Moore’s Subway Sketches Record War Images

Sculptor Henry Moore accepted a wartime assignment to make a series of sketches as a record of England at war after he was inspired by the huddled shapes of Londoners using subway stations as air-raid shelters.

Summary of Event

Henry Moore first became known as a sculptor of some repute in 1928. Sculpture;Henry Moore[Moore] He usually is identified as the sculptor of massive stone architectural or landscape figures, of more or less human shape, perforated in their centers and with heads that are often mere protuberances. [kw]Moore’s Subway Sketches Record War Images (1940-1941)[Moores Subway Sketches Record War Images (1940 1941)]
[kw]Subway Sketches Record War Images, Moore’s (1940-1941)
[kw]War Images, Moore’s Subway Sketches Record (1940-1941)
Shelter Drawings (Moore)
Art;Shelter Drawings (Moore)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Blitz (1940-1941)
[g]England;1940-1941: Moore’s Subway Sketches Record War Images[10140]
[c]Arts;1940-1941: Moore’s Subway Sketches Record War Images[10140]
Moore, Henry
Clark, Kenneth
Read, Herbert

Moore’s travel in France and Italy in 1925 was a strong catalyst for his art. His Mother and Child (1924-1925) shows the influence of Masaccio and a remarkable boldness and austere strength. His cubist works from this period manifest the influence of monumental Mexican Chac Mool statues. Moore’s Seated Woman (1928), the culmination of his early drawings from life, was the first piece that forecast his lifelong sculptural style. Moore’s first major commission was the monumental relief North Wind (1928-1929) on the headquarters of the London Transport Board. The first of Moore’s characteristic reclining figures, that in Leeds, England, was done in 1929.

The years from 1929 to 1939 represent Moore’s experimental period. Stephen Spender, a poet and friend of Moore, wrote about the prewar meetings of friends at Henry and Irina Moore’s studio, where discussions ranged over such topics as abstract art, representationalism, Surrealism, and functionalism. Writing about Moore’s drawings, art historian Kenneth Clark noted that in the period 1932 to 1934 the sketches of reclining figures and mother-and-child groups show Moore moving in the direction of more abstract human shapes and the use of holes. The Moores moved to a new home in Kingston in 1934. It had a field that fulfilled Moore’s ideal setting for sculpture as a “monumental art standing freely on the ground, under the sky.”

The world of Henry Moore, like that of all Europeans, came apart in 1939 with the intrusion of World War II. The Chelsea School of Art, where Moore taught, was evacuated from London, and Moore became essentially an unemployed artist. His successive studios were destroyed by bombs. Recumbent Figure (1938) was Moore’s last large piece before the interruption of war. His next major sculpture would be the Northampton Madonna and Child in 1943.

From 1939 to 1943, Moore primarily recorded ideas in notebooks. His drawings, however, were not insignificant, and many later bore sculptural fruit. Clark called Two Women: Drawing for Sculpture Combining Wood and Metal (1939) one of Moore’s greatest drawings, the colors adding drama and creating space. Similarly, Moore’s 1939 lithograph Spanish Prisoner first articulated Moore’s interest in the perceptual relationship between internal and external form. From this piece evolved his helmet-head sculptures (1939-1940 and early 1950’s).

A drawing of 1940 titled September 3, 1939, ominously depicted a group of women bathing near Dover, gazing seaward toward France. In the same year came a series of sketches of upright oval “cocoons” within which are inserted abstract “embryos.” These were realized in wood as Internal and External Forms (1953-1954). Moore referred to them as “a mother and child idea, something young and growing being protected by a shell.”

The Shelter Drawings of 1940-1941 are without doubt Moore’s most famous. According to art historian Herbert Read, Moore’s drawings can be placed in two categories: those made as rehearsal of ideas for sculpture, including the life drawings of his student days, and drawings done for their own sake, both actual scenes (Shelter Drawings) and imaginary scenes such as his most famous drawing, Crowd Looking at a Tied-Up Object (1942). Crowd Looking at a Tied-Up Object (Moore)

The Nazi bombing of London Blitz (1940-1941) began in earnest in September of 1940 and ended in May of 1941. When Moore and his wife were confined in the subway during an air raid, Moore got his first sight of people lying in an underground station with their blankets, pillows, and necessities. He later recalled, “I had never seen so many reclining figures. Even the train tunnels seemed like holes in my sculpture!” When Kenneth Clark, chairman of the newly formed War Artists’ Advisory Committee, saw Moore’s sketches of that experience, he persuaded the sculptor to accept a commission.

The project had its problems. Rather than intrude on what was left of the privacy of the shelterers, Moore made only quick sketches accompanied by mnemonic notes. He then worked from memory at his Parkhill Road studio and later, after his studio was bombed, at his house at Much Hadham, outside London.

Some of the figures he sketched are seated on benches; some sketches are street scenes of buildings collapsing, such as Head Made Up of Devastated Buildings and Morning After the Blitz. The series includes the well-known Sleeping Child Covered with Blanket and Pink and Green Sleepers, which Moore’s friend Stephen Spender favored as Moore’s most famous shelter drawing.

Given Moore’s penchant for reclining figures, the sight of the huddled and sleeping denizens of the London tube was for him a moving revelation of meaning: the reclining figure as a suffering human being. The drawing Tube Shelter Perspective depicts long rows of figures reclining along the receding length of a subway tunnel.

For many, the Shelter Drawings appear to be impressionistic studies. Eric Newton, a critic for the London Sunday Times, wrote of “Moore’s unearthly studies of a white, grub-like race of troglodytes swathed in protective blankets in underground shelters.” Moore himself saw them as poetic symbols of the Blitz, comparing them to “the bowels of slave ships from Africa.” Read observed Moore’s ability to capture the fear, boredom, and protective love expressed in the bodily attitudes of the people. Clark noted that “the stoicism and dignity of the shelterers” inspired several classical renderings, such as the Two Seated Figures, which are “like late Roman patricians, awaiting the coming of the barbarians.”

As one might expect, in Moore’s drawings the human body is given sculptural weight and substance, as if occupying three-dimensional space. When, well after the last air raid in May of 1941, Moore revised his exactly recorded drawings into more imaginative finished forms, the results were drawings of monumental power and among the finest graphic works of his career. Moore filled two sketchbooks with groups. Clark later described these sketches as “among the most precious works of art” of the twentieth century.


Wishing to keep Moore under contract, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee offered him several unappealing projects. Moore was a son of miners and farmers. When, in 1941, Herbert Read suggested that he make a series of drawings of miners, both Moore and the committee were amenable. Moore decided to work in the Wheldale colliery in his hometown of Castleford, the very mines in which his father had worked. He thus had a great sympathy for the project. In every sense, Moore’s Studies of Miners at Work
Studies of Miners at Work (Moore) was a direct result of his work in the subway shelters. To him, the mines resembled the tube tunnels and the miners recalled the shelter figures “imprisoned in claustrophobic space.” This time the drawings were made on the spot, with the coal dust and dimly lit atmosphere producing certain distorting and tenebrist effects that were compatible with the mind of the artist.

When Moore arrived in Castleford, he was given a tour of the tunnels that verified his early memory of the harshness of life and work in the mines. He later recorded his profound impressions of crawling on hands and knees deep into the mine, in “a dense darkness you could touch,” the thick coal dust impervious to miners’ lamps, under “a mile’s weight of rock.”

For a week at a time, Moore made sketches by day and refined them in the evening. Finally, his on-site notebook sketches became two sketchbooks and twenty finished drawings in crayon, chalk, watercolor, and india ink. Although Moore was not as emotionally moved by the miners as he had been by the shelterers, his drawings are powerful. Some imbue the miners with an idealized dignity. Moore’s studies of miners working on their backs provided him with a rich variety of new ideas for his famous reclining figure sculptures, in particular his Falling Warrior (1956-1957) and his King and Queen (1952-1953).

Moore was glad to see the end of the miners project in 1942, because it allowed him to return to his first love, sculpture. Although the Shelter Drawings were intended as documents of the war and not as studies for generating ideas for sculpture, they nevertheless inspired, by their humanizing force, other drawings of groups of draped figures, often with resultant statues. Moore’s work in the 1940’s seemed preoccupied with an almost classical concern for human destiny. His drawing Women Winding Wool suggests the Three Fates; Group of Draped Standing Figures (1942) seems to depict characters in a Greek drama, as does Crowd Looking at a Tied-Up Object. His drawing Three Standing Figures (1947-1948) grew into the stone ladies of Battersea Park, London.

The shelter studies promoted Moore’s international fame. Many of them were among the drawings that, with one reclining figure sculpture, composed Moore’s first-ever exhibit in the United States, in May of 1943, at Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery in New York City. Valentin, who purchased all the pieces himself, disseminated many of them at a profit to major museums such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Chicago’s Art Institute. The exhibit also traveled to Los Angeles.

Moore’s commission to make Madonna and Child (1943) for the fiftieth anniversary of St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton also resulted from the Shelter Drawings. Seeking to make the anniversary a magnificent artistic occasion, Walter Hussey, the vicar, commissioned a Benjamin Britten cantata. Hussey was impressed with Moore’s work in the war artists’ exhibit in London’s National Gallery in 1942 and urged the hesitant sculptor to accept the commission. The public reaction to the finished work was either love or hate—nothing in between. Moore became notorious as thousands visited the church just to see what the fuss was all about. Some years later, Madonna and Child ceased to raise eyebrows and came to be considered one of Moore’s more realistic sculptures.

It is possible to find unarguable echoes of the Shelter Drawings in Moore’s subsequent output. The year 1950 saw Helmet Heads No. 1 in lead and bronze and his abstract Double Standing Figure for Vassar College (for which Moore made pages of studies in 1948). His bronze Draped Reclining Figure and an abstract stone screen adorned the Time-Life Building in London (1952), his Warrior with Shield (1953-1954) resides in Toronto, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Building in Paris commissioned Reclining Figure (1957-1958), and in 1961 the St. Louis, Missouri, airport purchased two bronze figures.

In choosing for his archetypal models the imposing sculptural creations of ancient Egypt and Mexico, Moore asserted his ties to tradition. Although Moore showed his work in Surrealist exhibitions (1933-1939) with Alberto Giacometti, Jean Arp, and Joan Miró, he nevertheless felt apart from that school. He saw roles for both the unconscious, emphasized by the Surrealists, and the conscious. As he explained to Spender, however hard he tried to produce a nonrepresentational piece, even his most abstract work seemed like something real.

Three criteria can be used to judge the greatness of an artist: prolific output, absolute mastery of a medium, and universal representativeness of the art, with relevance for later ages. All three apply to Moore. Moore is representative of the artistic tradition of Western civilization. His work recalls the great art and artists of the past but was modern in its day. In view of his expanding power and clarity of purpose through the years, Moore will doubtless become a model and point of departure for artists of the future. Shelter Drawings (Moore)
Art;Shelter Drawings (Moore)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Blitz (1940-1941)

Further Reading

  • Andrews, Julian. London’s War: The “Shelter Drawings” of Henry Moore. Burlington, Vt.: Lund Humphries, 2002. Presents the Shelter Drawings along with explanations and commentary. Includes comparisons of some drawings to photographs of the locations.
  • Berthoud, Roger. The Life of Henry Moore. 2d rev. ed. London: Giles de la Mare, 2003. Comprehensive biography is filled with detailed anecdotes that intimately present the mind and heart of Henry Moore. Includes many black-and-white illustrations.
  • FitzGibbon, Constantine. The Winter of the Bombs. New York: W. W. Norton, 1958. Vivid description of the Nazi Blitz of London provides excellent background on the context in which Moore produced his Shelter Drawings.
  • Lichtenstern, Christa. “Henry Moore and Surrealism.” Translated by Sally Arnold-Seibert. Burlington Magazine 113 (November, 1981): 645-658. Intends to demonstrate through a few examples that Surrealist impulses shaped Moore’s art, particularly from 1930 to 1940 and to a certain extent throughout his career.
  • Moore, Henry. Henry Moore Drawings. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Survey of the development of Moore’s art presents a study of the relationship between his drawings and his sculpture. Copiously illustrated with 304 plates of Moore’s graphic art, 40 in color.
  • _______. Shelter Sketch Book. London: Editions Poetry London, 1940. Small volume reproduces beautifully the Shelter Drawings on eighty-one leaves, in their original colors. Contains no text.
  • Read, Herbert. Henry Moore: A Study of His Life and Work. New York: Praeger, 1965. Authoritative biography and critique of Moore’s work by a great art historian and friend of the artist. Illustrated with 245 photographs of Moore’s art.
  • Spender, Stephen. “Realism’s Blitz.” Art and Antiques 9 (January, 1992): 75-77, 97-98. Interesting personal recollection, by a close friend of Moore, of times spent together with other friends and artistic discussions that took place in the decade before World War II.

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