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

About mooreinfocus

This is the official WordPress blog for Moore In Focus: A Friendship in Letters, the University of East Anglia MA Museum Studies final exhibition project for 2014, on display at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

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