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Henry Moore Helmet Heads – introduction

Henry Moore (1898-1986) is generally considered to be one of the greatest sculptors of the twentieth century.  One of his best-known figures is located outside the United Nations Building.

I am not that big a fan of Moore, except that I love his drawings in the underground from World War II, and his sketchbook drawings of sheep.  I also like his series of king and queen sculptures, but as for the rest, I can take or leave it.  All this with the exception of his helmets which I love, and more than that, his lithographs of helmet heads.

Moore came from a mining background in Yorkshire, and his first experience of sculpture was when he went as a small boy to St Oswald’s church in Methley, South Yorkshire.  Here he saw a tomb effigies of Sir Robert Waterton (d. 1424) and Sir Lionel, Lord of Welles (d. 1461).  These were life-sized figures dressed in their battle armour.  So, Moore’s first exposure to sculpture involved medieval armour.  He served in the First World War, where he wore a helmet himself as well as seeing both British and German soldiers wearing them.  He also visited the Wallace Collection between the wars and saw and sketched the armour in the displays there.  He seems to have had a life-long fascination with armour, and he saw it as both a practical,  protective object and a work of art in itself.  He seems to have been more interested in the pure form of fighting armour rather than the highly decorated pieces of dress or ceremonial armour in the Wallace Collection.

I discover that we are slightly kindred spirits.  I went with the medieval historian to the Wallace Collection several years ago and absolutely loved the strong shapes of the armour and have long been fascinated by its connection to modern men’s suits in which tubes of cloth have replaced tubes of metal in forming work wear.  At the time I visited the Wallace Collection I was obsessed with Zentangles and filled the shapes with them.

I went back to the Wallace Collection (which is without doubt my favourite London Museum) to see the exhibition of Moore’s Helmet Heads last year.  I did a blog about it, which I shall not repeat.  I loved it and was fascinated by the themes of whether something to do with death and violence can be seen as a work of art in its own right, which intrigued Moore before me.  I was fascinated by all the dualities of helmets as being about protection and the inflicting of violence, or interior and exterior, of hard metal and soft bodies, of containment and liberation.  It was amazing to see the whole series of them together in one place, but the part of the exhibition which I found the absolutely most moving was a short series of lithographs that he made in the mid-1970s as he was getting older in which he returned to his helmet theme.

Even as I looked at them I could see that they would make great textile pieces. 

I was also intrigued by the comments in the catalogue that Moore had been very disappointed by the prints and he tore them up.  It was only when he saw the sections of the heads that he became excited and inspired and went back to working on them.

I found these fearful faces staring out from battlements waiting for the attack to start moving and unsettling.  I think that they are terrifying in the way that suggesting the monster off-stage rather than showing it in detail is in films and novels.

I have been meaning to do something with all this for ages – well, since last year, at least.  They came back to my mind when the corona virus forced us into lockdown, and I decided to find the sketchbook with my ideas from the time and see what I could make with them.  I will blog separately about them, but I think they really are art for our time.  Like the soldiers on the battlements, we are confined to our protective spaces, with no real idea of what the outcome might be of the ‘war’ against the virus.  We are not sure whether or not we will face death.  We are not sure what to do.  We are not sure how long the siege will last.  We do not know whether our safe space will keep us safe, and we have no idea how effective our protective clothing, in our case, our masks will be.

In my series of textile pieces, I am offsetting the Mrs Miniver-like domestic textiles made by Sanderson with cabbage roses and cottage garden flowers against the starkness of the dark mono prints I have made.  This will be the subject of the next blog.

Further reading: T. Capwell and H. Higham (eds.) (2019) Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads. London: Bloomsbury/The Wallace Collection.

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