In Henry Moore, the British Council had one of its staunchest friends and allies. Interviewed by the BBC’s Barry Penrose in 1976, Moore remarked ‘the British Council did more for me as an artist that any dealer’; an intense programme of exhibitions in all parts of the world – from New Zealand to Jamaica, Iceland to Iran – indicatesthat no artist was more powerfully promoted by the Council.
The special role played by the British Council’s Fine Arts Department in establishing Moore’s international reputation was well acknowledged by the artist. In 1979, when the very existence of the Council was threatened by a series of draconian financial cuts, he was strident in its defence.
In a rousing personal letter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Moore expressed his indebtedness:
All these large one-man shows of my work could not have taken place without the essential help of the British Council – in consequence, and fortunately for me, my work is well known outside England.
Henry Moore, letter to Margaret Thatcher, 10 November 1979
It is now seventy years since the British Council first sent Moore’s work overseas. In 1943, two drawings, Idea for a Sculpture in Wood and Two Figures, were part of a mixed exhibition in Brazil. In that same year, further works were transported across the submarine- infested Atlantic to New York for Moore’s first solo exhibition in North America. It is an association that proved enduring and which marked a significant change in the circumstances and profile of the artist.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Henry Moore was already 41 and his career had been slow to take off; his exhibition profile comprised eight exhibitions in England and one international showing at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Although, in his middle years, Moore was highly respected by fellow artists and by certain clear-eyed critics, his name still triggered extraordinary outbursts and sensational headlines. As it follows, some officials within the British Council felt that the organisation was taking too great a risk in selecting Moore as Britain’s representative. The biographer Roger Berthoud quotes a deliciously venomous review of a Council organised exhibition in Belgium:
Tiriri, zaboum, crolabulito, pim, pom, warzibou, calatalatolacristoli – imagine a whole novel written in this gibberish … and that it had been sent abroad officially to give a small idea of our national talents … these words are to literature what Henry Moore is to plastic arts … these giant vermicelli, these iguana collarbones, these gorilla sketches, in a word this polished and glacial charnel house.[i]
The policy of the Council’s Fine Arts Department to concentrate its energies on the exhibition of contemporary art, often in the face of criticism and opposition, was vindicated and symbolised by their championship of Henry Moore. In 1947 an exhibition of 36 sculptures and 33 drawings toured to five cities in Australia. Charles Wilmot, the Council’s Representative in Canberra, provided an uncompromising statement of the Council’s policy:
Henry Moore is widely regarded as one of the most vitally creative figures in British Art today. As usually happens with the products of imaginative genius, his work will raise controversy. So much the better.
In the following year, after the interregnum of the war, the Venice Biennale resumed and in the British Pavilion, programmed by the Council, the challenging sculptures of Moore were paired with paintings by Britain’s great ‘Old Master’, Turner. In an event which the artist defined as decisive, Moore was awarded the International Sculpture Prize. From this time recognition, honours and, above all, British Council exhibitions freely flowed. Indeed, there has barely been a year since the end of the Second World War without a Council organised Moore exhibition in circulation around the globe.
Exhibition highlights include a display of 65 sculptures and 32 drawings that toured to Tokyo in the autumn of 1969; this was the first major solo exhibition by a British artist in Japan and one of the first attractions of the city’s new Museum of Modern Art.
In Iran in 1972, an exhibition of Moore’s drawings and sculpture formed part of the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. Queen Farah attended the opening in Tehran, attracting great publicity and securing important sales for the artist. Farah bought four substantial bronzes, now on display at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
The British Council also took responsibility for the biggest of all Moore exhibitions. 600 works, divided almost equally between sculpture and works-on-paper, toured to Madrid, Lisbon and Barcelona in 1981. This was the first major exhibition devoted to a living foreign artist since Franco’s death in 1975 and nearly 400,000 people attended the exhibition over three months. Large Figure in a Shelter, the last monumental work produced during Moore’s lifetime, was subsequently installed in what is now the Parque de los pueblos de Europa at Guernica.
Through the efforts and support of the British Council, Moore’s work served to boost Britain’s image abroad and the Council served to boost Moore’s profile and earnings. Civic purchases of big bronzes followed in the wake of many a touring Council exhibition, with a review in a 1965 edition of the New Yorker pointing to a ‘correlation between public ownership and the density of British Council exhibitions. German city states now vie with each other in owning Moores’. (December 18, 1965)
In more recent times, the British Council collaborated with the Henry Moore Foundation and the China International Exhibition Agency to realise the artist’s first significant showing in China, with 118 sculptures touring to three cities in 2000 and 2001. With 12 monumental bronzes sited in Beihai Park, Beijing, this was the first time western art had been shown in a former Imperial park. The bronzes were viewed by literally millions over a six month period and provided the essential photo opportunity for Chinese locals.
In 2012, another landmark exhibition brought exceptional works to the Kremlin Museums in Moscow. From early carvings in stone, wood, marble (even two in stalactite), through drawings to later iconic sculptures of the 1980s, the exhibition was also a rare chance to see three of Moore's stunning large-scale tapestries outside of his former home, Perry Green.
Over this period, touring exhibitions of Moore’s graphic works have also proved extremely popular – a programme enhanced by the generosity of the artist. In 1984, on the occasion of the Council’s 50th anniversary, Moore gifted over 200 of his finest prints to the British Council Collection. Moore wrote:
It gives me much pleasure to present these works for the British Council’s 50th Birthday. My graphic work has often been an introduction to many people who have gone on to look at sculpture. I am very pleased that they will now be out on exhibition with the British Council, being seen by so many people around the world.
This tribute, which covered most periods of the artist’s works from the 1940s, was selected to complement the Council’s existing collection of 124 Moore prints. An additional portfolio Mother and Child was donated in October 1989.
The Council first began to purchase works by Moore for its permanent Collection in the 1940s, and all works were acquired directly from the artist. Because the Collection was buying before Moore achieved international fame, it was fortunate to be able to acquire several rare, early carvings in addition to bronzes, drawings and graphics. The very first sculpture to enter the Collection was Moore’s Girl with Clasped Hands, 1930, an alabaster carving purchased for £250. The British Council Collection now includes carvings, bronzes (including the monumental Woman, 1957), bronze maquettes, drawings and graphics.
The demand for exhibitions of Henry Moore’s work remains ever strong; circulating exhibitions are a demonstration not only of artistic virtuosity, but also an opportunity to stimulate interest in local art, in exhibition strategies and the value of art education. The British Council Collection – in its modern and contemporary holdings, its touring exhibitions and education programmes – continues to forge links between Britain and other countries, and to encourage collaboration between British and international artists and institutions. The patronage of Henry Moore set both a precedent for this activity and a mandate for the future:
If the Council continues to support young artists in the way it has supported me in the last thirty years – many of our painters and sculptors will benefit from its practical help and will bring credit to the cultural life of our country.
Henry Moore, letter to Margaret Thatcher, 10 November 1979
[i] Libre Belgique, 14 0ctober 1949, cited in Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore, Faber & Faber, London, 1987.