Henry Moore’s Contribution to British Modernism

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.17.33 pm

Henry Moore in 1975. Photo Credit: The Henry Moore Foundation Archive

Henry Moore is considered by many to be one of the most successful and widely recognised British artists of the twentieth century. Clearly influenced by earlier modernist developments in Britain and internationally, Moore has incorporated some of their idioms into his own extensive oeuvre. However, despite the fact that he is widely considered to be one of the defining artists of British modernism, Moore’s sculpture has often been thought of as “middle-of-the-road modernism that hardly seemed modern at all”[1]. Indeed, Moore experimented within more than one artistic realm, with art critics often struggling to pin him into either the abstract or the surreal. Moore’s contribution to the development of modernism is therefore best defined through the artist’s willingness to explore and test the boundaries of artistic tradition, but without being excessively radical.

Firstly, it is necessary to engage with the concepts of modernism and modernisation, and how to define and distinguish them in the British context. At the opening of the twentieth century the world was becoming an increasingly industrialised, mechanised and materialistic environment. In fact, Britain was one of the earliest, and most rapidly industrialised and urbanised countries in the world. It has been argued that modernist art evolved as a “hostile reaction to the philistine, materialist culture that became established by the end of the nineteenth century”[2]. Clement Greenberg, the “archpriest of modernism”[3], saw at the heart of modernist art the drive to transform society through an appeal to the autonomy of the artist.[4] International Modernism no doubt had an influence on British artists. Indeed, the exchange of ideas between the European continent and Britain was constant. Yet, as Robert Hewison suggests, while the “language of modernism” was pan-European, “wherever it travelled it had to enter into dialogue with local practice and tradition”[5]. Early modernist movements in Britain were made by the likes of the Bloomsbury Group, who began to test the boundaries of the art world with a series of landmark exhibitions held between 1910 and 1913. Around the same time, the Vorticists began painting in a modified and more extreme form of nonrepresentational abstraction that displayed “dynamic rhythms… geometric abstractions and unrestrained celebration of modern urban life”[6]. Hewison suggests that “Britain’s dialogue with Modernism began with a quarrel” between the “deeply Frenchified” Bloomsbury group and the Vorticists with their propagandist techniques borrowed from Italian Futurism.[7] Despite the fact that these were both strong, modernist movements, they were “sucked into the vortex”[8] of World War One as many artists became involved in the war effort. Yet, it was these initial movements away from academic artistic tradition that essentially paved the way for the likes of Henry Moore after the war had ended.

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.24.33 pm.pngCastleford in Yorkshire, Moore’s place of birth. Photo Credit: Environment Agency

It is also necessary to briefly discuss Moore’s personal development and influences, as they are central to his career as an artist. Moore was born in Castleford, Yorkshire in 1898. His father, Raymond Moore, was a coal miner, and it is thought that the industrialised townscape that the Moore’s lived in was highly influential in shaping the artist’s ideas of modernity. For example, themes such as beauty violated by industry, the nature of humanity and even the female body all would become central themes throughout his artistic life.[9]

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.27.06 pm.png    Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.30.25 pm.png

Some of Moore’s early influences, L-R: Roger Fry’s ‘Vision and Design’, and vorticist, Henri Gaudier Brzeska

Of course, Moore’s student life also considerably shaped his development. After studying first at the Leeds College of Art, Moore was given a scholarship to study at the London Royal College of Art. In London, Moore often visited the British Museum, where he became very interested in various forms of non-western, or “tribal” sculpture. It is said that Moore saw “virility and power” with in this “primitive” kind of art.[10] He was also drawn to Roger Fry’s Vision and Design. This publication turned out to be a greatly influential collection of essays for Moore and many of his contemporaries in the 1920’s. Essentially, it advocated the rejection of classical beauty for the principle of vitality, particularly the idea that such revitalisation would come about through the removal of the “Greek ideal”.   In particular, Fry’s essays on “Negro Sculpture” and “Ancient American Art” were of interest to Moore. In these essays, Fry suggested that this kind of sculpture is “greater than anything we produced even in the Middle Ages”, and was representative of “complete plastic freedom” because they were able to “conceive form in three dimensions”[11]. One modern sculptor that exemplified these ideals was Henri Gaudier Brzeska, whose work was an example of the primitive, “anti-naturalistic”[12] sculpture that Moore aspired to. Ezra Pound’s book, Gaudier Brzeska, was just as influential to Moore as Vision and Design. In contribution to the Vorticist manifesto, Brzeska wrote, “Sculptural energy is the mountain / Sculptural feeling is the appreciation of masses in relation/ Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes”. [13]These statements appealed to the modernist ideals that were formulating in Britain at the time. However, contrary to his modernist aspirations, Moore was also highly influenced by Michelangelo. According to Norbert Lynton, Michelangelo’s continuing status as “the greatest sculptor that ever lived” deeply moved Moore; “what stirred him was the intimation that what one man did could feed the world’s spirit for ever”.[14] Thus, brought up in the heart of industrialised England, Moore’s life, education and influences, both Western and non-western, would prove essential to his development as an artist of modernism.

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.33.32 pm

Henry Moore (1898-1986), Mother and Child, 1931, cumberland alabaster, height 45cm, Shri Bhawani Museum.

Although Moore’s work is thought of as a rejection of “classical” beauty, it also investigates the nature of humanity through the exploration of form and the human body. While many agree that Moore’s artistic career can be divided into different stages, it is also evident that certain themes were existent throughout. Indeed, any discussion of Moore’s oeuvre must include the recurring themes of Mother and Child and the Reclining Figure. After coming across the Mayan Chac Mool sculptures in the Trocadero Museum in Paris in 1925, Moore became obsessed with the form of the reclining female figure. The Chac Mool at once embodied his appreciation for “primitive” art, but also truth to material and a “tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness…astonishing variety and fertility of form-invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form”[15]. Using the Chac Mool as inspiration for his own sculptures, Moore was able to explore the modernist ideals such as “three-dimensional realisation” and “truth to materials”. It is important to note that Moore did not seek to create primitive works of art, but rather to use these ancient forms of art to recreate their universality, “power of expression” and “spiritual vitality”[16].

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.37.54 pm.png

Henry Moore (1898-1986), Two Piece Reclining Figure No.3, 1961, bronze, 585 x 2800 x 1370 mm, The Tate Gallery.

Perhaps one of Moore’s greatest contributions to the development of modern art in Britain was his exploration of the human body as a metaphor for the landscape and as an exploration of the organic. In many of his sculptures, the curves of the figure also assume the contours of the land, the “vital rhythm” of nature. In 1930, Moore wrote that he was most moved by sculpture that was “strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains”[17]. Moore also concentrated on the object in space, using ridges, holes, depressions and bulges to explore organic form. In some of his sculptures, for example, Two Piece Reclining Figure: Maquette No. 3 (1961), Moore has used separate compositions to imply one figure using this as a form of abstraction, moving further away from the idea of a naturalistic figure. In fact, a specific rock formation near Leeds that Moore visited as child, Adel Rock, is recalled in some of his early two-piece “Reclining Figures”. Other organic shapes such as flints, shells and bones collected by the artist are thought to have influenced the nature of many of his sculptures. [18] Additionally, Moore sought to stay true to the material upon which he worked, allowing his sculptures to bring out the “intrinsic texture of stone and wood”[19]. Under Moore and some of his contemporaries in the 1930’s, the technique of direct carving that had been regenerated by the likes of Eric Gill, Gaudier-Brzeska and Epstein, became established as a “modernist orthodoxy” with links to the English landscape.[20] So, Moore would look to a material he was to create a sculpture out of, be it wood or stone, and try to preserve its natural texture. Penelope Curtis describes Moore’s process as “four-dimensional…growing out of a conception inheres in the mass”.[21] Essentially, Moore’s view was that part of the artist’s life was to look at nature, and in doing this he increases his knowledge of form, encouraging his inspiration and keeping him “fresh and from working only by formula, and feeds inspiration”[22]. Thus, Moore’s unique pursuit of form inspired by the natural world was one of his contributions to modernism in Britain.

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.44.28 pm

Unit One, the artistic coalition promoting the works of painters, sculptors and architects involved in the British Modernism movement.

Moore expressed this newfound importance in nature in the 1934 publication titled Unit One. Unit One was also the name given to a group of artists established in 1933 by Moore’s friend, the painter Paul Nash. As well as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson were also part of the group. It has been described as:

“An uneasy alliance of painters, sculptors and architects with the intention of forming a united front against the English distaste for the avant-garde and Modernism and continuing devotion to Cezanne and Derain. It was both a market ploy and a bid to assert the importance of Modernism in England.[23]

Essentially, Unit One stood for the “expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for the thing which is recognised as peculiarly of today in painting, sculpture and architecture” and they represented an amalgamation of European influences applied to the idioms of English art.

Moore’s exploration of the human form came in various sculptural shapes and sizes, but also though different artistic techniques. Indeed, it is important to note that Moore also produced a large body of drawings as well as sculptures. Herbert Read considers the Second World War as an interruption to the development of Moore’s work; however, these years were extremely significant in the evolution of Moore’s style. Up until this point, Moore had used drawings as purely as part of his sculptural process. In fact, Moore quotes:

“My drawings are done mainly as a help towards making sculpture- as a means of generating ideas for sculpture, tapping oneself for the initial idea; and a way of sorting out ideas and developing them.[24]

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.50.34 pm

Henry Moore (1898-1986), Row of Sleepers, 1941, watercolour and ink on paper, 54.5 x 32cm, The Henry Moore Foundation.

However, then World War II forced Moore to begin situating his figures within a spatial environment. His Shelter Drawings of 1940 are what eventuated. These drawings were commissioned to portray the emotional horror and impact that German bombardments had caused to the people of London. They depict groups of people, huddled in dark shelters under the streets of London. It is perhaps through these drawings that Moore’s ability to imbue human sensibilities such as fear, love and protection was best expressed. As Herbert Read quotes, “all the emotions that were expressed in the attitudes of these victims of war are rendered in drawings of monumental power”[25]. For example, in Row of Sleepers (1941), Moore has rendered the figures, depicted sleeping next to each other, into almost surreal shape. Subtly and rhythmically, the figures fold and fit together in a way that suggests a kind of security and safety. It is possible to see the continuation of the “reclining figure” theme that Moore continued to explore after the war. Ultimately, these drawings show the way that Moore developed his exploration of human sensibilities in a modern context throughout the course of the war.

What is interesting about Moore is that he was able to manoeuvre between abstraction and surrealism in his work. In the 1930’s, abstraction and surrealism were “rival poles to which British artists were attracted”. Moore’s work essentially transcended this, and he believed that the divide between the two artistic schools to be unnecessary, as “good art has contained both abstract and surrealist elements- just as it has contained both classical and romantic elements- order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious”.[26] While abstraction dealt with the “pursuit of form”, surrealism was informed by the “psyche in its devious flight”[27]. To Moore, both of these could be applied to his art. It was undoubtedly the underlying communication of the artwork, as well as its form that he wanted to include in his art. As Lynton suggests, “even the work that may be difficult on grounds of abstraction or of sheer grandeur, in time persuades us of its involvement with us, of its pertinent communication”[28]. For Moore, “abstraction was essentially a means to an end rather than an end in itself”[29], and he used abstraction as a means to present the human psychological content of his work with “greatest directness and intensity”.[30] So while British modernism was diverging into abstraction and surrealism, Moore was involved in both. In fact, he contributed to international exhibitions held by each stream of British Modernism in 1936. Moore’s success in manoeuvring his way through both modernist themes is often the reason critics often find it hard to class Moore’s work.

Nevertheless, the trouble critics had in the classification of Moore as a modernist artist went beyond his dialogue between surrealism and abstraction, indeed, there were ideas that Moore was not a modernist artist at all. For example, Peter Fuller theorised that Moore was “representative of a continuing and anti-modern tradition in English art and English sculpture, perhaps more so than he himself was always ready to admit”[31]. He argues that, if anything, Moore’s work was characterised as a “refusal of modernity” which Fuller believes can be recognised through the artist’s affirmation of human values and traditional sculptural practices. He attempts to class Moore as all that remained of the English romantic tradition, in that his art was indifferent toward modernity and uninterested in technology. In particular, Fuller believed that the influence of primitive art in Moore’s work were essentially “anti-modern”[32]. Fuller points out that the “Modern Movement” is often described of as expressive of a world of “science and technology, of speed and danger, of hard struggles and no personal security”. Yet, according to Fuller, all Moore wanted to do was turn his back on this in his concentration on primitivism. Additionally, Moore’s work is considered paradoxical in that he is considered to be one of the last great inheritors of traditional art based upon the study of the nude. Yet at the same time he was attracted to a more impersonal, pre-historic kind of art.

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.55.26 pm

Herbert Read, British art critic and close friend of Moore’s. Photo Credit: Keystone Press Agency Ltd.

Indeed, it was precisely the primitive aspect of Moore’s work that led Herbert Read to consider Moore as a great, modernist artist. Herbert Read was a great admirer of Moore’s work, and saw him as an important figure for the development of modernism in Britain. Read was a British art critic whose advocacy for modernism led him to develop a close friendship with Moore, as well as other modernist artists of the era, such as the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the painter Ben Nicholson. In fact, as Keith Hartley suggests, Read was a “disseminator of ideas about modern art to artists and public alike” and essentially opened the debate surrounding formal values in art.[33] Read saw Moore’s work as embodying the ideals of the modern movement in the abandonment of the ideal of beauty to be replaced by “the ideal of vitality”[34]. Furthermore, Read thought of modern art in terms of a fusion of the organic and the geometrical, as well as a synthesis of constructivism and surrealism. To Read, Henry Moore embodied these ideals. In particular, Read admired Moore’s advocacy of the direct carving technique and rejection of academic training, which encouraged sculptural techniques such as modelling and casting. So, in many ways, Moore’s work was just as progressive as it was regressive, and there exists a certain tension in his work in that it is moving simultaneously in two directions. He was inspired by ancient, remote sculptural traditions, but at the same time he was looking toward the future in terms of geographical space. Stephen Spender suggests that Moore’s sculpture “expresses more of a moving sense of humanity” and creates “an objective symbol for an almost universal human tenderness”.[35] While elements of Moore’s outlook may not be within strict alignment with the Modernist outlook, his artistic sensibilities certainly were. Thus, one of his great contributions to modernism in Britain was his ability to harness these forms of art in such a way to explore themes of modernity.

It is true that Moore’s work was less radical than his avant grade predecessors. However, there is no denying that Moore’s artistic career, while consistent in his exploration of themes such as the reclining figure and natural forms, was unique. Henry Moore was a twentieth-century British sculptural pioneer, his work inspired by the past and his power ingrained in his unwavering appeal for the restoration of lost sculptural values. Henry Moore tested the nature of Modernism in Britain, not allowing the divide between abstraction and surrealism to hinder his artistic exploration. Furthermore, while rejecting traditional modes of sculpting, Moore’s original, imaginative and spiritual view of nature and the human body essentially revived an appreciation for primitivism, using significant form, truth to materials and even drawing in order to explore humanity and the deeper realm of the human psyche. There are his greatest contributions to the development of modernism in Britain, and it is perhaps Henry Moore’s subtle exploration of modernism that has allowed his work to achieve a reputation both global and timeless.


[1] tate.org.uk, “Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity”, 2010, >www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/henry-moore-sculptural-process-and-public-identity> (accessed 8 May 2014).

[2] Hewison, Robert. “Fog in the Channel” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz (2002), 17

[3] Hewison, Robert. “Fog in the Channel”, 17

[4] Hewison, Robert. “Fog in the Channel”, 17

[5] Hewison, Robert. “Fog in the Channel”, 17

[6]Hartley, Keith. From Blast to Pop, Aspects of Modern British Art, 1915-1965. Chicago: The University of Chicago (1997), 20

[7] Hewison, Robert. “Fog in the Channel”, 19

[8] Hewison, Robert. “Fog in the Channel”, 19

[9] Fuller, Peter. Henry Moore. London: Methuem London (1993) 18

[10] Fuller, Henry Moore 20

[11] as cited in Read, Herbert. Henry Moore, A Study of His Life and Work. London: Thames and Hudson (1965), 33

[12] Lynton, Norbert. “The Humanity of Moore” in Henry Moore: The Human Dimension. Edited by Angela Dyer. HMF Enterprises (1991) 22

[13] Read, Herbert. Henry Moore,. 34

[14] Lynton,“The Humanity of Moore”, 23

[15] Read, Henry Moore, 41

[16] Hartley, Keith. From Blast to Pop, 26

[17] Hartley, Keith. From Blast to Pop, 26

[18] Hartley, Keith. From Blast to Pop, 68

[19] Spender, Stephen. Henry Moore, Sculptures in Landscape. London: Studio Vista (1978), 14

[20]Curtis, Penelope. “Direct Carving” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz (2002) 62

[21] Curtis, Penelope. “Direct Carving” 62

[22] Compton, Susan. Henry Moore. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1988). 29

[23]Lewison, Jeremy. “Going Modern and Being British” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz (2002) 68

[24] As cited in Read, Henry Moore, 143

[25] Read, Henry Moore, 143

[26] Compton, Susan. Henry Moore, 31

[27] Hughes, H.M., and van Tuyl Gijs. “Introduction” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz (2002) 15

[28] Lynton,“The Humanity of Moore” 29

[29] Fuller, Peter. Henry Moore. London: Methuem London (1993) 39

[30] Fuller. Henry Moore, 40

[31] Fuller, Henry Moore 6

[32] Fuller, Henry Moore, xiii

[33] Hartley, Keith. From Blast to Pop, Aspects of Modern British Art, 1915-1965. Chicago: The University of Chicago (1997),17

[34] Read, Henry Moore, 257

[35] Spender, Stephen. Henry Moore, Sculptures in Landscape, 19


Compton, Susan. Henry Moore. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1988).

Curtis, Penelope. “Direct Carving” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz (2002) 60-65.

Fuller, Peter. Henry Moore. London: Methuem London (1993)

Hartley, Keith. From Blast to Pop, Aspects of Modern British Art, 1915-1965. Chicago: The University of Chicago (1997).

Hewison, Robert. “Fog in the Channel” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz (2002) 16-24.

Hughes, H.M., and van Tuyl Gijs. “Introduction” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz (2002) 14-16

Lewison, Jeremy. “Going Modern and Being British” in Blast to Freeze: British Art in the 20th Century. Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz (2002) 66-72.

Lynton, Norbert. “The Humanity of Moore” in Henry Moore: The Human Dimension. Edited by Angela Dyer. HMF Enterprises (1991) 19-30.

Read, Herbert. Henry Moore, A Study of His Life and Work. London: Thames and Hudson (1965).

Spender, Stephen. Henry Moore, Sculptures in Landscape. London: Studio Vista (1978).

Tate Britain (author unknown) . “Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity”, Tate 2010, >www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/henry-moore-sculptural-process-and-public-identity> (accessed 8 May 2014).

-Josephine Boult

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s