How Leeds shaped the life and works of acclaimed Castleford sculptor Henry Moore

A century after Henry Moore began studying at Leeds School of Art, the city is celebrating the life of the acclaimed sculptor. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Monday, 26th October 2020, 11:45 am
British sculptor Henry Moore sits amongst the maquettes in his studio at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire. Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Just over 100 years ago, a young man from Castleford began a journey that would eventually lead to him becoming one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. His name was Henry Moore and in September 1920, at the age of 22, he started a year-long course in sculpture at Leeds School of Art (now Leeds Arts University).

Having served in the First World War – he enlisted at the age of 18 in 1916, he was injured in a gas attack the following year and spent the remainder of the war as a physical training instructor – Moore was entitled to an ex-serviceman’s grant which enabled him to enrol at the school. At the time there was no sculpture department so a studio was set up especially, with Moore as the only full-time student.

Today, Moore is known throughout the world for his semi-abstract monumental sculptures and distinctive representations of the human, particularly female, form – and his time in Leeds was hugely significant, not only in terms of his study and understanding of the history of art and sculpture, but also in setting him on the path towards developing his own creative practice and innovative sculptural style.

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Circa 1965, sculptor Henry Moore leans against one of his massive bronze creations. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

To celebrate this landmark anniversary, the Henry Moore Institute has put on display his notebooks from that period alongside archive images of some of his early works and photographs of Moore with friends and fellow students in the city.

The notebooks, which are rarely shown, feature sketches of classical sculpture and architecture as well as handwritten notes from his lectures, observations and nascent ideas, providing an insight into the details of his course, his training and his thought processes.

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“Moore’s time in Leeds was absolutely transformative,” says Laurence Sillars, head of the Henry Moore Institute. “The School of Art basically created the sculpture department for him. To look at the notebooks now you get a glimpse of the passion and dedication he brought to his studies and you can see how it had a huge impact on him. His years in Leeds were pivotal in terms of his development as a thinker and maker.”

It was also while he was in Leeds that Moore met fellow student Barbara Hepworth; it was the start of a significant friendship and an amicable professional rivalry that was to last for many years. “Part of the reason that Leeds, and Yorkshire, is such a hub for international sculpture now is down to these two incredibly important figures studying here,” says Sillars. “They sowed those seeds.”

In 1921, Moore and Hepworth won scholarships to study at the Royal College of Art in London, and went on to establish their careers in the capital, but neither forgot their roots – the Yorkshire landscape left a lasting impression and inspired them both in their work.

“For Moore it was a huge driving force,” says Sillars. “Landscape had previously been a realm for painters. The rolling hills of Yorkshire were an inspiration for his sculpture but also bits of nature he found such as stones, wood, animal bones; he was also inspired by the industrial landscape and mining heritage. It all came together in developing his own boundary-pushing sculptural language.”

Born into a poor working-class family, the son of a miner and the seventh of eight children, Moore and his siblings were encouraged by their parents, particularly their father, a self-taught man with an interest in music and literature, to value the arts and education, and Moore became interested in the idea of becoming a sculptor from an early age.

“Throughout his life he told the anecdote that he was inspired by hearing a story about Michelangelo at Sunday school when he was about 11 years old,” says Sebastiano Barassi, head of collections and exhibitions at the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens in Hertfordshire.

“When he completed his secondary school studies in Castleford, he agreed with his father to do some teacher training because his father wanted him to do something safe first and once he had completed that, he would be allowed to go to art school. Then the First World War broke out and Moore went off to fight in France.”

After the war Moore was able to use his ex-servicemen’s grant to pay the fees at Leeds School of Art and pursue his dream of becoming an artist. “The school brought in someone from London as a tutor – Raymond Cotterill who was relatively young himself,” says Barassi.

“And as the only sculpture student, Moore benefitted from personal tuition from someone who was more or less the same age as him. The course had to be quite traditional in outlook because Moore had to pass an exam at the end of it, but under Cotterill he also explored non-traditional and experimental forms and those were important formative experiences for Moore.”

While studying in Leeds Moore became interested in the work of Roger Fry, a well-known critic, artist and art historian. “Fry had published numerous texts making certain connections between historical and contemporary art, looking at new approaches to art,” says Barassi.

“He was interested in art outside the classical canon – the Greek, Roman and Renaissance periods – particularly the primitive and artists like El Greco who tried to distort the human figure. That encounter with Fry, Moore said, happened by accident when he was in Leeds reference library and he found the book while he was looking at other things. That was one of those experiences that were not necessarily related to his studies but played an important part in shaping him.”

Another significant encounter was with the then vice chancellor of the University of Leeds, Michael Sadler. A public intellectual, radical thinker and prolific art collector, Sadler was interested in expressionism and abstract impression, had personal links with the Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinksky and held an impressive collection of late 19th century and early 20th century art.

“He was one of the first British collectors to collect Cezanne and Gauguin,” says Barassi. “All those pieces were on show in his house and students were often invited to his home to view the collection and talk about art and their passions. There are numerous figures who influenced Moore but Sadler was really important.”

Errin Hussey, archivist at the Henry Moore Institute, is pleased to have the opportunity to share the notebooks with the public. “It is lovely to honour Moore’s connection with Leeds and exciting to see how he was developing as an artist during his time here,” she says.

“He basically created the sculpture course himself and having that undivided attention was very important. Examining the notebooks, you can see him shift from traditional forms to a more experimental style. He writes about the abstract and the kind of art he wants to produce in the future; it is so interesting to see him exploring those things. From here he went on to develop his own distinctive style that now inspires students today.”

The connection with Leeds and Moore’s legacy in the city continues in the form of the institute itself, set up by the artist in 1977 to encourage and enhance the appreciation, study and practice of the visual arts, and sculpture in particular. “It feels like a nice celebration to have put together at this particular moment in time,” says Sillars.

“Leeds is still a very important city for young artists – there are three universities and three art schools. For students coming here to start their courses right now, in pretty uncertain circumstances, to have this reflection on a local lad having made a huge impact on the art world is like a beacon of hope – it’s a positive reminder of what can come out of that kind of passion and drive.”

At the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until December 18. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm, with entry free. www.henry-moore.org