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Monday, 20 March 2017

Discover & explore - Henry Moore (Sculpture)

Today's Discover & explore service at St Stephen Walbrook, explored the theme of sculpture through the life and works of Henry Moore. The service was led by Revd Alastair McKay and featured the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields singing Sing joyfully unto God our strength by Byrd, Ascribe greatness by Mary Kirkbride & Mary King, of the dust of the ground by Joshua Pacey (which was premiered in this service), and Tu es Petrus by Duruflé. For the intercessions the congregation were invited to join Alastair by standing at the Henry Moore altar.

The next Discover & explore service is on Monday 27 March at 1.10pm when, together with the Choral Scholars, Sally Muggeridge will explore the theme of gardening through the life and work of Lanning Roper.

Here is Alastair's reflection for this service:

Henry Moore holds a special place in my own life. When I was at school I became interested in sculpture. After some initial dabbling, I eventually undertook carving a piece of granite into the form of a gasping miner. The figure was inspired by one of Henry Moore’s drawings of coal miners from Wheldale Colliery, where his father had worked. These drawings are one of two series commissioned during the Second World War and for which Henry Moore is now well known. The other and better known series is Moore’s wartime drawings of people sheltering from bombing raids in the London Underground. However, receiving such commissions from people in the establishment isn’t something that could have been foreseen if one looks back to Moore’s early life.

Henry Spencer Moore was the sixth of seven children born at the end of the 19th Century in a small mining town in Yorkshire. Like many of the men in the town, his father was a miner and, it appears, a strong personality. As a teenager, young Henry wanted to study art, but his father persuaded him to become a teacher, seeing it as a more reliable career than being an artist. But Henry hated teaching, and took the opportunity to join the army once he turned 18, which led to him being involved in the fighting of the First World War. He later said: “It was in those two years of war that I finally broke away from parental domination, which had been very strong. My old friend, Miss Gostick, found out about ex-servicemen's grants. With her help I applied and received one for the Leeds School of Art. This was understood from the outset merely to be a first step. London was the goal.”

And so it was that, after studying in Leeds, Moore won a scholarship to study sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art in London. He went on to develop his own distinctive style of sculpture, and to rub shoulders with a host of emerging artists, including Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, and others who were part of the British Surrealist movement. Through the course of the 1940s he made a name for himself and established an international reputation, winning the International Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1948. By the 1960s he was publicly recognised in his own country, being awarded the Order of Merit, and when he died in 1986 he was buried in the Artists’ Corner at St Paul’s Cathedral. He is thus probably the best-known British sculptor of the 20th Century.

One of the most striking things about Henry Moore’s work as a sculptor is it’s confinement to relatively few themes. Over three quarters of all his work is covered by two themes: the Reclining Figure, and the Mother and Child. Moore concentrated on these with an almost obsessional intensity. A fine example of his Reclining Figures can be found on Hampstead Heath, in the gardens of Kenwood House. It’s a sculpture which I enjoy visiting when I go for walks there with my wife. It displays classic features of Moore’s mature work: a huge scale, designed to be sited outside, and with simplified and abstracted parts of the body; so although it broadly hints at a female figure, it’s also suggestive of rocks, cliffs and caves, all things you might see in a landscape. I think it’s noteworthy that Moore picked up stones, pebbles, shells and bits of wood on his walks in the countryside, and used their shapes and textures to inspire his sculptures. He said: “I’ve found the principles of form and rhythm from the study of natural objects … pebbles and rocks show nature’s way of working stone.” And this can be seen clearly in this amazing piece of rock that now sits in the centre of St Stephen Walbrook.

The idea for a new altar table at St Stephen’s emerged in the late 1960s when Chad Varah was the Rector. It came during a time when the church was undertaking renovations to repair bomb damage from World War II. The desire was to replace the 17th Century altar table on the wall behind me, at which the priest stood with his back to the congregation in celebrating the Eucharist. In the 1960s, the congregation felt that this kept God at a distance, and no longer expressed the all-present nature of the God that they worshipped and served. So in responding to this new commission, 300 years after the church had been designed by Christopher Wren, the sculptor Henry Moore conceived a centrally-placed marble altar. 

By carving a round altar table with forms cut into the circular sides, Moore appealed to Old Testament ideas of an altar. Moore suggested that a stone at the centre of the church could reflect the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. This is the rock seen as commemorating the sacrificial offering of Isaac by Abraham. And that sacrificial offering in turn is seen as prefiguring the sacrificial death of Jesus, which we remember in the celebration of the Eucharistic meal. It’s thus the place designed for people to gather as a community around the altar table, where God is found at the centre. And for me, therefore it speaks to the recurring theme in Jewish and Christian scriptures, that God is the Rock, the one who stands at the centre, and on whom we can always depend. So this stone table ultimately points us to our faithful God, the true Rock whose work is perfect, and whose ways are just. And it is from this rock, as Christian disciples and children of Abraham, that we ourselves are hewn.


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