Henry Moore Textiles

It has been a very busy week! But one of its real highlights was visiting the newly refurbished Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh with my friend Melanie, and seeing their superb exhibition of Henry Moore’s textiles. Looking at his designs, and the 1940s upholstery and clothing fashioned from them, I got about as excited as I’ve ever been in an exhibition space. I’ve been thinking about, and experimenting with, fabric printing, and Moore’s notebooks and swatches made me consider process in a very different way. And his designs — structural, energetic, and surprisingly colourful — are also wonderful, democratic works of art.

(Barbed wire. Ascher c.1946. © Henry Moore Foundation.)

Moore’s little-known textile designs really capture his socialist principles. For he felt that art should also be the everyday, might be appreciated by all, and could enrich everyone’s experience of both domestic and public space. Many of his designs feature abstractions of the small wonders of industrial design — the humble safety pin, for example — and celebrate modern daily life in a manner both exuberant and idiosyncratic.

(Treble clef, Zigzag, and Oval Safety Pins. Ascher 1946-7. Ascher Collection. © Henry Moore Foundation)

Moore produced many of these textiles for Czech exile Zika Ascher when war-time travel restrictions separated him from work on his large sculptures. Though the scale and medium of the designs could not be further from that of Moore’s enormous bronzes, the particular techniques he used, as well as the repeating motifs on Ascher’s finished rayon fabric, show a highly sculptural approach to form.

(Family Group. Bronze Maquette and headscarf. 1945. Photograph Matt Pia. © Henry Moore Foundation)

Moore used a combination of wax crayons, pen and ink, gouache, and different watercolour washes to draw out and highlight his designs. The finished effect, when transferred by Ascher into screen-printed motifs, is full of depth and texture. Both Melanie and I were transfixed by Moore’s Family Group design, which was displayed alongside his familiar bronze maquette. Seen separately, the various motifs each seemed to convey a slightly different visual approach to the bronze’s organic forms. But, as images on fabric — repeated motifs busy with light and movement — they also suggest a process of reduction and abstraction that the finished bronze does not convey. This design made me think differently about both screen printing and sculpture.

(Irina Moore making curtains from Moore’s design, “Horses Head and Boomerang.” Photograph E.G Malidine. © Henry Moore Foundation.)

Seeing Moore’s designs being actually worn by women — in the form of neatly tailored dresses and ubiquitous 1940s headscarves — was just amazing. There were also some fantastic domestic interiors, featuring upholstery, bedspreads, and curtains, such as those being sewn by Irina Moore in the photograph above. These fabrics suggested something distinctively modern about both Moore and Britain in the years immediately following the Second World War. In his designs you can read the dogged optimism of the era of the welfare state and the Festival of Britain, as well as the laudable desire to combine high culture with industrial design — to put public art to use in the service of the everyday.

Anita Feldman and Sue Pritchard have produced this book to accompany their wonderfully curated exhibition. I highly recommend it.
See the Henry Moore Foundation website for further information about Moore and the exhibition.