Moore And Mythology Uncovered At Henry Moore Foundation in Hertfordshire

By Graham Spicer | 24 April 2007
four drawings arranged next to each other of a man in beggars clothes sat down with a staff in his hand

Four Studies for Odysseus the Beggar, 1944. Collection: Anne Bransten Wooster, San Francisco. Photo: Michel Muller, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

Graham Spicer takes a look at myth-themed works by the legendary sculptor Henry Moore.

English sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986) sought a completely fresh approach to his chosen discipline. He strove to deliberately remove himself from classical sculptural forms, consciously trying to ignore all Greek, Roman and Renaissance traditions and return to older, more primitive approaches.

This did not mean that he never used mythological subjects as the basis for his work, however. The exhibition Moore and Mythology, running at the Henry Moore Foundation until September 23 2007, shows two groups of his work from the 1940s directly inspired by Greek mythology and how his contemporary sculptural work was influenced by Classic themes.

War led Moore to move from Kent and London to Hertfordshire. He was forced to give up sculpture for two and a half years, concentrating on drawing instead and, while he returned to sculpture in 1943, he continued to draw.

drawing of a room full of men who have been killed in battle, one with a spear through him

The Death of the Suitors, 1944. Collection: Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford. Photo: Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

At this time he started illustrating the published version of The Rescue, originally a radio play written by Edward Sackville-West. Moore’s six illustrations formed an integral part of the work when it was published in 1945 and provided a direct link between Moore and mythical subjects.

The Rescue was based on the last chapters of Homer’s Odyssey and drew parallels with the events of World War Two.

The Odyssey itself was reminiscent of the fight to liberate Europe - the figure of Penelope waiting to be rescued could be likened to Europe itself; the suitors, trying to win Penelope over before her husband Odysseus returned, were the Nazis themselves.

drawing of a man's head

Head of Prometheus, c1950. Collection: Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation, Tokyo. Photo: Brian Coxall, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

As well as Moore’s sketchbooks and original drawings for The Rescue the exhibition shows an original copy of the book signed by the playwright for Benjamin Britten, who wrote the score for the radio play, and Britten’s annotated score is also displayed.

The drawings themselves were made using a method that Moore called ‘section-line’ drawing. He used white wax crayon directly on paper with crossing lines to show the three-dimensional nature of the form and then added details with coloured crayons and pencils.

Finally he added watercolour or ink washes across it and emphasised shadows and extra details with pen and ink.

drawing of abstract shapes and the form of a woman

Pandore et les Statues Emprisonnées, 1950. The Henry Moore Foundation: gift of the British Council 2005. Photo: Menor Creative Imaging, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

One character from the story, the goddess Athene, reappeared in Moore’s sculpture Helmet Head and Shoulders, which is on show along with other sculptural works relating to this period.

Family Group, for example, also shows a link between the stylistic themes Moore was using in The Rescue drawings and his next body of mythological drawings – Prométhée.

During a visit to Paris in 1949 Moore met French typographer and publisher Henri Jonquières, who suggested an illustrated book based on Goethe’s Prometheus, an adaptation of Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus.

photo of a henry moore bronze sculpture showing a family scene of a woman sitting and a standing man and two children

Family Group (1945) is a stylistic bridge between the works in Moore's The Rescue drawings and Prométhée. Collection: Tate. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation Archive, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

The book Prométhée was launched in 1951, containing Moore’s drawings and typography and the exhibition's inclusion of his sketchbook for the project shows his stylistic experiments.

In the original story Prometheus was portrayed as a horribly tormented figure, being tied to a rock with his liver being pecked out by birds. Moore recasts him as a noble figure - someone who had stolen fire from the gods to help mankind without thought of the punishment he might receive from them.

Moore made a total of eight lithographs for Prométhée, along with the cover, title page and letters to start each act. His sketchbooks contain numerous notes to remind him to work his ideas into sculptures in the future.

photo of an abstract metal sculpture reminiscent of a face enclosed by a helmet

Helmet Head No 2 (1950) mirrors forms sketched by Moore for the Prométhée series. Collection: Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Photo: The Henry Moore Foundation Archive, reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

As well as these direct connections there are also general similarities between the finished lithographs and his sculptural work, such as Openwork Head No 2 and Reclining Figure Goujon, both in the sculpture section of the exhibition.

The exhibition, in the Sheep Barn at the Foundation’s Perry Green site, shows an interesting and little-known aspect of Moore’s work, and is surrounded by the Henry Moore Sculpture Park, which can be visited at the same time.

Moore’s adjacent house, Hoglands, has also just been restored and will be open to guided tours from June 1 2007.

Visits to the Henry Moore Foundation must be pre-arranged - call the Perry Green site on 01279 843333 for more details.

All photos © The Henry Moore Foundation. Images must not be reproduced or altered without prior consent from the Henry Moore Foundation.

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