The Women Who Inspired Henry Moore

By Christian House

“I suppose I’ve got a mother complex,” Henry Moore once remarked. For more than half a century, strong women and the family unit were two of Moore’s key themes, a fascination exemplified by two lots offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 19 June. 

The “linchpin of Moore’s large and happy family” was Henry’s mother, Mary, “a woman of exceptional character, energy and determination,” writes Roger Berthoud in The Life of Henry Moore. She was a strong influence on her son and she became something of template for his depiction of women. Her posture was rod-straight and she wore black. One of her grandchildren noted that she had “the kind of dignity that Henry’s figures have”.

We find both dignity and carefree joy in Rocking Chair No. 4: Miniature (1950). At only 15cm in height, this rocking bronze of a woman with her baby is a tactile tribute to maternal love.

“The rocking chair sculptures were done for my daughter Mary as toys which actually rock,” Moore recalled. “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.” They were his only foray into kinetic sculpture and, tellingly, it was his love of family that moved him. 

Moore depicted women as nurturing and protective but also industrious. In his drawing Women Winding Wool (1947), two female figures are pictured balling wool, sitting on benches in a featureless enclosed interior. The work speaks of the timeless toil of women: from cottages to factories to offices.

During the late-1940s, Britain was fixated on family and the home; the drive was to rebuild a civilized society after the horrors of the Second World War. Moore recognized women’s pivotal role in this regeneration just as he had in the trials of the Blitz when he pictured mothers sheltering their children in the stations of the London Underground. More than any other official war artist, Moore captured the conflict from a woman’s perspective. 

Moore was unswervingly loyal to the women in his life, including relatives and contemporaries such as Barbara Hepworth. But, in particular, concerning his wife Irena Radetsky, a painting student at the Royal College of Art, who he married in 1929. He was a one-woman man who loved women. “He was prepared to stay on the leash,” Berthoud notes, “at the other end of which was Irena.”

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