7 March 2013

Henry Moore’s ‘Memorial Figure’ at Dartington Hall

I took the opportunity during a recent visit to Dartington Hall in Devon (SW England) to seek out Henry Moore’s Memorial Figure 1945/46 in the gardens. This is one of Moore’s major works, as described by his biographer, Roger Berthoud, in The Life of Henry Moore:
… Having drawn heavily on his positive, tender or Apollonian vein for his madonnas and family group studies, he now had every reason to give expression to the darker, tougher, and more Dionysiac side of his artistic character.  
Starting in autumn 1945, he was to work for the next year in parallel on two carvings which reflected both aspects of his nature. The 'tough' one was his fourth major elmwood reclining figure, the 'tender' one a stone memorial to Christopher Martin, a gentle friend who had died in 1944 of TB after ten years as head of the Arts Department at Dartington Hall in Devon. It was commissioned by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, the New York heiress and Yorkshireman who had created at Dartington a community embracing light industry, agriculture, education and the arts, with a fourteenth-century manor house as its focal point. Henry's initial contact seems to have been through Kenneth Clark and Philip Hendy whom he had assisted in a Dartington-backed inquiry into the prospects for the arts in Britain.  
The fifty-six-inch-long Memorial Figure, as it was called, is perhaps the most serene and elegiac piece of Moore's entire career, perfectly balanced and harmonious from the unusually detailed head with its far-seeing gaze down through the rhythmically handled drapery and up to the sharply raised hill of the right knee. The position of the figure has something in common with the Leeds Reclining Figure of 1929, with its Chacmool parentage, but the mood could scarcely be more different. Seen in situ, the Dartington figure is the more poignant for the striking beauty of its surroundings, especially when viewed against the background of a giant Scots fir which frames the grassed and terraced tiltyard and the austerely handsome Hall. As George Wingfield Digby nicely observed, it ‘seems to lie in the womb of time with quiet assurance'. Thirty years have given the Hornton stone a patina of lichen growths, and there has been some erosion caused by rain dripping from the overhanging trees. Happily there are no scars from an incident in 1968 when someone drew in eyes and a cigarette.
The passage of another thirty years has made the patina more established and the erosion more marked. One day some difficult restoration may be thought necessary. The complementary ‘tough’ Reclining Figure 1945/46 is shown below. Purchased by Wendell Cherry in 1982, its present whereabouts seem to be a mystery. Cherry also owned the self-portrait Yo-Picasso 1901, currently in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London.


I visited Dartington again recently in better weather with a better camera so this may be worth adding:

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