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Archive Lives, Part 1: Documenting Women's Sculptural Practices in Britain, 1939-1960

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

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Archive Lives explores the experiences of women working in sculpture during the wartime and immediate post-war period.

This exhibition is the first of two displays which showcase the important holdings relating to women in both the Leeds Sculpture Collections and Archive of Sculptors’ Papers.

One of the major hurdles to researching women’s contribution to the field of sculpture is the lack of accessible archival material. The Archive of Sculptors’ Papers, which is developed and managed by the Henry Moore Institute in a unique partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries, provides an important resource in this area, housing personal papers, photographs and sketchbooks for over twenty women including Mitzi Cunliffe, Betty Rea, Shelagh Cluett and Helen Chadwick.

Archive Lives focuses on five sculptors working in Britain between 1939 and 1960, examining the historical, social and political conditions in which they lived and practiced. Mitzi Cunliffe (1918-2006), Daphne Hardy Henrion (1917-2003), Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), Ghisha Koenig (1921-93) and Betty Rea (1904-65) were all born between 1900 and 1921. While each artist worked across different styles, materials and practices – ranging from abstraction to social realism, concrete to terracotta and casting to carving – as peers they nonetheless lived and worked through the same historical moment. Several of the artists were members of the same exhibiting groups and societies, participating in common group exhibitions such as those held by the Artists International Association and the Society for Education in Art’s Pictures for Schools scheme. Four of the five sculptors were commissioned to produce new work for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Others found themselves working in educational contexts for local education authorities and universities as part of the boom in public sculpture which accompanied the building of schools, housing estates and New Towns in the early post-war moment.

Exploring these lines of connection, the works in Archive Lives form four thematic groupings, exploring women’s experience of war, the figure of the industrial worker, art produced for educational settings and the role of public sculpture in the post-war period. Acknowledging a diversity of practices, including those situated outside the traditional gallery setting, the exhibition seeks to develop a more complex picture of women’s sculptural production across a period of two decades.

This exhibition forms the first of two displays programmed alongside the Henry Moore Institute Research Season Researching Women in Sculpture, which runs from March to September 2022.

Researching Women in Sculpture


Researching Women in Sculpture reflects upon women’s contribution to the field of sculpture, investigating archival and collecting practices that have historically obscured work by women and suggesting strategies for how these might be addressed moving forward.


Find out more about this Research Season