Art Book of the Month, December 2016

Title page from 'Shelter Sketch Book' by Henry Moore

Shelter Sketch Book by Henry Moore
London: Marlborough Fine Art, 1967

Limited Edition 80 facsimile collotype, each copy of which contains one specially designed lithograph by Henry Moore, pulled on the hand-press J. E. Wolfensberger, Zurich on handmade paper under the artist’s supervision, signed by the artist and numbered 1 – 180. This is No. 31.
Originally published as a portfolio of loose plates, now mounted and bound together.

Henry Moore (1898-1986), the son of a Yorkshire coalminer, is of course the most important British sculptor of the 20th century. But his expressive drawings of sleeping people in underground stations and air raid shelters during the London Blitz of the Second World War are an equally important part of his oeuvre. Moore produced them when he was appointed official war artist in 1940-42.

'Shelter Sketch Book' by Henry Moore

In the 1930s Moore had established himself as an avant-garde sculptor, but the horror of war changed the focus of his art. The war’s images of destruction and brutality would provide inspiration for many British artists. Kenneth Clark, then chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, tried to invite Moore to join the scheme. Clark was probably hoping to keep artists he cherished such as Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper in work and prevent them from being killed.  Sadly a few had already died or vanished.  Eric Ravilious was lost at only 39, while flying over Iceland, Albert Richards had died in Normandy and Thomas Hennell in Java.

Moore at first declined, feeling that he had seen enough of war during his spell at the front in 1917. But one night, during an air raid, he was trapped in the London underground. He was very moved by what he saw and began drawing the extraordinary scenes of people huddled together on the platform. The sight had been a revelation. He returned over the course of a year, producing 300 sketches. These would become known as the Shelter Drawings.

Since the Luftwaffe did not generally bomb London by day, Moore would sometimes spend an entire night in the Underground on his visits to London, returning to his Hertfordshire home at dawn, his mind seething with material. He soon became a connoisseur of Underground stations:

“Liverpool Street extension was the place that interested me most.  The new tunnel had been completed, and at night its entire length was occupied by a double row of sleeping figures”
– Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore

Moore also visited and recorded the ‘Tilbury’ shelter, part of the Liverpool Street goods station under Commercial Road and Cable Street. The officially designated shelter area rapidly became full and an adjacent warehouse was requisitioned. This damp complex eventually accommodated up to 14,000 people crammed beneath the railway arches in appalling conditions. As one employee of the government-backed Mass Observation project described it:

“There were thousands of people lying head to toe, all along the bays and with no facilities.  At the beginning there were only four earth buckets down the far end, behind screens, for toilets … The place was a hellhole, it was an outrage that people had to live in these conditions.”

In the early days of the Blitz, assailed by the terrible stench and wading through the effluvia of overflowing latrines, many refuge-seekers could not stand the primitive conditions in the shelters and preferred to return home. (Antony Clayton Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, p.139)

To have openly drawn people dressing or sleeping would have been to intrude on their privacy and also to invite abuse or hostility. So Moore made a few notes in discreet corners. He spoke about the experience in a BBC interview:

“I had to make surreptitious notes in a little note book, and then next day when the sight of the scene was fresh in my mind, I began drawing from the note book.”

If anxious to retain a particular scene, he would walk past it several times, imprinting it on his excellent visual memory.

“What I was trying to show was my reaction to this dramatic suspense, the situation that you get of a tension between people and something about an impending disaster, impending doom, there‘s a drama in silence more than in shouting.”

The shelter drawings were a turning point for Moore. You can see in the drawings the beginnings of the themes that come to dominate his work in the years after the war, the mother and child and the family group. Antony Gormley said:

“Moore… believed that you could make art that talked to people universally, irrespective of creed, language and race and maybe invite them to look at the world in a new way.”

With their strong sense of compassion, these drawings are more than a documentary of suffering endured; rather they portray the ordeals of the victims of war as a whole. The sleeping women and children might be anywhere in 1940s Europe – and because of their actuality, in today’s war-torn Syria, the Gaza strip or Ukraine.

'Shelter Sketch Book' by Henry Moore

You can view this book in the Art & Design Collection at Westminster Reference Library.

[Rossella]

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