Henry Moore and Elmwood

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Sophie Orpen

  • By Sophie Orpen
  • Henry Moore Studios & Gardens
  • Archive Research Coordinator

In his lifetime Henry Moore completed fifteen Elmwood carvings, ranging from the earlier smaller pieces such as Hole and Lump, to the monumental Reclining Figures of the post-war period. 

The dates of these carvings spanned a large time period; from the first work in 1934, to the last that was finished in 1978, eight years before his death. Four of these carvings can be found in Out of the Block, our current exhibition: Hole and Lump 1934, Family 1935, Standing Girl 1952, and Reclining Figure 1959-64.

Moore commented on how, in his early years, carving in wood did not seem as attractive as carving in stone. He commented on how wood was a “slow material to work in” and the frustration of preparing large blocks of wood to be ready for carving. However, Moore soon found himself being attracted to wood carving for the very same reason that he was originally frustrated by. For example, Moore reflected: “I could make things in it with arms and so on that would have broken in stone”. The lighter weight of wood in comparison to stone, combined with a slow carving process to allow the wood to dry and harden, meant that Moore could produce a very different style of sculpture. The sculpture, Family, 1935 is a perfect example of this. Moore had to place a bar of wood between the two forms towards the end of the carving process to prevent the sculpture from cracking, and allowing it to dry while being supported. The bar was eventually removed as Moore believed that the work looked better free.

Out of the many woods that Moore carved with throughout his career, Elmwood was a medium that was the most constant. The earlier, and often smaller Elmwood sculptures, demonstrate Moore’s experimentation with shapes that could naturally be found in the wood, and how they lend themselves to sculpture. Moore believed there was an undeniable likeness between trees and human bodies, commenting on how “their limbs branch out like arms and legs from the trunk of a figure”. It is no surprise, therefore, that when Moore sourced a tall and slim piece of Elmwood that he was inspired to carve Standing Girl, 1952. This particular sculpture is very unique in comparison to Moore’s other Elmwood figures, and actually had to be altered so that there was more wood to be able to carve the back as he had wanted. It is for this reason that Moore considered this piece to be unfinished, and never exhibited it within his lifetime.

Throughout his life, Moore received a lot of correspondence from people all over the world, often asking for his own tips and opinions about best carving practice. One such particular letter was written in early 1961 from a woodcarving teacher in Canada. He was curious about Moore’s preference for using elm. He remarked the wood was common in Canada, yet was particularly uncommon as a carving wood. He wondered whether this preference was due to availability or due to the elm’s resilience as a carving material. Moore replied to say “The wood I use for large carvings is elm, because it is the easiest wood to get in a big size in England. Also because I like the bold grain, and the greyish colour of elm”.

Purchasing elm timber in England during this period was indeed fairly easy as the trees were abundant throughout the country, particularly in the southeast. In the years leading up to the Second World War, when Moore was living between his home in London and various cottages in Kent, he would source his Elmwood from a timber merchant based in Canterbury. However once war broke out, and Moore relocated to Perry Green, he had to source a new timber merchant. Luckily, he was able to find one based very locally:

“There was a timber merchant near me in Bishops Stortford whom I got to know and whom I went to for wood. Whenever he got a very big elm tree he would let me know and I was able to use these for my reclining figures.”

Working on such a monumental scale with a material such as wood was a very difficult task. Before the wood can be carved into a final sculpture the bark and excess wood had to be removed. Part of this process can be seen in the film screened within 'Out of the Block'. Moore was very lucky to have the help of assistants, especially as he got older, as the work was very physical and demanding. He remarked about carving Reclining Figure, 1959-64:

“Isaac Waltkin, my assistant at the start of the sculpture, liked carving and was very helpful on the ‘roughing out’ of this sculpture. With a big tree there is so much preliminary work that so long as I am around to supervise, a competent carver can do the early shaping, allowing me to get on with something else. I take over for the final stages which cannot be hurried.”

However, around the time of these last large Elmwood sculptures, a sinister development was taking place in the United Kingdom. By 1967, a strong and deadly form of Dutch elm disease reached the country, and spread rapidly causing widespread damage. Within 10 years the disease had travelled from Southampton to Scotland and had killed 20 million elms out of the 30 million in the UK. The first sign of infection can often be seen in an upper branch of a tree with leaves withering and discolour during summer months, way before the normal autumnal period of shedding occurs. This then spreads to the rest of the tree with further branches dying back until eventually the roots die due to the lack of nutrients. The disease, caused by a fungi carried by elm bark beetles, caused so much damage as the elm trees did not have any natural resistance.

The devastating effect undoubtedly took its toll on timber merchants that Moore used, and in turn effected Moore’s carving activity. Moore commented on the difficulty of getting good quality elm wood during this period, and how the timber merchants would only contact him if they could “guarantee [it] was a good piece from a healthy tree… but this only happened once every two or three years”. However, the beginnings of Dutch elm disease coincided with a natural decline in Moore’s carving work. Reclining Figure Holes 1976-78, was the last major Elmwood carving that Moore embarked on, beginning when Moore was 77 and finishing when he was 80. Due to his age Moore was unable to undertake much of this carving process due to the physicality of the job.

At the Henry Moore Foundation today the legacy of elm continues. Our archive building, aptly named Elmwood, is a lasting reminder of the influence that this material had on Moore’s carving work throughout his life. Within the grounds of the Foundation we are also lucky to have a few surviving elm trees that have not yet been effected by the disease. Our fantastic grounds team work tirelessly to keep the trees healthy and continue to monitor for signs of Dutch elm disease. However, the disease is still active and continues to threaten the health of all elm trees within the UK.

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