Alternate Concept Retrospective – Moore in Focus: Shelter Drawings and the Experience of War

What might have been

Moore in Focus: A Friendship in Letters was one of two exhibition concepts which the MA Museum Studies team developed in January and February of 2014. The other proposal was Moore in Focus: Shelter Drawings and the Experience of War, a redisplay of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art’s collection of Moore’s famous wartime sketches. Although it was not used, everyone involved agreed that the concept was excellent in itself and worth sharing through our blog. We hope you enjoy this insight into the development process.

During the first semester of our MA course, the Museum Studies team considered the exhibition possibilities offered by the SCVA collections. The idea of using the Henry Moore works in the collection stood out in particular. We realised that we had the opportunity to work with pieces from an internationally renowned artist, an experience which would be very valuable for us as students. By consulting with members of the SCVA staff we learned about the material held in the Sainsbury Research Unit archive – this led to the A Friendship in Letters concept. By considering the surrounding context – the centenary of World War 1, the seventieth anniversary of D-Day and the Monument exhibition being developed to commemorate these events – we were also able to develop the Shelter Drawings concept. Other embryonic ideas which we decided not to take further included an investigation into the history of artistic patronage (mediated through the relationship between Henry Moore and Sir Robert Sainsbury) and an analysis of Henry Moore’s creative process from concept to finished statue.

The nine person team split into two groups to work on the two possible projects. We produced formal proposal documents laying out the concept behind each exhibition, the works and materials involved, its potential benefits to the SCVA and its relevance to the centre’s other ongoing projects.

We also put together PowerPoint presentations which we presented to our course tutors and colleges in the Sainsbury Institute for Arts (SIFA) at the end of February. After deliberating, the staff decided to go ahead with the A Friendship in Letters concept. A Friendship in Letters was chosen primarily because it involves material which has never been displayed (or even properly studied) before, meaning that it would create a lasting legacy for the institute. Our tutors also advised us that the letters project would be involve more research work on our part and more opportunities to liaise with partner organisations (such as the Henry Moore Foundation, who kindly hosted us at Moore’s home at Perry Green and provided some of the material you’ll see on display as part of the exhibition).

The Shelter Drawings

The shelter drawings were produced during World War 2, during the blitz bombing raids on London. At the start of the war London had inadequate air raid provisions for the inner city population; some people were able to take cover in purpose built bomb shelters but large numbers (especially among the most poor) had to take cover on London Underground platforms. Henry Moore encountered these people by chance on the night of September 11th, 1940, while returning home from a dinner party with his wife Irena. The scene Moore encountered on the station platform fascinated him. Sleeping figures, wrapped in blankets, lying alongside strangers, in cavernous spaces – all around he saw his artistic themes and ideas brought to life by real bodies and real space. Later in life he would recall that everywhere he looked he saw dozens of Henry Moore reclining figure statues stretched across the platform.

Initially published in a selection of London newspapers, the shelter drawings proved immensely popular. Moore was soon contacted by Kenneth Clark, the noted art historian and author, who during the war served as chairman of the War Artist’s Advisory Committee. Clark was able to persuade Henry Moore to become an official war artist, and for a year he was able to focus entirely on the shelter drawing project. The shelter drawings were displayed in the National Galleryto further public acclaim and by the end of the war Henry Moore had gone from being a little known sculptor to a being a household name. It was this fame which brought him the many public sculpture commissions which he is so famous for today.

Through his drawings Henry Moore captured the mood of the shelters while allowing an understanding of the empathy he felt for the individuals confined within. Moore resolved to use the themes evoked by these drawings as a reaction to not only the poor conditions of the shelters, but effectively as a protest to the effects of war as a whole.

Unfortunately we cannot display any of the SCVA’s collection of shelter drawings directly on our blog, but you can find them though our online catalogue at



Hello and welcome to, the official blog for Moore in Focus: a Friendship in Letters. Here you’ll find information about this exciting display project underway at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, Norfolk, as well as behind-the-scenes insights into the development process.

Lead image

Robert Sainsbury and Henry Moore with Bird Form II, c. 1979. ITV Anglia. Sainsbury Research Unit Archives. University of East Anglia, with kind permission from the Henry Moore Foundation.


The most remarkable things get recorded in a letter. A short note to a friend can say little but mean everything. This exhibition invites you into the friendship which in so many ways shaped the inspiring collection and iconic building that comprises the Sainsbury Centre, that of Sir Robert Sainsbury and Lisa, Lady Sainsbury and the great Modernist artist Henry Moore.

On display for the first time, the show features a selection of personal correspondence between the Sainsburys and Moore, including letters, postcards, photographs and an audio recording, carefully preserved in the Sainsbury Research Unit Archive since its donation to the University. Both high-profile public figures, the correspondence reveals the humble nature of Robert and Henry and their families; in one postcard Moore hints at his glee at being away from the parties thrown for him by the Tate Gallery,  the men quip about the trials of shaving, and Sainsbury delightedly supplies his friend with the latest school report of his son David, who was also Moore’s godson.

What began as a simple exchange between patron and artist developed into an important relationship which lasted over fifty years. Acting as a window onto the rest of the collection, the correspondence demonstrates the way in which the Sainsburys’ taste in art developed with the aid of Moore, embracing the beauty of world art, and establishing one of Britain’s most exciting University museums.

Friendship in the beginning
The relationship between Sir Robert Sainsbury and Henry Moore began with an act of patronage, akin to the many others that formed the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. It was at Moore’s third solo show in 1933 that Sainsbury purchased Mother and Child and in a spirit of celebration, the two men went to lunch. For Moore, the sale represented half of his salary for that entire year, and for Sainsbury, the most he had ever spent on his passion for art to date. This was the start of a fifty year friendship in which Moore was to become important to the lives of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, both artistically and personally.

A transnational friendship
Moore was one of the first truly international artists, jetting across Europe and America to open exhibitions of his own works and relax on continental holidays from the late 1940s. The Sainsburys could expect a postcard from Moore and his wife Irina each year, and a particular favourite holiday spot for the family became Forte dei Marmi, a seaside town in northern Tuscany. After visiting the stone quarries of Forte dei Marmi several times, Henry and Irina bought a cottage there in 1965 and from then on it became customary for the Moores to send an annual postcard ‘with love’ from Italy.

Friendship in the press
Two years after Moore’s death in 1988, Channel 4 broadcast England’s Henry Moore, a documentary portraying Moore in a less than flattering light. Robert Sainsbury was so outraged by this public discrediting of his friend that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, published on 24th September 1988. Numerous people wrote in thanks to Sir Robert, agreeing that the programme presented an unfair picture of the late artist, but what prevails from this controversy is the exchange between Sir Robert and Irina Moore. True to the austere life that Irina and Henry lived, she replied simply: ‘I watched the film but did not like it… Thank you for writing to me’.

The building of friendships
When Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury began collecting art, they displayed it proudly around their house in Smith Square, London. But as time progressed and their collection grew they decided that it could be better housed in a public building where it could be used for study and appreciated by all. They chose the University of East Anglia, and the then little known architect Norman Foster to create the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Those sculptures created by Moore became some of the central axes around which the Sainsburys’ large collection would fit. Moore was consulted in  placing the large outdoor sculptures that still surround the Centre, and is featured prominently in the publications made for the opening of the Centre and in the Anglia Television documentary The Gift.