A visit to Henry Moore’s house

It’s been about a month since i last blogged. Hard to say why it’s been so long really. I suppose part of the reason may have been a stressful, not to mention tedious report which has been absorbing my energies at work. But another reason is that i’ve stuck to my plan of going out to see exhibitions and concerts this summer.

This weekend just gone i realised a much cherished plan to visit Perry Green in Hertfordshire. This was the sculptor Henry Moore’s home till he died in 1986 and is now the headquarters of the Henry Moore Foundation. The main attractions are the huge stone and bronze works scattered around the grounds but his studios have also been converted into indoor galleries where you can see smaller works and, most poignantly, blocks of stone he was working on at the time of his death. Yes, he was still sculpting aged 88!

Double Oval #1

First though there was a tour of Hoglands, the house itself. The name made me smile, just because it made me think of Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts, but the house wasn’t particularly magical: just two small cottages knocked together and decorated in that hideous mixture of beige fabric and dark wood which passed for style in the 70s. The murky French paintings on the walls didn’t help: Courbet, yuck.

I did like the coffee table covered with little sculptures and other objects – well, not the coffee table itself, that was vile; but the fact that Moore and his wife were so matter of fact in their attitude to art. They didn’t worry about things getting broken or damaged; these precious objects were there to be touched and handled. We were told this by our guide, one of a team whose task it is to welcome and educate visitors whilst ensuring they don’t damage anything. They do a great job and really do make you feel welcome – very different from some art institutions.

In what used to be the office we found a clue to how the Foundation had managed to survive the lean years of the past few decades, a time when its master’s reputation seemed to ebb away (although thanks to the Tate exhibition it’s seen a revival this year). Moore’s assistant’s desk was pointed out to us. Apparently, the first person to hold this post had been quite small so a small desk had been bought. When his successor proved bigger the Moores didn’t buy a bigger desk however but simply stuck wooden blocks under the legs of the one they already had. You can take the lad out of Yorkshire…

Double Oval #4

Out in the grounds the sculptures were covered with a sheen of rainwater. That wasn’t a bad thing as it turned out; it made them even more tactile, especially those cast from bronze – a material i don’t normally like. I have to touch sculpture, as i’ve said in earlier posts. Here i could touch away to my heart’s content and i did. Some of the other visitors looked at me askance. I let them look.

I couldn’t get over how different the works looked when you were there with them. In photographs, especially small photographs, they’re flattened and diminished; but there in front of you, behind you, to each side of you, they dominate the landscape – and yet belong to it too. There were two great bronze ones i loved. The first was angular, a mass of joints. Its name was “Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae 1968”. The second was called “Double Oval” and was, well, a double oval. This is the sculpture which is shown in the photos in this post. It was formed of two separate pieces placed alongside one another and you could walk in between them. The gap was like an enchanted passageway.

Later, after a good cup of tea, i walked back along the Hertfordshire Way to Bishop’s Stortford. I got lost, stung by nettles and rather wet but what else would you expect on a walk through the English countryside? There was a lovely little village a mile or two before the town, the kind with a church, a duck pond and not much else. Eventually I arrived at the railway station where i caught my train home, tired and happy.

Thorley pond

And that concludes this first post of the month. Hopefully, now i’ve got going again i’ll keep going.

Advertisements

A happy day

For the past week i’ve had the hay fever from hell. So extreme did it become that on Wednesday morning it woke me from my sleep and on Thursday evening i had to abandon my plan to attend Bridget Riley‘s lecture at the British Museum. She was going to be talking about how figurative drawing eventually evolved into abstract art. It was a bitter disappointment.

The peak seems to have been reached however and now, thankfully, the blight is subsiding. On Saturday i woke feeling… well (yes, it took me a while to identify the feeling) and headed off with a friend to see the exhibition of Henry Moore‘s sheep at the Hertford Museum. It was only one small room but perhaps all the more delightful for that. At large exhibitions you tend to develop exhibit fatigue by the time you’re half way round and individual pieces, particularly the smaller, more delicate ones, get lost amidst the masses of objects you’re trying to experience, analyse, appreciate. I think there were no more than twenty-five etchings and a few sculptures at yesterday’s exhibition.

henry moore - lamb & mother

The fact that they were etchings was a surprise in itself. I have the book Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook* and i’d assumed what we were going to see were the original ballpoint and pencil sketches from it. Not so. It seems the popularity of the sketches inspired Moore to produce a group of etchings from them. My two favourites: one of a black-faced sheep, its eyes fixing you with a suspicious glare, and one of lamb suckling from its mother, its legs bent as it twists its head beneath her belly to reach the udder. I love the fact that Moore is able to create pictures which are so touching and individual from animals which are usually experienced as blank, anonymous white blobs on the landscape. He says in the “Sketchbook”:

I began to realise that that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had an individual character.

Another advantage of small exhibitions – but also a disappointment – is how few people seem to visit them. You can wander back and forth between pieces, making new connections; whereas at major exhibitions the experience is often more like queuing at an ATM. I suppose a lot of it comes down to the lack of publicity but i think it also reflects the fact that most of the time people rarely look further than a few national museums when they’re searching for things to see. I include myself in those people. Londoners also tend to have a kind of mental block about venturing outside London, unless the event is a really big name affair.

River Lee - Hertford

After the sheep, the walk. This i did by myself as my friend doesn’t do long walks. My aim was to follow the River Lee as far as i could towards London. I made excellent progress, helped by the fact that the walk is all on the flat and, even more, by the fact that navigation is largely a no-brainer: you follow the river; where it goes, you go. It’s been canalised and a towpath runs along its edge. I missed the twists and turns of a natural river, but not as much as i’d expected and the reason for that was the river – and often the towpath – was crowded with ducklings, goslings, cygnets and baby coots. Plus their proud parents of course. At first it was mainly geese, who – be warned – are very protective of their young (one nearly ran me off the towpath); but later on i saw what looked like a duck nation: i have never seen so many at once and almost all of them had a fleet of ducklings in tow.

At Ponders End i was forced to accept that the light was fading and call it a day. A happy day.

* Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook; ISBN: 978-0-500-28072-0; pub. Thames & Hudson (1998)

At the exhibition: Henry Moore

A missing nose.
A sad nose.
A questioning nose.

These observations about noses are from the notes i made at the Tate Britain’s Henry Moore exhibition. It wasn’t all just noses – sad, missing or otherwise – though. In fact, one of the reasons why i put off writing up my notes for so long* is that they go on for pages and pages. Everything was interesting, everything was noteworthy – especially in the first couple of rooms, because you could see Moore’s style evolving in front of your eyes. Frantically, i wrote and wrote, trying to preserve the images in my mind, but of course most soon faded. Already i have forgotten the three sculptures with remarkable noses. Some i do recall however:

The first non-stone sculpture I’ve seen here: carved from walnut. Golden-red-brown. Geometric. Large holes through the wood. It’s maddening that we’re not allowed to touch.

That first walnut wood sculpture, coming after two rooms of stone, was an amazing experience. As for the last sentence, i’ve written before about my frustration at this. Henry Moore so obviously made his sculptures to be touched. You can tell as much from the use of texture:

From the front these statues are both smooth, but from the behind one is rough. It has waves carved into it.

Front and behind – that’s the other thing i love about sculpture: its three dimensionality. As you move around the spaces rearrange themselves, expressions seem to change, meanings seem to alter:

This one seen first from behind looks squat and menacing. She appears to be clenching her left fist. Seen from the front the effect is completely different. She is gazing out in curious concern at us, right hand absent-mindedly placed in her belly.

Halfway through the rooms i came across my favourite sculpture, the Mother and Child which the Tate Britain owns:

Green Hornton stone. 1938. Recumbent Figure. The space below the breasts is part of the beauty. And the blind eyes. It’s beautiful from all angles and different from all angles. That’s what’s so wonderful. And the scale is perfect. And still feels almost as though it could be a natural formation. The curves seem the rock’s own curves.

A bit gushing but that’s awe for you! I’ve seen that sculpture more times than i can remember and yet each time i encounter it the impact has the force of a first encounter. In the next room i really did have a first encounter; i had never seen the drawings Moore did as an official war artist in WWII.

These war drawings are spooky, haunting things. The building in the process of collapse. The figures huddled in a shelter (uncoloured in they remind me of Egyptian mummies). The dark indistinct figures in groups on a street.
And these. Apart from the figures in the foreground the rest are like pale-outlined ghosts.
And now these sleepers – terrifying! Like wraiths. Especially the ones who have no faces. The white lines they are made from are like bandages.

In the final rooms Moore’s style became more monumental and industrial:

Atom Piece. It’s terrifying. Like a vision of another world. A world with no home for us. That great smooth domed ‘head’. What kind of ‘mind’ would inhabit it? Close up the surface of the back reminds me of leather.

Yet, paradoxically, it also drew closer to nature:

Upright internal/external form. Plaster. 1852-3. Like the inside of a dead tree. Hopeless. Moving.

And then in the final room a truly poignant sight: a room full of huge Elmwood sculptures:

Ghosts of a British landscape before Dutch Elm Disease. They’re huge and seem less dense than the sculptures made from stone.

By this point i was flagging, however, and the museum was becoming far too busy for my comfort so my notes contain no details about the individual pieces. I do not do crowds.

Was the exhibition worth a visit? I hope my notes make it clear that indeed it was! As for my notes themselves, were they worth the ordeal involved in taking them – i had a stiff back and aching fingers by the end of the three hours. Well, yes they were. They may not be enough to call to mind each specific sculpture that i wrote about, but they certainly bring back the intensity of the morning. A wonderful experience.

* I went on Saturday 6 March.

Salisbury and Stonehenge: touch and see

I spent the weekend visiting Salisbury with a friend. The trip wasn’t supposed to be quite so Salisbury-centric, but the weather and the tail end of a cold put paid to our original plans to go walking each day; and in the end all we managed was a five mile excursion round the barrows near Stonehenge.

Stonehenge i’ll come back to: i’d like to start at the beginning with Salisbury Cathedral. I have never thought of myself as the kind of person who enjoys visiting churches – or great buildings of any kind. Architecture is something i prefer to enjoy without analysis and formal gardens generally leave me cold. If i’m honest it was mainly the thought that the Cathedral would be drier – and maybe a bit warmer – than the streets and the hope that it’d have a bookshop that made me suggest to D that we visit it.

On arrival though it was love at first sight. Truly. It was a response that startled me and began even before we entered inside. The Cathedral has… an atmosphere… an ambience… that special something you can’t put into words without gushing or sounding like a ‘psychic’. Was it the proportions? The impression of simplicity? The setting? I don’t know but it had me hooked.

Inside my mood faltered momentarily in the face of a coachload of rude French tourists but was soon restored by the beautiful stained glass windows: blue and red; the light coming through the dark grilles; and the old wooden carvings. I lit three candles to departed loved ones in a side chapel – how rarely i have the chance to do this these days; i watched the workings of the mediaeval clock and i felt strangely touched by the sight of the crumbling 13th and 14th Century tombs. These were the kind decorated with a figure of a knight, apparently asleep. Some of them had been severely damaged: one was missing his nose, another his sword. We wondered if this had occurred during the Dissolution or if it had been inflicted by puritans during the Civil War.

What i loved more than anything was that you could touch as well as look. The lack of (refusal to grant) this is what frustrates me about art museums. What is the point of sculpture you can’t touch? I remember going to the Tate Britain just because they had a sculpture by Henry Moore which i was crazy about. I was frustrated beyond words by the fact that, though i could walk round it and look at it from nearly every possible angle, i could never run my hands over the statue’s stone curves.

What a contrast with Salisbury Cathedral. There was a sculpture on display called the Thornflower*, the work of an artist called Charlotte Mayer. Viewed, this wasn’t anything particularly special to tell the truth, but touched it was a miracle: the abrasion of the thorns contrasting the smoothness of the leaves. Pain and Suffering, pleasure and comfort, beneath your fingers. Even D, who’s a much more practical type of person than me, was affected by it and we both agreed it was the standout experience of the visit.

On to Stonehenge, which we visited on the Saturday morning – the only time it stopped raining all weekend for more than a few minutes or so! With Stonehenge you’re back to an art museum type of experience – albeit in the open air. You can walk around the Stones, following a path that’s been laid out; but you can’t approach them and definitely can’t touch them. I can understand this: the henge is 5,000 years old and even the most recently arrived stones are 3,000 years old. Nobody’s going to build another one. Yet out of reach Stonehenge feels like an image of itself rather than the thing itself. Awestruck and disappointed all at the same time i took photo after photo, trying to make contact with it via the camera; then i went inside and bought books, postcards, even a fridge magnet. Still, i came away feeling that i hadn’t quite been there.

*”A bronze and steel sculpture which grew out of the artist’s reflections on the death of her grandmother in Treblinka and ‘man’s inhumanity to man at other times’” according to an article in Inspire magazine.