Harewood House, is an impressive country house and seat of the Earl of Harewood. 2014 see the grounds and Terrace Gallery play host to the Arts Council’s entire collection of Henry Moore’s work between July and 2nd November. The display consists of thirteen works on paper and eleven sculptures.
Moore, born in the west Yorkshire town of Castleford in the last years of the 19th century, served in France during the First World War when he was gassed and barely escaped with his life. After the war at the comparatively late age of twenty one and mature beyond his years, he spent three years at the Royal College of Art perfecting his drawing technique and experimenting in his unique style of sculpture which set him at odds with the college establishment.
He says himself that he wanted to be a sculptor right from the age of eight or nine, a vocation that inexorably drew him away from the coal mines his father worked in. His earliest work was the roll of honour board at his local school which he carved from a single piece of wood.
Stringed Figure. Courtesy of Harewood House
Within a few years he had graduated up to hard stone and his earliest pieces began to reveal a naive but rather derivative style as well as his shortcomings as a sculptor. This pushed him to perfect his skills with a determination that never really left him, even in his later years.
Now almost thirty years after his death Moore’s work is still capable of provoking the British public in to emotionally charged extremes as heated conversation with various visitors proved.
The largest piece on display is outside the House. Moore’s “Large Reclining Figure” sits prominently in front of the imposing Georgian building. The contrast between the bright white sculpture and honey coloured stone has been specifically considered to dramatically show the organic form of the sculpture and to encourage visitors to interact with the large scale art work.
The majority of the historic exhibition is housed Below Stairs in the Terrace Gallery which opened in 1989. Harewood was in fact the first county house to open a dedicated space for modern art, something which has been replicated in many stately homes since. The display examines the work of Henry Moore between 1927 and 1962 covering key creative points and themes. Many of the works trace Moore’s investigation of human and organic forms towards a point of abstraction. Although this creative journey is important, each piece can be appreciated for its expressiveness, craftsmanship and unique formal qualities, for as Moore himself once noted, ‘the sensitive observer of sculpture must learn to feel shape simply as shape’.
For the moment though, I am alone and free to peruse the various works in peace. The thing that immediately strikes me is the rub marks on one of the pieces, obviously caressed over a lifetime of exhibition, it has drawn its visitors to investigate and experience its tactile and aesthetic pleasing form.
I’m alone apart from the enthusiastic guard, who I engage in conversation and together we watch a few minutes of the Moore info-video, both smiling because we recognise some of the local places from where Moore drew inspiration, one just down the road from here.
Seated Figure. Courtesy of Harewood House
However the exhibits can seem primitive, stark, raw and provocative when approached from a certain point of view. Perhaps even confusing especially once Moore’s inexorable experimentation departs from the most obvious classicism and strides away into the new modernity as he leaves behind the organic human shapes we understand so instinctively. It takes a certain intellectual athleticism to grasp. The visitor can’t help but ask just what Moore was trying to tell us and that’s in spite of all the clues he says left for us even in this tiny sample of what is a huge body of work. We obviously need more clues, more narrative.
Personally I was thrilled by the breadth of his experimentation and cultural borrowing and felt that he had in fact equalled if not surpassed the great surrealists that inspired him, artists like Picasso and Jean Arp who drew their inspiration from African culture but spread themselves rather thin in the field of sculpture.
Moore dedicated himself to his vocation and it shows. His work is both fiendishly clever and original, ranging in size from the miniscule to the gigantic, from wood, to paper, to basalt and modern materials like fibre glass. He even used stone cutting machines without hint of apology. There’s no doubt that Henry Moore is a incredibly important figure in the evolutionary narrative of British Art and this intimate exhibition is a chance to get very close to some of his stunning creations.
If you love art, if you love the static dance of time and space, if you love abstract thought and passion then this is a delightful pocket exhibition that combines beautifully with a visit to the priceless treasures of the renaissance and the Regency Turner room upstairs. A day visit will provide a journey through the history of art as well as a day of rewarding diversion and intellectual challenge.
Outside in the huge grounds children have a wonderland to divert and exhaust them in the play area.
Full entry to all parts of the house and grounds is £14 for adults but I recommend a £30 membership which allows you free entry to all exhibitions and events for a year; a combined family ticket is just £40.
The Henry Moore exhibition runs at Harewood House until early October. Visit www.harewood.org for more details.
Filed under: Art & Photography