In April 1951 the BBC produced the first ever documentary film for British television about a living artist, and the natural choice was of course Britain’s most celebrated and successful sculptor, Henry Moore. Produced by John Reid, and with a beautifully clipped commentary by Bernard Miles, the documentary looked at Moore’s inspiration and his working practise, and features a number of works in situ in his Perry Green studio, including some of his most beloved works, the Rocking Chair series, which are featured in Sotheby’s Modern & Post-War British Art on 12 June.
Following a number of small Family Group studies made in the late 1940s, from 1947 Moore began to explore the Mother & Child theme through a new motif – the Rocking Chairs. Between 1950 and 1952 Moore produced four varying versions of the subject in bronze, based on a series of drawings made within his Rocking Chair Notebook (1947-48) such as Rocking Chairs: Ideas for Metal Sculpture, 1948, Collection of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and subsequent maquettes in plaster.
The Rocking Chairs – the only kinetic pieces produced during his life – were originally conceived with his young daughter Mary in mind, originally intended as ‘toys’. Photographs show Moore doting on his young daughter and the fact that these works were conceived with her in mind makes them all the more personal and important. The four bronzes (No.1, No.2, No.3 all similar in size and produced in an edition of six, and the fourth, Rocking Chair No.4 – miniature produced on a smaller scale in an edition of nine) capture a heart-felt intimacy between mother and baby, but at the same time the great sense of joy and delighted that parenthood brings, and clearly brought for Moore and his wife.
"The rocking chair sculptures were done for my daughter Mary, as toys which actually rock. I discovered while doing them that the speed of the rocking depended on the curvature of the base and the disposition of the weights and balances of the sculpture, so each of them rocks at a different speed."
Henry Moore, 1968.
As with many of his sculptural ideas, Moore’s ideas for the Rocking Chair series were worked up through a number of drawings and plaster maquettes, including the plaster maquette for Rocking Chair No.3, which is to be featured alongside Rocking Chair No.2 in the June sale of Modern & Post-War British Art.
An artist that had historically favoured direct carving in stone and wood Moore came to fully realise and appreciate the potential that plaster offered in the 1950s, making the Rocking Chair plasters some of the earliest fully realised plaster sculptures. The material had the great advantage of being able to be both carved and modelled, and then once set the surface could be worked (just as it could with stone and wood) and later coloured.
Instead of the fresh, bright white that casting typically resulted in Moore coloured his plasters with toned shellac made from walnut oil that was so reminiscent of his fascination with found natural objects including bones and pebbles.
Moore’s original plasters rarely appear on the market, with the majority held either in The Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green, Hertfordshire, or The Art Gallery of Ontario. As Moore later wrote: "These are not plaster casts; they are plaster originals… they are the actual works that one has done with one’s own hands."
Together the works display the very personal and intimate nature of Moore’s work, and set him apart as one of the greatest of British sculptors.
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