"There are two particular motifs or subjects which I have constantly used in my sculpture in the last twenty years: they are the 'reclining figure' idea and the 'mother and child' idea. (Perhaps of the two the 'mother and child' has been the more fundamental obsession)"
In 1943 Moore received a commission from the Church of St. Matthew, Northampton, to carve a Madonna and Child, a subject he had first explored in the 1930s in a series of stone and wood carvings. The commission, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the church’s consecration, came from the Reverend Walter Hussey who approached Moore having seen a number of his shelter drawings at the National Gallery in the autumn of 1942. Hussey recalled ‘‘I remember shaking my finger at him and saying: “That is the sort of man who ought to be working for the Church – his work has the dignity and force that is desperately needed today”.
This unique terracotta, dating from 1943, which comes directly from the Moore family’s collection, is one of the twelve maquettes the artist made in preparation for his final masterwork in Hoptonwood stone. Six of the twelve terracotta maquettes were later cast into bronze, and, of these, four were subsequently acquired by the Tate Gallery, including the bronze cast from this terracotta.
Between April and June 1943 Moore began making notebook sketches for the commission, now known as the Madonna and Child Sketchbook.
Limited by the lack of materials and driven by his role as an official war artist Moore had focused on drawing for much of the war. However, terracotta offered a cheap and immediate means of generating ideas, and given, that this was Moore’s first major public commission it also enabled him to offer his patron some degree of choice. This maquette was one of the five Moore selected to show to the Rev Hussey on 23 July 1943, and although it was not Moore’s preferred design for the final sculpture, he informed Hussey that he would ‘be prepared to base the finished statue’ on any one of the five. These models are some of the earliest examples of Moore’s preparatory experiments using clay. The critic David Sylvester argued in 1948 that modelling in clay helped Moore ‘grasp the tactile as well as the visual plasticity of forms because he could reconstruct them with his hands and thus attain a profounder sense of their volume’.5 The properties of clay enabled Moore to model his works with greater spontaneity and freedom, making it easier to transform an idea conceived on paper into a three-dimensional form.
Of the twelve maquettes produced, some, like this one, appear quite naturalistic in both their depiction of the figure and in the way the mother holds on to her child, and these seem to relate far more closely to Moore’s wartime drawings. They are quite different in feel to some of the other maquettes, which seem to refer back to Moore’s more ‘primitive’ carvings of the 1930s, which took as a reference the Toltec-Mayan sculpture of Chacmool from Chichén Itzá, c.900–1000. In some of these examples the figure holds the child facing outwards in a more symbolic and romantic pose perhaps more appropriate to an image of Christ. These two approaches are captured in a drawing from 1943, which shows an image of an obvious Madonna to the left, and a far more prosaic image of a women with wriggling child to the right. In fact the final large carving is wonderful synthesis of these two treatments, having both the weightiness of the primitive carving and a focus on classical drapery which had evolved in the 1940s.
On 26 August 1943 Moore wrote to Hussey, reflecting on the differences between representations of a mother and a Madonna, stating:
‘I began thinking of the ‘Madonna and Child’ for St Matthew’s by considering in what ways a Madonna and Child differs from a carving of just a ‘Mother and Child’ – that is by considering how in my opinion religious art differs from secular art. It’s not easy to describe in words what this difference is, except by saying in general terms that the ‘Madonna and Child’ should have an austerity and a nobility and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic aloofness), which is missing in the ‘everyday’ Mother and Child idea’
Still intrigued by the potential of the secular versus spiritual image, Moore’s images of the Madonna and Child were the direct antecedent to his next subject – the family group – making eighteen works on this subject between 1944 and 1947. Moore’s small-scale bronzes of family groups and women with children were highly resonant as symbols of social regeneration at the end of the Second World War, and larger-scale versions were donated to the new towns of Harlow and Stevenage soon after the war. The humanist sentiment these series convey, combined with the harmonious balance between figuration and abstraction place these works amongst Moore’s most popular and collectable subjects.
Note: Fuller details about the history of this work can be found in an extended catalogue note on the Tate Gallery’s website: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-maquette-for-madonna-and-child-r1149253
Henry Moore Family Collection (from the artist by descent)
David Sylvester (ed.), Henry Moore Volume 1 Complete Sculpture 1921 - 48, Lund Humphries, London, 1, 1988, LH 216, p13, pl. 138, illus b/w
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