Henry Moore was an avid collector of sculpture and artefacts from other countries and cultures. His home, Hoglands has several of these objects on display, including a copy of a magnificent wood carving of the god A’a. The figure, pronounced with a glottal stop in the middle, was the principal deity of the people of the Pacific island of Rurutu.
A letter from M.D. McLeod, Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum, to Henry Moore, 1 June 1979
Henry Moore Archive
Henry Moore's letter to Gordon Bunshaft regarding casting A'a from the British Museum's moulds
Henry Moore Archive
The original wooden figure is now in the collection of the British Museum, who were given both the sculpture and plaster moulds from the London Missionary Society (LMS). The LMS were presented with the work directly from the people of Rurutu in 1821 and subsequently made the plaster casts in order to explain the primitivism of the Pacific people to their society members.
So how did Henry Moore come to have a bronze copy of the figure in his home?
The Archive team was recently contacted by the British Museum, in preparation to exhibit A’a. They asked us to clarify the sequence of events which led to the creation of the bronze casts. By looking through our Correspondence collection the Archive team managed to find the initial letter from Moore’s friend and fellow collector, the American architect Gordon Bunshaft.
Bunshaft had seen an image of Picasso, his wife and dogs with a bronze cast A’a. Knowing it was in their collection, the artist and historian Sir Roland Penrose suggested that Bunshaft should contact the British Museum to ascertain if further casts might be available. Writing in 1979 to Malcolm McLeod, the Keeper of the Ethnography Department, Bunshaft requested whether or not they would loan Henry Moore a mould so that further bronze copies could be made for Moore and himself.
The British Museum agreed that for the cost of £500 plaster casts of A’a would be made available to Moore, who then arranged for them to be sent to the Morris Singer Foundry in Basingstoke. The foundry reassured Moore that it would be simple enough to produce two bronze casts. Moore agreed to split the costs of the casting with Bunshaft and oversaw the shipping of the second cast to his friend in New York in 1980. In 1985 the British Museum made an additional cast which was sent back to the people of Rurutu, where it is now on display.
Moore was delighted with the figure. In the book, Henry Moore at the British Museum Moore explains his fascination:
“…The little images, scattered all over the body like frogs jumping from a pool, are not stuck on but are all part of the same piece of wood – a remarkable technical achievement. And each figure is a separate piece of invention. The excitement of this piece comes from its sense of life-force, with all those small figures springing from the parent figure. The head, too, is marvellous. Its great round back repeats the shape of the full, round belly, but emphasises, by contrast, the thinness of the jaw. On my cast I have made up the edge of the chin, where it is damaged in the original, because I so like its razor sharpness. ”
Moore’s copy of the figure is still in pride of place in the Entrance Hall of Hoglands, which you can visit during our open season. You can also find out more about the original wooden figure on the British Museum website.