Henry Moore at Osborne Samuel

Benedict Read: What I particularly like about the show is that the exhibits are all works for domestic settings.

Peter Osborne: Yes, we often see exhibitions which focus on large Moore sculptures, but I wanted to concentrate on his smaller work, because that’s where his creativity began. Nothing started on that large scale, everything started in the palm of his hand and I wanted to explore that with these smaller scale pieces and the contemporary photographs by Gemma Levine. What is particularly exciting is that many of these drawings and sculptures have never been exhibited publicly before.

You can get so much from a little work. These pieces should be looked at closely.

Yes, it’s the tactility; I really want people to feel what Henry Moore felt, to see what he was doing and to see where his fingers and thumbs went and the way he pushed and moulded and scraped.

And he would have been scraping the plaster knowing that it was going to become bronze…

That is the essence of the exhibition, what I was really trying to focus on was Henry Moore the maker and his use and range of materials. Among the exhibits are drawings; one of the only two woodcuts Moore ever made; an important early linocut, Dancing Figures (1921), a design for an architectural frieze; a beautiful carving in walnut and sculptures in bronze, lead and cast concrete. It is this rich variety of smaller scale works in different materials that sets the tone of the exhibition.

How did you manage to put such an interesting and fresh exhibition together?

We are fortunate in having eight drawings which have never been exhibited before. These have come directly from the collection of Betty Howarth, Moore’s sister. They include two interesting early works, student works, not typical of his later style. The Violinist which according to family tradition was one of his acceptance pieces for Leeds College of Art in 1919, and demonstrates the influence of the illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley. This drawing was possibly also a little tongue in cheek because Moore’s father wanted him to concentrate on playing the violin, but he wanted to pursue a career in art. The second early drawing, Couple Embracing (1920) again shows Moore still experimenting with different styles.

The other Howarth drawings are more familiar in style and recognisable as Moore and interestingly I see the collection also includes a small sculpture of a baby’s head in cast concrete.

Yes, it is in fact one of the earliest recorded Henry Moore sculptures and is a portrait of his nephew, Peter. It was given by Moore to his sister Betty together with a 1922 drawing of Peter as a baby. When her son, Peter died in the Second World War, the sculpture was wrapped up in a woolly hat, put in a cupboard and was never seen since, until we came along. It is remarkable, it is a very figurative piece and not in that sense a typical Henry Moore, but all the same, it is an important addition to the scholarship and our knowledge about what Moore was doing at that time. 

Also in the Betty Howarth collection was a group of life drawings done in London, one of which is a seated nude portrait of Moore’s wife Irina, and some studies for sculpture drawings typical of his early work. Even in the early 1930s he was busy filling page after page of sketch-books with ideas for sculptures. The Betty Howarth collection was an important element of the exhibition and David Mitchinson in the catalogue essay writes very well about the family association, the stories and how Moore got on with his sister. It is very unusual that a group of drawings such as this disappeared off the map and was not seen for 70 odd years after they were done.

Do you think there might be other similar caches of family drawings? That is what really arouses my curiosity.

I think that it is very likely, Ben, it really is. And there are other previously undiscovered works in the exhibition. Jumping ahead to the 1950s, Maquette for Openwork Head No.2 is also a new discovery which was once in the Robert von Hirsch collection in Switzerland. Von Hirsch gave each member of his family, however distant, one small sculpture before he put his whole collection into auction. It was one of the most famous, massive auctions which set the bar for big prices for modern art. The Openwork Head, which is a unique cast, was in a collection in Gloucestershire and it had been there ever since it was given by von Hirsch, together with a drawing.

And a von Hirsch relative owned it?

I think the owner was a great-niece and when she went to live in Australia (she has subsequently returned), she lent it to the Portsmouth Museum. The loan made the national press and Henry Moore was quoted saying how delighted he was that works which had been in private hands were being lent to museums. So that was another new discovery, with a story attached.

Once we had secured that and the Betty Howarth collection it became logical for us to build the exhibition around works which were either new discoveries or important or significant, or where there were stories to be told. 

And then there was the rediscovery of Helmet (1950) your pride and joy.

Yes, Helmet is my pride and joy, simply because it is an exciting discovery and the only time I have been able to rewrite the book. Drawings are discovered quite often, but sculpture only very rarely, because the records are so good and because of your father’s contribution to that. The books were written way back in the very early days in the 30s and 40s and then updated; the Lund Humphries publication has occasional inaccuracies but not omissions.

Helmet is also unusual as it was one of a group of heads cast in lead, a medium Moore seldom used. Although there are rumours he started using it in the late 30s with Bernard Meadows and they took his wife, Irina’s pans and melted them down. Apparently she was furious.

Lead is an unusual material for Moore, which makes the discovery of Helmet all the more exciting. Sometimes lead was used as the matrix for bronze casting, but it is a very unpleasant and dangerous material to work with – the fumes are poisonous.

So how did you come by the piece?

We were contacted by a lady in America, who said she had a Henry Moore which she would like us to look at. We met in the lobby of a hotel in New York and she produced a shopping bag. In it was a base for a Henry Moore sculpture, but without the associated sculpture, and also Helmet with a base and that was all we had to go on. She told us a rather strange story about a damaged sculpture being replaced, but the base being kept and the sculpture sent back to England. There was a label underneath the base of Helmet which gave us some clues. It read BRITISH COUNCIL ARTS DEPARTMENT…EXHIBITION and you could just make out enough to conclude that it read Scandinavia. With a little bit of research, we established that Henry Moore had indeed exhibited in a British Council touring exhibition in Scandinavia in 1951-52.

I went straight from New York to the art fair in Maastricht, where I was talking to a Swedish lady and there was a young person with her, a student, who kept asking me quite detailed questions about Henry Moore. I asked how she knew so much about the sculptor and she said she was doing a PhD at Loughborough on Henry Moore in Scandinavia, so I immediately thought she would be the perfect person to help with the research. I had a photograph of Helmet on my phone and asked whether she could be of any assistance. Five minutes later, she sent me a photograph of the installation of the exhibition in Sweden and there was our Helmet displayed alongside the other one.

And so we had a photograph of both of the Helmet heads and neither were properly recorded by the Foundation, who didn’t know they existed; but we had got correspondence, the manifest of the exhibition, a copy of the exhibition list and under no. 20 on the list was Två Hjälmar (Two Helmets) and in brackets next to no. 20 the word bly which is the Swedish for lead, so we knew we were looking at lead sculptures and the story was complete.

We submitted everything to the Foundation, who thought about it for a bit and then agreed that we were right. This means that the beginning of volume two of the sculpture book is going to have to be restructured because their assumptions about the ownership, the size and the subject are incorrect and will have to be changed. Fortunately the very first volume two, which was abandoned when Lund Humphries and the Bowness numbering system took over, has much more information about this than the actual published volume. It shouldn’t, but it does, and that has made me think that one needs to go back through the first editions of those early volumes again, because I think there could well be other discoveries to be made along these lines, which for whatever reason got lost when the new numbering system and presentation and publishing took place. So that is our exciting discovery and of course that has now been transferred from this exhibition to Masterpiece, because the show is all about pieces like that.

And is it yours to sell?

Yes, it is mine to sell. In this case, the family who owned it, the descendants of Ann Zwinger who bought it and to whom it is dedicated on the base by Henry Moore, were prepared to sell it, and we got it just in time for the show. I would be happy to keep it for years so that we can tell the story to everybody and take it to exhibitions and show it.

Moore’s Helmet heads are an interesting group in terms of composition.

Yes, I am interested in the concept of the helmet head which is not so far removed from the abstracted idea of a child where the mother is represented by an external cloak wrapping round and protecting the child inside. And there are elements of warrior heads and similar concepts behind Moore’s families, his groupings are often characterised by the cave-like idea where the internal element is protected, such as the internal and external forms, which he did in the 70s and 80s.

We are very keen on Henry Moore’s heads and if we hadn’t got the Howarth collection we might have gone for a reworking of ‘Heads, Figures and Ideas’ which was a great subject for an exhibition and really focus closely on his heads, because you learn so much. They are like close-ups of larger sculpture so you really get to see his thought process and particularly the modelling process, which I think is so important and show how he worked through his ideas.

In terms of other important works, Composition 1933  is surely the star of the show? How often do classic works like this appear on the market?

Yes, it is such an important piece, the highlight of the exhibition. Works like this hardly ever appear on the market.

How did you manage to get it? How did you persuade the owner not to send it to auction?

With great difficulty and an enormous amount of money – it was as simple as that. I spent more money on that than I have ever spent on any Moore before, because I absolutely had to have it for the exhibition, for the cover and for the press.

Ben, your father was significant at the time of the Unit One period, when this piece was carved and Moore was developing surrealist tendencies. Moore joined Nash’s group, together with Hepworth and the others, and this is, if you like, his submission. This is the piece which characterised for him an art movement. It would surely have been in the recent Tate show but the curators were unable to find it in time! We found the family who owned it and purchased it because it is such an important and iconic work.

And there is more control over where a piece actually goes, if it is not auctioned. Should it go to a public collection?

Yes that’s right. I really hope it will go to the Tate. I have sold it, but under the condition that it will still be the centrepiece of the exhibition and that the new owner at the very least will consider a long term loan. So this piece is going to be visible. It doesn’t have to be Tate, but Tate Britain would be the obvious place for it because their collection of Moore’s work from that period is second to none. Composition 1933 has had more written about it than any other Henry Moore I have ever had. It is a more significant piece and very unusual, just because of the material – Henry Moore did very little in walnut. It is such a beautiful carving.

And in very good condition…

Yes, it has been very well looked after. There’s hardly a blemish on it, although walnut is not the hardest of woods. If it had been tapped, it would show marks like the big Corsehill stone we bought at Sothebys. That was a carving which used to be owned by Sophia Loren and there is a photograph of Sophia and her husband with Henry Moore at the Foundation together with the carving. She has her hand behind the sculpture and she was wearing an enormous ring on that hand, so I took the photograph and walked around the sculpture when I was viewing at Sothebys and you could actually see the dent in the sculpture caused by her ring, the stone was so soft. You have to be so careful with these materials.

Were there any other works you were particularly keen to include in the exhibition?

I really wanted Mother and Child(1953) for the show because it takes Moore in a different direction, quite a radical different direction. It has the feel of Picasso. It was never enlarged, and apart from drawings, he never did anything like it again. In his own words, he is highlighting that the relationship of a mother and child, which one could assume was always typified by joy, happiness and intimacy, wasn’t always like that. This is the child that bites the hand that feeds her. Mary, his daughter, was five years old at the time. I sold the sculpture a long time ago and it has been sitting in an apartment in New York, but I wanted that in the gallery window for the show. I wanted the minute that people walked in the door for them to think differently about what they were going to see.

I also wanted to have the bronze of the Time-Life Screen because the Time-Life building is at the end of Bruton Street and we send people to look at the relief on the building.

Apart from the sculptures, you are exhibiting a wide, impressive range of studies for sculpture drawings.

Composition 1933 was the centrepiece of the exhibition and we then developed the story through various drawings, some of which are studies for sculpture, and sculptures of the 1930s and 40s.

We have the study drawing and two bronze Madonna and Child (1943) sculptures for the Claydon Madonna which was a commission from Sir Jasper Ridley, who lost his son during the war. Moore not only made a headstone, but also made a brown Hornton stone, Madonna and Child (1948-49) for the Parish Church of St. Peter’s in Claydon, Suffolk where Ridley’s son was buried. He made a series of terracotta studies, these two were cast in bronze and were bought from him at the time. They have been in the family ever since, so there is a personal connection to Moore with these sculptures.

We also exhibited the bronze family groups from the 1940s next to the study drawings. These told the story of the relationship of the drawings to the sculptures, but we have had to break these up now because some of the works have been transferred to Masterpiece.

We have a blitz drawing and a wonderful shelter drawing never before seen publicly, the owner had had it for around 70 years and had never shown it. Also miner drawings which, in my opinion, are very underrated and I think not nearly as well-known as the traditional shelter drawings.

One drawing which I am particularly pleased to have is The Three Fates, or Women Winding Wool, with echos of the great post war sculpture at Battersea Park. We found it in America, it is a big, dramatic sheet dating from 1948 and is one of the best Moore drawings I have ever had.

One strongly coloured drawing is quite unusual for works of the late 1940s and it is interesting because it is a study for a lithograph which was never realised. They did two or three state proofs of it but it was just too difficult, they didn’t have the resources, the materials or the paper so the project was abandoned, but Moore did this quite complex and detailed drawing for it. It is a lovely perfectly harmonious composition; the essence of the family group and the connection in each case between the figures. That’s now at Masterpiece too.

Can I ask, you have a terrific collection of Moore works, do you hoard them?

Well, preparing an exhibition like this is the biggest challenge we have ever had. We do Chadwick and other modern British painters and sculptors going back years, but we have never taken on a project as ambitious as this. So we do several things; we borrow what we can, we buy what we have to, we ask other people to buy for us what we can’t afford, notably Composition 1933, which a friend has funded for me, and we borrow from fellow dealers. We have a good arrangement with top British dealers, we lend to them and they lend to us. We pre-sell if we have to, in other words we just can’t afford to hoard for long enough otherwise we wouldn’t be able to run the rest of the business. Some pieces were sold last year, subject to inclusion in this show, so going back over two years we were pre-planning, which can be disappointing for visitors to the exhibition who fall in love with a work only to be told it is already sold, but that’s the way of the world.

We have been approached by museums who would like to take this show. It would be perfect for museums like Pallant House or Abbot Hall, but sadly Osborne Samuel just can’t do it alone because some of exhibits have been sold and others have to go back to their owners. We do work with museums, we put on a Chadwick show with Abbot Hall last summer for the centenary.

No show a commercial gallery puts on is perfect – it can’t be. We have to mould what we can get into a credible framework and try to add something. I have borrowed from the Foundation in the past, but this show we did all ourselves. There aren’t that many galleries left doing this kind of specialist exhibition, but we are still putting on the shows and ploughing ahead.

Main image: Henry Moore, Composition 1933, walnut wood 35.56×23×15cm.(photo: courtesy of Osborne Samuel)

Aurora Corio