"The sky is blue today and the plum blossoms are out. The sheep are in the garden around my work. Sheep belong with my work. Architecture, however, competes with it -- takes away. But . . . well . . . everyone wants my work to stand next to big buildings."
The sky is blue in Perry Green, a tiny village 25 miles from London and for the past 43 years the home of Henry Moore, that giant among sculptors, now 84. This spring day he is in his studio at his home, called Hoglands, and his voice comes across the Atlantic strong and warm, with a distinct Yorkshire lilt.
Moore is explaining why he cannot attend the retrospective of his work, "Henry Moore: 60 Years of His Art," which opened yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has injured his back, he says, and needs "two sticks to walk." And his wife of 50 years, Irina, is also unable to travel.
But this doesn't bother him too much because he's been to America, and, anyway, there's "too much work to be done." He got up today at half past seven, drank a few cups of strong India tea and he's working in his studio with two of his three assistants on the largest sculpture he's ever erected--a 30-foot-long bronze reclining figure for the front of an I.M. Pei bank building in Singapore. "It starts with a two-inch maquette and drawings," he says. "It takes years of experience to know what a 30-foot sculpture will look like from a two-inch maquette."
The corporate Henry Moore is everywhere. It's the big bronze in front of the National Gallery's East Building and the swirling mountainous mass in front of the Hirshhorn. It's the figures in the fountain in front of Lincoln Center in New York. It's more commissions than he can shake a stick (or even two) at. There are Henry Moores sitting solidly in front of major buildings in Sao Paulo, London, Paris, Florence, Toronto and, soon, Singapore.
And that which is not attached to a big skyscraper commands record high prices at galleries and auctions. An elmwood reclining figure sold at auction in New York a year ago for $1.2 million, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living sculptor. "It's not the first thing I think about when I get out of bed in the morning," Moore says of the sale. "Suppose it's better than holding the record low price."
The corporate Moore began in America. In 1946 the Museum of Modern Art honored the British sculptor with his first major retrospective. "I was nervous about it," he recalls. "We crossed in a liner--oh, I can't remember the name of it--and my dealer met me. I had an American dealer. Curt Valentine. He had seen my war drawings and liked them."
America, in fact, has always been good to Moore--and especially the Hirshhorn Museum, which owns more Moores than any other museum in the country and which lent five pieces to the Metropolitan show. Moore says, "We were able to buy our Hoglands here in Perry Green with the money an American paid us for one of my sculptures."
But this is the private Henry Moore talking, the man who once turned down a knighthood, and who, in the blush of fame, continued to ride his bicycle to his studio. A very tweedy Englishman, short and solid with a shock of gray hair, he has long bushy eyebrows that trail down from his forehead like cat whiskers. And a humanist: his work captures the essence of 60 years of English life--Londoners huddling in the London underground to escape German bombs, miners crouched far under the earth, mothers and their children, sheep.
The private Moore began in the grimy Yorkshire town of Castleford in 1898. His father, Raymond, was a coal miner. An ambitious man with no formal education, Raymond Moore read all of Shakespeare and taught himself mathematics and engineering so he could pass an examination to become a mine manager. But a pit accident damaged his eyesight and he couldn't advance to a higher position. His ambition turned to his children. Henry was the seventh of eight. When he was 15, his youngest sister died, leaving him the youngest. A strict Victorian with rugged North Country notions, Henry's father provided an education for each child on his small salary.
"My father was a remarkable man. I failed my first grammar exam. I told him the reason I failed was because of the violin lessons he forced me to take. The noise I made with that instrument you would not believe. So he said I could quit playing the violin but I must pass the test. He simply did not want us to have the life he had had--a coal miner and the son of a coal miner."
His mother, Mary, was "wonderful, absolutely womanly, feminine." Moore would rub her back, "for her rheumatism," and he discovered, "so many different hardnesses and softnesses--little mountains and valleys which I got to know the way a sculptor needs to know things--through touch."
His parents could not afford to make the trip to his first major exhibition at the Leicester Gallery in London in 1931. It was just as well, because the exhibition was a critical flop. In the spirit of Brancusi, Arp and other avant-garde artists in Europe, Moore exhibited drawings and stone sculptures of abstract figures, which looked as though they had been washed over for thousands of years by strong ocean currents. "The cult of ugliness triumphs . . ." blasted the Morning Post. "Many, I fear, will come to laugh; few, I fear, will remain to pray," wrote the Evening Standard.
Moore served in the first world war with some distinction, but he was too old to be called up for the second one. He was, however, asked to contribute some work to Britain's War Artists Advisory Committee by Kenneth Clark, the eminent art historian. At first he refused. "I had seen soldiers and tanks. I wasn't interested in them as a subject for my work."
But then one evening, after a dinner party, he and his wife were trapped in the Picadilly stop on the London Underground during an air raid. The stations had been taken over by people seeking safety and had been turned into bomb shelters. Moore was amazed by what he saw.
"The people--whole families--had taken over the platforms," he says, his voice still betraying his amazement. "They bathed and undressed their children as though they were in private. And, oh, the stench--very unsanitary conditions. It stuck with me--the sight of it. I couldn't get it out of my mind. I began to sketch it the following day. I showed them to Lord Clark--No, that's wrong. He wasn't Lord Clark then. That was before he got the title--Clark took one look and said, "See, Henry, you can be a war artist. So I said why not?"
The private Henry Moore was a war artist. With pen, brush and ink he captured the horror. His small drawings (a fine selection is in the Met exhibition) speak of the personal degradation and tragedy of war. In one, the figures look like skeletons huddled in a train tunnel, which itself resembles a series of giant whalebones arcing into the distance--faceless anonymous human beings gripping each other in terror.
The Underground drawings attracted attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Moore got an American dealer--Valentine, a German e'migre', who had been impressed by the war drawings and by Moore's sculpture in the 1939 New York World's Fair. (Perry Rathbone, who is Christie's museum liaison in New York, recalls looking at the Moores in the world's fair with Valentine. "We were mesmerized. Had never seen anything like it.")
"It's a funny thing, the dealer business," says Moore. "In those days we had two posts--one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. I got a letter from Valentine in the morning post. And I was so thrilled that I wrote back immediately to say yes. Then in the afternoon post I got a letter from another dealer--much more famous than Valentine, who was then a young man--asking if he could represent me. Well, I had already agreed to Valentine's offer. But I never regretted it."
Once the underground refuges were equipped with bunk beds and turned into proper shelters, Moore lost interest. He turned his attention to coal miners, "working deep under the ground while bombs were being dropped from the sky." Having grown up in a coal mining town, Moore was familiar with the subject. But now he saw new things under the ground. "The figures! The anatomy of a miner, you see, is different from the rest of us. Big muscles and bent frames, from digging and stooping all day."
Moore and his wife suffered personally in the war. In 1940, their house in Hempstead suffered a direct hit. "The windows were blown in, the doors, out. It was a mess. Uninhabitable." They moved to Hoglands, a 15th-century farm cottage near the village of Much Hadham. ("The pig had something to do with it," he said once in explaining the names. " 'Hog,' of course, and 'Had Ham.' The 'Much' means much. There's a Little Hadham, too.") Shortly after the move, Moore's work took on a much more private and personal cast. Coal miners had "gotten ordinary" and he turned his attention to his family. . The birth of the Moores' only child, Mary, in 1946, inspired an even greater interest in family figures. Moore doted on Mary (and some say it showed; She was his inspiration--along with Irina--for countless pieces on the theme of Mother and Child. It made good sense for several reasons. After the grim and demoralizing war, it was time to turn to new life, and Moore the humanist would capture this spirit, as he had captured the bleakness of war.
Moore put away his sketch book and emerged as a mature sculptor. Big, bold sculpture carved from massive native elmwood filled the garden in Hoglands. There were pieces in marble, carved in the Renaissance Henraux quaries near Forte dei Marini in Tuscany where the Moores spent their summers. And there were pieces executed in bronze at a nearby foundry.
"These were happy years," he says. "All my years have been happy, but these were particularly happy years. The war was over. The Americans had discovered my work. We were three happy people living in the country."
The Met show has its share of big sculptures: mother and child, reclining figures--smooth, sleek, sensuous--and the wood pieces, with their amazing strength. He prefers carving, but his work since the second world war has been primarily in bronze.
The corporate Henry Moore received all of the acclaim any living artist could ask for. His reclining figure graced the front of the UNESCO building in Paris. He was awarded the International Sculpture Prizes at the Venice Biennale in 1948, at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1953, and at the Tokyo Biennale in 1959. The sponsor of the Met exhibition is the Gould Inc. Foundation, and outside the electronics firm's Chicago headquarters are several Moores, placed there because the firm's chairman believes they inspire clear and creative thinking.
The private Henry Moore is on the telephone. He's holding a pencil in one of his hands and sketching in his pad while he talks. Mary, his daughter, is 37 years old now. She lives in South Africa with her husband and two sons, far from her doting father, who cannot travel.
This seems to bother Moore, and his tone is somewhat wistful when the subject is introduced. Then he brightens.
"The climate there is very good for children," he points out. CAPTION: Picture 1, Henry Moore in his Hoglands studio, outside London; Pictures 2 and 3, "The privae Henry Moore was a war artist. With pen, brush and ink he captured the horror. His small drawings speak of the personal degradation and tragedy of war . . . His elmwook reclining figure sold at auction for $1.2 million, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living sculptor."