Henry Moore's legacy

A giant of twentieth century art, today Henry Moore is considered as the catalyst of the British sculptural renaissance that followed his rise to fame in his own lifetime.

Moore came to represent the post-war optimism that was manifest in the rebuilding of Britain but this came at a price, as many became disillusioned at the sculptor’s omnipresence. Contemporary artists that followed were particularly critical of their sculptural forefather but many have since acknowledged their debt to Moore who brought British sculpture into the international spotlight.

Moore’s Service to the Arts

At the time of his death Moore had created just over 1,000 sculptures, over 700 graphics and almost 5,500 drawings leaving an incredible wealth of material to remember him by. To a certain extent Moore secured his own legacy with great acts of generosity, particularly through gifts to public collections. In the UK alone these included 36 sculptures and a complete set of graphics to Tate; a wide array of prints and drawings to the British Museum and further works to the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Council.

Moore was also generous with his time and resources to support the arts. He served as a Trustee of the Tate from 1941 until 1956 and of the National Gallery from 1955 until 1974. He championed free entry and early Sunday opening hours at the National Gallery and encouraged the controversial purchases of works of art accused of being expensive; paintings by Renoir and Cézanne are today considered to be crucial parts of the gallery’s collection. The impact of Moore’s patronage and work as a Trustee ensures that his legacy quietly reaches far beyond the works which bear his name.

By establishing the Henry Moore Foundation before his death, Moore secured the protection of his own works which would continue to be exhibited internationally. Our grants scheme allows his legacy to be truly wide-reaching through the funding of sculpture research and exhibitions.

Moore and Public Sculpture

After the Second World War, Britain was rebuilt with a utopic modernist vision. In 1946 the Labour government passed the New Towns Act prompting the creation of 11 new towns. As the most prominent sculptor of the day, the work of Moore was called upon to enhance these towns and other modernist sites. Stevenage was the first new town to be built, where Family Group, 1948-49 was placed at the entrance of the Barclay Secondary School, setting a precedent for art in educational institutions. The second town was Harlow where its master planner Sir Frederick Gibberd pioneered the commissioning of sculptures for its public spaces. Moore was the first chosen artist, carving a family group in Hadene stone in response to the young families who had moved there. A proliferation of international acquisitions and commissions and his humanist language of family groups and reclining figures confirmed Moore’s status as a symbol of post-war optimism.

Sculpture is an art of the open air. Daylight, sunlight is necessary to it, and for me its best setting and complement is nature. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know.

Henry Moore in Sylvester 1951: Sculpture and Drawings by Henry Moore

Tate 1951

Henry Moore, Large Spindle Piece 1968 at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
photo Jonty Wilde

Despite architects choosing the work of Moore again and again, the artist preferred his sculptures to be seen in natural landscapes. Whether natural scenery or the built environment, Moore’s works have peppered landscapes around the world since the 1950s. He was the first to publicly declare that sculpture was best viewed in the outdoors. He sat on the committee of the first Open Air Exhibition of Sculpture at Battersea Park in 1948 where he showed two sculptures; then a new model, the display proved to be a catalyst for the emergence of many other open air exhibitions. Moore’s impact therefore resonates beyond his own work to the way that sculpture continues to be presented and considered as part of the landscape.

Contemporary Artists

The landscape as subject in sculpture almost enjoyed a renaissance due to the work of Moore. The work has at times an almost geological quality. Having been hewn out and eroded, the work often emerges out of the ground or from a plinth-like device that holds different elements together, giving the appearance of rock formations. This reference gives the work an almost geological time-scale, usually unobtainable by human beings. Moore placed his work outdoors, often directly in the landscape, more than any other sculptor previously had done. As a result, the landscape, which had been neglected for many years, became the focus of attention for artists.

Tony Cragg, Body and Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art

Henry Moore Foundation 2014

A teaching career spanning 1925 to the early 1950s produced a generation of artists who were directly touched by Moore’s example. Many of his assistants such as Anthony Caro and Bernard Meadows became established artists in their own right. Caro wrote “for me, working as his assistant opened up a whole new visual world. He loved to talk about art, and despite the age difference we had a good dialogue. Sculpture was his life. He was in touch with his feelings, very direct.

Despite Moore’s direct contact with, and support of, many contemporary artists his reputation amongst the younger generation suffered. Moore was widely considered an establishment artist, probably due to the prominence of his works in institutions and public spaces over the world. However, this opinion doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Moore had refused to become a member of the Royal Academy and turned down a knighthood in 1950. Many artists preceding Moore sought to escape his shadow by taking a completely different aesthetic and even publicly deriding the artist

When Moore first announced a gift of works to the Tate, 41 contemporary artists signed a letter in the Times arguing that this would leave no room for the display of other contemporary artists. To the dismay of Moore, signatories included his prior assistants Caro and Phillip King.

Moore was hurt by public criticism, but he had similarly condemned his own sculptural forefather, Auguste Rodin, early in his career. Like many of the artists who followed Moore, later in his career Moore admitted his debt to Rodin.

But you know, if you like something tremendously you may react and think you’re against it, but inside you can’t get away from it. This is what happened to me over Rodin. Gradually, I began to realise that a lot of things one might be using and being influenced by – Negro sculpture for example, which gives you a simplified programme to work on – are, compared with Rodin, too easy, so as time has gone on, my admiration for Rodin has grown and grown.

Henry Moore, Rodin: Sculpture and Drawings, the Hayward Gallery

London, 1970

If many artists remain hesitant to acknowledge a stylistic debt to Moore, most do admit that he gave them the ambition to strive for similar heights.

If it hadn’t been for him I don’t believe English sculptors would have had half the confidence which is apparent today, half a century after Henry. Henry gave English sculptors who followed him the confidence to feel they could be as good as the best, could take themselves seriously and be taken seriously.

Anthony Caro, Celebrating Moore

The Henry Moore Foundation 2006


Moore was a bit the elephant in the room for my generation, something so big you couldn’t see him. Or didn’t want to. However, I do think that when, in the mid-1960s, the Observer could run a cover article titled The Greatest Living Englishman about Henry Moore, then it did both licence a degree of ambition and signified a level of aspiration for young men and young women that would be hard to overstate.

Richard Deacon, Body and Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art

The Henry Moore Foundation 2014

In 2014 the Henry Moore Foundation staged Body and Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art, an exhibition which celebrated the debt of contemporary artists to Moore’s aesthetic. The exhibition included works by Joseph Beuys, Tony Cragg, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Sarah Lucas, Bruce Nauman and Rachel Whiteread amongst others. The influence of Moore can be discerned in these artists and much further afield.

Richard Deacon, Associate 2014 for Body & Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art.
photo Jonty Wilde

The Future of Moore’s Legacy

The legacy of Moore continues to develop. At the Henry Moore Foundation, we persist in working towards achieving his goals of promoting his work and supporting sculpture through his legacy. Critical theory sheds new light on Moore and contemporary artists continue to respond to his work in new ways. The vitality of Moore’s works that he left behind in public and private spaces encourages belief that they will be enjoyed for generations to come.