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Henry Moore and the Festival of Britain

Our archive team take a look at Moore’s links with the 1951 Festival of Britain, a celebration held to promote British art, culture and science in the postwar period.

Henry Moore was approached by the Arts Council of Great Britain to complete a sculpture for the festival. Sadly, no formal correspondence regarding the invitation to display a work survives in our archive.

It is likely that most of the communication on the matter was conducted via telephone calls, as was common with important arrangements in Moore’s office in Hoglands. Telephone conversations saved the artist’s time, and ultimately allowed him to be in the studio for as long as possible.

Armature for the large plaster version of 'Reclining Figure: Festival', inside Moore's Top Studio at Perry Green.
The plaster version of Henry Moore's 'Reclining Figure: Festival', photographed in Moore's studio at Perry Green.

Initially Moore was asked to contribute a carving, but it was decided that a bronze would be more suitable for an outdoor site.

The creation of Moore’s sculpture, later named Reclining Figure: Festival, with its unusual surface decoration of string to define the form, was captured on film by producer John Read during the filming of the 1951 documentary Henry Moore.

The BBC film is essential viewing for anyone wanting to see the development of a small scale Moore work to a monumental sculpture. From handheld maquette to large plaster, the process of making the armature and layering plaster of Paris with a trowel is shown in detail; the camera shows close-ups of Moore’s hands busy at work.

This ground-breaking programme was the very first on British television about a living artist and was first shown on 30 April 1951, just three days before the Festival of Britain was formally opened to the public, in a worldwide radio broadcast by His Majesty King George VI from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.

“This [the use of surface] does come from the drawings. I don’t’ know if there’s anybody else who has used this kind of invention, but I invented at one stage a shorthand way of trying to show in a drawing the sectional line, the form, the shape, without doing shading…

“At one stage I thought the sculpture was a little bit, what, well I was dissatisfied with the shape being shown as clearly as I wanted and so I used this drawing not trick, but method idea on the sculpture and the strings had to be thin enough not to disrupt or confuse the surface. I mean you couldn’t put a thick rope over.

“Cotton was a bit too thin, and so I used very thin string. And to some extent I think it does add an interest and form, it does give the shape more insistence than it would do on an absolutely plain surface.”

Henry Moore, in conversation with Alan Wilkinson, c.1980

Henry Moore with an additional cast of 'Reclining Figure: Festival' 1951. Photo: Horste Tappe.
The original cast of Henry Moore's 'Reclining Figure: Festival' 1951, at its current site outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

After the festival ended, famously, the site was completely cleared.

Moore subsequently agreed that further casts could be made of his sculpture, which were duly made and sold.

The original cast of Reclining Figure: Festival eventually came to reside in the public collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, where it can still be seen adorning the front entrance of the impressive sandstone building.

Although there are some images in the Henry Moore Archive of Reclining Figure: Festival in situ on the South Bank site, we do not have many.

Perhaps because the focus of photographer’s images was on the spectacular buildings, such as the Dome of Discovery and Skylon, Moore’s sculpture was not captured in its site by the main entrance.

Unusually, there is also very little press coverage – and nothing we can lay our hands on that confirm that Moore attended the site in person.

We would love to hear from anyone who has either photographs or film footage of Moore’s work on the South Bank.

If you know the whereabouts of any material relating to the Festival please contact us:

Henry Moore's 'Reclining Figure: Festival' in situ for the Festival of Britain on the South Bank, London, 1951.

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