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Henry Moore and Harlow New Town

 

2017 is an important year, as not only does it mark the 40th anniversary of the Henry Moore Foundation, but also the 70th anniversary of Harlow as a New Town. 

Henry Moore and Harlow have an important link that illustrates what life was like for British families in the years following the Second World War. The Henry Moore Archive has many images, videos, letters, and books that tell the story of developing Harlow, and demonstrate how the commissioned Family Group sculpture became an important focal point to the town at such a critical time in its history. 

Building new towns such as Harlow became a necessity after the end of the Second World War. Extensive bombing in London had devastated homes and areas of industry, leaving many homeless or living in uninhabitable conditions. Under the New Towns Act of 1946, the government began planning the construction of Harlow, along with other New Towns such as Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City, and Basildon.

However, what set Harlow aside from the other New Towns was its focus on art. The Harlow Arts Trust was established in 1953 by Frederick Gibberd, the town planner and a close personal friend of Henry Moore. Alongside Gibberd was Pat Fox-Edwards (who later became his wife), Maurice Ash, and Phillip Hendy. Their decision to make sculpture an integral part of Harlow was seen as an important step forward, ensuring that ordinary people had access to art and culture right on their doorstep. The Harlow Arts Trust began buying and commissioning sculpture from a £250 gift from Maurice Ash, and it was stated by the group that “sculpture, in some way, should try to express the community idea”. In this sense, Henry Moore’s Family Group was undoubtedly their most important commission of all.

Family Group held a particular significance in Harlow due to the scene it was depicting. Representing a strong family unit was something that was in the national interest in the years following the Second World War. The war had devastating effects on society, such as a high mortality rate, widespread rationing, and a low national birth rate. The overall aim in the post-war period was to promote stability amongst the general public, and protecting the family unit was seen as the easiest way to do this. Harlow was a fantastic example of the success rate of this ideology in Britain; dubbed the ‘pram town’ Harlow had a birth rate three times higher than the national average!

The placement of many of the artworks in the town was also intended with children in mind. At the unveiling of Percy Portsmouth’s “Boy on a Dolphin” sculpture in 1954, Phillip Hendy commented on the large number of children that occupied Harlow. The decision to place this particular sculpture at the centre of a pool of water was something that Hendy had hoped children would be able to enjoy. He is quoted as saying: “Plainly they won’t all be able to paddle in this pool at once. But I hope there will be more pools like this at Harlow; and I hope that every child in Harlow will paddle in this pool more than once in his lifetime”.

At the same unveiling Hendy went on to thank those who had helped the Harlow Art Trust, not only in their support for that particular sculpture, but for enabling them to commission a piece from “the most famous living sculptor, Mr Henry Moore”. When announcing the sculpture commission to the crowd, Phillip Hendy jokingly commented: “and I can reassure Harlow mothers that there is not a hole through any of the three, so that there is no danger of any Harlow child getting its head stuck and having to wait for the fire-brigade to get it out”.

Harlow’s Family Group was unveiled outside the St Mary-at-Latton Church on the 17th May 1956 by the chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Sir Kenneth Clark. The sculpture was recorded as being well received, with a Times reporter commenting on the children’s excitement at the unveiling, and how at one point “the family of three had expanded to one of seven”! 

Although the Family Group’s location has changed several times in the sixty-one years after its unveiling, the sculpture has remained the unspoken symbol of the town. To this day, public sculpture is still a focal point around Harlow. Artworks by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Leon Underwood (to name a few) are still on display, and are best viewed by following the official Sculpture Trail. The link between Henry Moore and Harlow is something that has been woven into the town’s history, and should certainly not be forgotten on this important year. 

“So often sculpture is a sort of cultural concession that has little relevance to the real life of a town but, in your case, it has become an integral part of Harlow”

Sir Frederick Gibberd to Henry Moore

13th February 1964