Photographer Bill Brandt and sculptor Henry Moore often crossed paths and this is explored in a fascinating new exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield. Stephen McClarence reports.
Stonehenge after a snow shower. With not a soul in sight, the stark silhouetted stones brood across a white-bleached field under a dramatic sky. It’s one of the most startling images in The Hepworth Wakefield’s forthcoming exhibition which, fascinatingly, pairs the photographs of Bill Brandt with the sculptures and drawings of Henry Moore.
The Stonehenge picture achieved national fame in April 1947. Just 18 months after the end of the Second World War, Britain was suffering its worst winter for a century, with towering snow drifts, devastating floods, power cuts and fuel shortages. Roads and rail lines were blocked, food was rationed and industry was grinding to a halt.
After missing publication for a fortnight due to paper shortages, Picture Post, the now-legendary magazine whose circulation peaked at almost two million, published a “Special Issue on the Crisis”, exploring “Britain’s place in the changed new world”.
Brandt’s almost abstract, mystical Stonehenge picture, perhaps symbolising both the grim state of the nation and its strength, resilience and continuity, was used on the magazine’s front cover. The aim was to explore anxieties about the country’s declining role on the world stage. It posed the question: “Where stands Britain?”
More than 70 years on, in these Brexit-befuddled times, Clare Nadal, assistant curator at The Hepworth, repeats the question. “Nationalism and austerity,” she says. “There’s a resonance there today, isn’t there?”
The exhibition, opening next Friday and linked to a new book, will reveal the strangely parallel careers of Brandt and Moore. They first met in 1942 when Brandt photographed Moore in the sculptor’s studio at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire for an imaginative feature in Lilliput magazine, a sort of pocket version of Picture Post.
They had been independently commissioned by the Government to document the crowds of Londoners – sometimes up to 170,000 of them – who huddled in Tube stations every night to shelter from Nazi air raids. Brandt’s photographs and Moore’s sketches were juxtaposed in double-page spreads, bringing out strong similarities.
Both artists hauntingly captured the claustrophobic, tomb-like conditions in which people slept – “like the hold of a slave ship” as Moore said. His drawings of swathed, ghostly figures sometimes suggest the chorus of a Greek tragedy; Brandt’s pictures of the sprawling sleepers have a more direct documentary impact.
Brandt also explored London’s streets on Blitz nights, deserted like stage sets and lit only by moonlight. They captured what the critic Cyril Connolly called “the dreamlike monotony of wartime London” and needed exposures of up to 20 minutes.
“Brandt and Moore met in a context of war and reportage, but over the next ten or 20 years there were more interconnections between them,” says Clare Nadal. “Both artists are well known in their own right, but putting them together can throw up new ways of looking at their work.”
The exhibition, running to 200 photographs, sculptures and drawings, has been organised in partnership with the Yale Center for British Art, based at Yale University and housing the largest collection of British art outside the UK.
It will feature another Brandt portrait of Moore leaning on one of his own undulating sculptures, gazing at the camera in a sober, non-committal way. “Someone went to see Moore at his home and said he was almost like a farmer on a country estate,” says Clare. Brandt also photographed Moore’s right eye for a series of studies of painters’ and sculptors’ eyes which Cyril Connolly described as “leathery, almost reptilian.”
The Moore pictures are a contrast to many of Brandt’s other portraits, which find dark, sometimes even sinister, sides to their subjects’ characters. JB Priestley glares at the camera, as though suspecting Brandt is up to no good. Edith and Osbert Sitwell frown disapprovingly. Even a 1961 group portrait (not in the exhibition) of the Beyond the Fringe team makes Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller look like East End gangsters.
This darkness mirrors Brandt’s frequent tendency to print his pictures ever darker on ever-harder, ever-higher-contrast photographic paper. Invariably black and white, they became increasingly blacker and whiter, ever more “soot and chalk”.
This can sometimes recast documentary as art – as with his pictures of Halifax, part of a project to explore the North during the Depression. His studies of working class life in Sheffield show fog-swathed terraces and children in squalid backyards: a very different world from his own more privileged life in London. Born in Hamburg, he was perhaps always an “outsider”.
Some of Henry Moore’s excursions to the North were, by contrast, a sort of homecoming – to Castleford, where he was born and where his father worked as a mining engineer at Wheldale Colliery.
Moore’s birthplace was demolished in the 1970s. “Not worth preserving,” said one councillor at the time. “Just a run of the mill miner’s cottage.” Moore himself seemed to agree. “It was an awful little house,” he later said. “It had two rooms up and two rooms down. I think you call them ‘terrace houses’.” Brandt’s Depression pictures include a shot that encapsulates such housing at its worst: a dead-end dustbin-strewn row of miners’ cottages with no windows facing the cobbled street.
Despite his dismissive comments about his first home, Moore seems to have been hugely engaged by the local landscape, recalling “the slag heaps of the Yorkshire mining villages… which for me as a boy were like mountains. They had the scale of pyramids.”
A Brandt picture of Durham cottages with black slag heaps looming behind them could have been commissioned specifically to illustrate Moore’s quote. There’s another parallel here: Moore’s sketches of Wheldale miners uncannily echo Brandt’s studies of colliers with coal-dusted faces.
Both were drawn to the British landscape and, as Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth, says, had “a fascination and poetic sensibility for capturing the spirit of place.”
This found its finest expression in Brandt’s book Literary Britain, which explores landscapes and buildings linked to great writers. They include bleak pictures of windswept West Yorkshire moorland inspired by the Brontës. Brandt might spend a whole day over a single shot, waiting for the light to be just right.
Both men were drawn to curious rock formations (which Moore sometimes turned into small sculptures) and both treated the human body as an abstract form, with Brandt rating his nudes as his most important work.
“What first drew me to them was their sculptural quality,” says Clare, pointing out the strong surrealist element in this and other work. Nude sculptures were also a lucrative line for Moore; few 1960s civic centres were complete without one of his Reclining Figures (the ones in Castleford and Leeds come immediately to mind).
Did the two artists ever become friends? “They had a continued correspondence,” says Clare. “But my sense is that it was a quite formal working relationship.”
Brandt was a quiet, gentle, polite man, rarely discussing his work and never carrying a camera unless he was out on a commission. As Mark Haworth-Booth writes in the introduction to Shadow of Light, the classic collection of Brandt’s photographs, he “rarely suffered an interviewer”.
I had personal experience of this when I was very young and Brandt was very old. A photographic magazine I wrote for asked me to contact him (naturally, in those days, by post) to try to arrange an interview.
I received a neatly typed three-sentence reply from this “Old Master of photography”, as Haworth-Booth calls him. “Thank you for your letter,” it said. “I am afraid I very much dislike being interviewed. I am so sorry. Yours sincerely, Bill Brandt.” It was the most elegant of brush-offs. Reader, I framed it.
The Bill Brandt/Henry Moore exhibition runs at the Hepworth Wakefield (www.hepworthwakefield.org) from February 7 to May 31.
Bill Brandt | Henry Moore, edited by Martina Droth and Paul Messier is published by Yale Centre of British Art and distributed by Yale University Press: £50.00 hardback.