Henry Spencer Moore (1898-1986) is probably one of Britain’s most celebrated sculptors of the 20th century. He is best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures which have appeared in museums, galleries and parks throughout the world. At Tate Britain Moore has several rooms given over to his sculptural works and many will have seen the Blitz drawings he produced during WW2, showing Londoners sheltering from the bombs in the underground.
Less well known are the drawings Moore produced of the miners at the Wheldale Colliery in Castleford, Yorkshire in 1942. This is where his father toiled for nearly fifty years.
These works on paper have gone on show at the St Albans Museum + Gallery.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything new from the Moore archive and so it was with much anticipation that I stepped into the St Albans Museum + Gallery last Saturday. With its colonnades and white facade the museum is a lovingly refurbished town hall, built in the 1880s, with an old courtroom, which now serves as a café. Beneath the courtroom where the brick-lined cells still survive, is a basement which has been reconfigured into a new, state of the art exhibition space.
This is an ideal location for Drawing in the Dark, a show entirely dedicated to Henry Moore’s coal mining drawings. I stepped into the dimly lit rooms and was immediately transported into the hermetically sealed world of the coal miner of the 1940s. In 1942,Moore was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) to draw the miners at work.
My first stop off in the show was Moore’s notebook with his early pencil sketches of figures in movement. An interactive touchscreen very usefully allowed me to peruse the entire notebook.
The coal mines were where Moore really began to practice drawing and analysing the male form (up until then – the female form had been his focus in sculpture). The prestigious commission from the WAAC didn’t come without its nightmares. Moore had been gassed during WW1 and being down in the earth’s belly, triggered the horror of the trenches. ‘If one were asked to describe what Hell might be like, this would do’, he said on his first day at work. The heat was unbearable and recording the miners’ long days in a confined space not surprisingly got to him.
We see the miners bent over in claustrophobic tunnels, pushing carts, chipping away at the coal face with their rudimentary pick axes. The ceaseless toil, cramped conditions was an eye opener for Moore. In his studies and drawings, the men became more animalistic, primal, just skin and skeleton – white X-ray skeletons. These images are powerful, beautiful and unnerving.
Coal-mining was at one time essential for producing Britain’s gas and electricity. These drawings, produced during the WW2 were commissioned to highlight the heroism of Britain’s ‘Underground Army’. The miners were essential to the war effort. Moore wanted to honour them of course. He shows their bravery, their stoicism but also their enslavement. At the exhibition, you become more aware of an evolution taking place in the way he represents the miners. Little by little, the darkness seems to engulf them. The figures start to lose their movement become frozen, more sculptural as in Positions of Miners, a study, where the moving bodies seemed to make up a Grecian frieze, the sort you might have seen on the Parthenon. The connections with sculpture are evident.
There is no doubt that Moore’s coal mining drawings helped him progress in producing the male form which he now felt confident introducing into his sculptural work of the 1950s. Father figures joined his female sculptures making up his Family Groups. He also produced his fighting figures. Several sculptures, Helmet Head and a virile, heroic fighter greet us at the end of the show.
To my mind, one of the most powerful images however was that of a robotic head in darkness (apologies for the reflection).
This is a fascinating, well-conceived show with one hundred works on paper to peruse. Entry free.
Drawing in the Dark continues at the St Albans Museum + Gallery until 16 April 2023. Entry Free
Chris Owen’s book Drawing in Dark accompanies the show. It is a beautiful book and an investment at £40.00. Chris Owen is an art historian and will be delivering an in-person and online talk about Henry Moore on 19th January 2023. Details here : https://www.stalbansmuseums.org.uk/whats-on/henry-moore-talk