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Henry Moore and the Festival of Britain

A black and white photo showing a middle aged man, in shirt and tie, standing in front of an abstract sculpture which depicts a figure reclining

An upcoming sale has put Moore’s Reclining Figure: Festival back in the news, which gave us the perfect excuse to re-work this Archive Story: originally published for the 65th anniversary of the Festival of Britain in 2016.

Henry Moore was approached by the Arts Council of Great Britain to complete a sculpture for the 1951 Festival of Britain. 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.

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.

A black and white photo showing a wire shape, outlining a reclining figure, which is sitting on a wooden work bench
The armature for the large plaster version of the festival piece, inside Moore's Top Studio, Perry Green

Of his technique of using string, Moore said:

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.

In conversation with Alan Wilkinson, 1980

Reed’s 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.

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, but 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 the Archive have some images 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. Since we first issued this Archive Story in 2016, we have discovered this new image during the digitisation of our archive collections, it shows Moore with the plaster for Reclining Figure: Festival circa 1953.

A black and white photo showing the inside of a artist's studio. A middle aged man is standing behind a large plaster sculpture, looking up at the 'head' of the sculpted figure.
Henry Moore in his studio with the large plaster version of 'Reclining Figure: Festival. c.1953

We would love to hear from anyone who has either photographs or film footage of Moore’s work on the South Bank during the Festival of Britain – if you know the whereabouts of any material relating to the Festival please contact us:

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The world’s leading resource on the life and work of Henry Moore, containing publications, correspondence, photographs and exhibition material.

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