of bones into a realm of both order and chaos. In the centre a table is piled high with half-finished plasters, a grater, a toothbrush, baby powder and an old Roberts radio. This evidently productive mess stands in stark contrast to the pleasingly aesthetic arrangement of Moore’s oeuvre in miniature displayed on the surrounding shelves. Moore’s stick leans against the table and his apron is draped over the chair. All that’s needed is for the man himself to walk through the door.

It’s just a half-hour drive from Perry Green to Hatfield House, an immense Jacobean mansion whose 400-year-old splendour contrasts with Moore’s modest home. Here, 15 of Moore’s monumental works are on show in the West Garden. The quirky “King and Queen” (1952-53) hold court on a lawn beside the Knot Garden and nearby is “Reclining Figure: Angles” (now familiar to me from its plaster version). I head into glorious woodland that sculptures such as “Hill Arches” (1973) and “Reclining Figure: Arch Leg” (1969-70) seem just made for. As I stroll, pretty much alone, among towering old trees and a clutch of new plantings, Moore’s smooth organic shapes and the scraped and gouged “skins” of the plasters I’ve just pored over, resurface to influence my perception. I notice patterns in the bark of trees, and the shapes of leaves and twisted roots with a new intensity. I mention this later to Claire Smith, the foundation’s assistant curator, and she smiles. “It’s what Moore would have expected,” she says. “He thought of sculpture as a way of seeing the world.”

‘Henry Moore: Plasters’, Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, Hertfordshire, until October 30,

Moore at Hatfield House, until September 30;

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.