Exploring Henry Moore Textiles at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

By Richard Moss | 17 November 2009
an abstract painting of a reclining figure

(Above) Reclining Figure 1949. Photograph Michael Phipps, Fabric © Ascher

Exhibition: Henry Moore Textiles, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until February 21 2010

Given the importance of Henry Moore in 20th century British art, it seems odd that elements of his work remain relatively unexplored and unknown to modern audiences.

One such area is his textile work, which has remained obscured by the stunning large-scale sculptures for which he is rightly known. Now gallery goers have a chance to discover another colourful side to Henry Moore, in this absorbing exhibition exploring Moore's ten years of designing and dabbling in fabrics.

Between 1943 and 1953, Moore threw himself into textile designs and the exhibition, developed by the Henry Moore Institute at Perry Green, reveals this arc of fervent activity, which began in the depths of war and ended with post war regeneration and the Festival of Britain.

a black and white photo of a man at an easel

Moore working on a textile design in 1943. Photograph Felix H. Mann

The Chichester gallery has devoted five of its upper rooms to a colourful procession of sketchbooks, swatches, curtains and scarves, as well as period photographs, hangings and other accoutrements including Moore's old kitchen curtains. There's even an eiderdown from the Moore family home.

But as Curator Anita Feldman, of the Henry Moore Institute, explains, the key to unlocking this forgotten output was a chance meeting with the son of Moore's fabric printer, Zika Ascher.

"I met Peter Ascher and he was the key to everything," she explains. "He just said, 'I have some things' and that I should come to New York and have a look." Feldman duly made the trip and the results were, as she puts it, "surprising".

an abstract painting showing three figures

(Above) Three standing figures (circa 1944)

"He pulled all of these bin bags out of the closet, out of the cellar and they were full of all of these crumpled fabrics," she recalls.

"I was absolutely astounded. It was a real revelation. I knew I wanted to do an exhibition of the textiles and I wasn't sure how much he'd have. At the end of the day he lent everything, so he was really wonderful. More than half of the show is from the collection."

an abstract design featuring flowers behind barbed wire

Barbed Wire (circa 1946). Photograph Matt Pia, Fabric © Ascher

Spread across the galleries, three of which follow the loose themes of Nature, Industry and People, the contents of the Ascher bin bags testify to Moore's joyful absorption into a world of bold colours and experimentation.

Moore began work on his fabric designs when Ascher, a Czech textile manufacturer, commissioned him, together with Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, to design a series of fabric scarves or "squares".

With the accent on bold patterns and colours, the scarves were intended to brighten up post-war wardrobes, but for Moore it was to prove a liberating adventure into a world of colour.

As a sculptor of large-scale reclining figures, Moore had been of the opinion that colour was a distraction from the appreciation of form, until he started dabbling with fabrics.

an abstract design with two figures

Textile Design: Family Group 1943

"He had this wonderful expression that said colour for him was 'a bit of a holiday'," adds Feldman. "It was delightful for him to experiment with colour. In drawings and in textile designs he could really have a free hand."

Moore fans will recognise plenty of motifs here too, including reclining figures, cleft headed forms and waves, but also buried within the vivid designs are Surrealistic clock heads, Native American motifs, pianos, trains and barbed wire.

The latter, with its flowers receding behind this raw symbol of war, was quite an edgy thing to do in 1946 and a photograph from the British film noir, They Made Me a Fugitive, shows Sally Gray wearing the design on a pair of pyjamas.

a black and white photograph of a woman making curtains

Irina Moore in Hoglands, making a curtain from Horse's Head and Boomerang, 1944-45. Photograph Henry Moore Fundation archive

The photo is one of many deft touches, ranging from book covers to ties and garments, that make this show such an enjoyable reappraisal.

The sketchbooks also offer an insight into the development of Moore's ideas and, this being Moore, the odd sculpture and a good number of maquettes are on hand to reflect and contextualise the textile designs.

But for the most part the accent is firmly on the fabrics and how their colourful and joyful experimentation is fused with gentle hints of domestic, albeit abstract, functionality.

A pair of curtains welcomes visitors to the show – later on a photograph of Irina Moore shows her making them at the Moore family bolthole, Hoglands.

If you think you know Henry Moore then look again; Henry Moore Textiles presents a different way of looking at one of the 20th century's greatest sculptors.

A series of events and talks has been lined up for the exhibition. Follow the venue information below for more details

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