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Homeland: Three Henry Moore pieces in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (photo: Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation)

Artists are rarely averse to a bit of self-mythologising and Henry Moore was no exception. He liked to suggest that his lifelong preoccupation with the land was  immanent and pre-formed — something to do with being born into a family of Castleford miners. The subterranean was a predilection he enhanced in the countryside around his home, searching for the mysterious and the unknown “in caves and holes in the sides of hills — you don’t know what is there until you look and explore into them”. What he found, and what never left him, was a feeling “akin to the mystery in poetry”.

There is a constant strand in almost all his work of his sculptures existing on the skin of the earth, the very point where the subsurface emerges into to air. It is why his pieces have the feel of flints and bones that have been pushed up by a farmer’s plough or of knobbly buds emerging and swelling but not quite ready to unfurl. Even his wartime “Shelter Drawings” of the London tube share this same sense of transition between the surface and what lies beneath.

Moore was among the first artists to design work specifically to be shown in the landscape — an idea that started in 1931 when he began to spend weekends at a cottage in Kent and escalated from 1940 when bombing forced him out of his Hampstead home and London for good. His relationship to nature fully burgeoned at his new home, a 17th-century farmhouse called Hoglands at Perry Green in Hertfordshire. It was there, in his own garden, grounds and surrounding fields, that he fully blurred the distinction between sculpture, the landscape and the human figure. As he wrote: “Sculpture is an art of the open air. Daylight, sunlight is necessary to it. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in or on the most beautiful building I know.”

This aspect of his work is the subject of the latest exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), Henry Moore: Back to a Land. The title comes from the book A Land (1951), by Moore’s friend Jacquetta Hawkes, the wife of J.B. Priestley, which was a meditation on the British landscape that starts with a line that could serve as the sculptor’s manifesto: “I have used the findings of the two sciences of geology and archaeology for purposes altogether unscientific.” Moore provided Hawkes with illustrations for the 1954 edition. The exhibition is also a recognition of Moore’s long links with the YSP, of which he was a founding patron and for which he kept a sentimental attachment as a link with his boyhood landscape.

Back to a Land
is divided into two parts: a series of sculptures from the permanent collection situated throughout the 500 acres of the YSP’s rolling parkland and formal gardens, and a display of smaller pieces and some 80 works on paper in its purpose-built gallery. It should be the works outside that are most exciting, silhouetted against the lake, woods and hilltops or indeed seen in the distance when framed through the holes and arches of a foreground sculpture, but the deer park has a curmudgeonly half-dozen large works dotted around. The effect is denuded — there are too many to be surprising when one comes unexpectedly into view but too few to have much of a relationship with one another. There is none of the shock and grandeur that is perhaps best seen with the King and Queen group at Glenkiln in Scotland. The cluster of pieces in the formal gardens are closer together and work rather better.

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