Ian Collins

As a blockbuster exhibition opens at Norwich Castle, Ian Collins charts the story of a Norfolk seaside holiday that would help change the course of art history along with the lives and loves of some of the artists.

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Ian Collins

A black-and-white snapshot exists of six artistic friends on the beach at Happisburgh in September 1931. Three look away from the camera and three stare rather startlingly out at us.

The figures gazing straight ahead, and apparently into the future, are Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson - the latter seated but all set to spring. So much of the story of progressive 20th century British art will rest on them.

Any sense of tension from this holiday snap is not entirely due to the fomenting of radical art on a working holiday, though Moore and Hepworth, modernist sculptors sharing Yorkshire roots (and a smoking habit), are even now rivals as well as allies.

No, the electricity is more personal. Barbara - serpentine as a Norfolk flint as she fixes her hair - has just fallen in love with Ben. Her sculptor husband John Skeaping will soon arrive from London in a last-ditch bid to save the marriage and find he is too late. Up in Cumberland with her children and paints, Winifred Nicholson is in for bad news.

But the group is here because of Henry Moore. In 1922, while at London's Royal College of Art, he heard that his coalminer father, Raymond, was dangerously ill and a decision was made to move the family from Castleford to the purer air of Norfolk.

Henry's elder sister, Mary, became headteacher of Wighton village school, near Wells. She and their parents moved into the adjoining schoolhouse, but Raymond's decline continued and, after a brief spell in a Walsingham nursing home, he died within a month of reaching Norfolk. He is buried in Wighton churchyard.

Born in 1849, Raymond Moore is believed to have left school at nine, to toil as a crow-scarer on a Lincolnshire farm where penury and bondage forced his migration to the mines as a young man. Marrying at 35, and fathering eight children, before his lungs gave out he urged his offspring to train as teachers.

Several did. Henry taught in Castleford. His brother Raymond became headmaster at Stoke Ferry near Downham Market while Rowland Howarth, husband of sister Betty, presided over Mulbarton school near Norwich.

Henry spent most of his holidays in Norfolk at Wighton and Mulbarton, where he developed his passion for carving outdoors, steadying stone blocks between his feet or lodging them in the ground. The reaction of local folk can only be imagined.

Writing from Mulbarton in the summer of 1925, he said: “I'm thankful for these two spots in Norfolk where I can sit in the open air, crosslegged on patches of grass & chip stone - though I was nearly sent loopy this afternoon by the incessant lowing of a cow that the farmer next door is starving for killing.”

A further letter from Mulbarton mentioned a half-figure carving of a woman reaching upwards. “It's not coming on as well as I expected - but I may get something into it before its finished,” he said.

The work in progress turned into Woman with Upraised Arms, whose “primitive” appearance confirms the artist's love of ancient and non-western sculpture and seems to owe nothing to the place where it was made. And yet…

In 1925 Mary Moore married bank manager George Garrould and moved to Wells (then to Colchester 18 months later). From their house that summer Moore wrote that, given enough money, he would make for “somewhere like Wighton or Walsingham, and stay there until I'd found and wedded one of those richly formed, big-limbed, fresh faced, full blooded country wenches, built for breeding, honest, simple minded, practical, common sensed, healthily sexed lasses that I've seen about here.”

Here were the inspirations for a harem of reclining figures.

A faded photo also survives from this period of the young sculptor carving a dog. His first Mother and Child can be seen in the background.

The picture further includes a piece of white marble from which a head and shoulders are emerging. When the subsequent owners of Wighton Schoolhouse - painter Alfred Cohen and his wife Diana - were clearing the overgrown garden in the 1980s, they found the unfinished sculpture. It was returned to Moore, at his home in Hertfordshire, shortly before his death.

Henry Moore had a life-long interest in natural forms and found objects and it was in Norfolk that he began to collect the flints abounding on beaches and in fields.

As the natural stone building blocks of East Anglia, they had been set and knapped in walls, houses and a mass of medieval churches. The more twisted shapes, often suggesting female figures in repose, were prototypes for a sculptor's future works of art.

When, in 1930, Barbara Hepworth proposed a seaside holiday for their group of kindred spirits, Moore recommended Church Farm, Happisburgh.

As well as working amid stimulating company, Barbara wanted space and peace to rescue her marriage to John Skeaping. Her husband had taught her carving and both had found early success. But, despite the birth of a son, in 1929, the union was soon in trouble.

Moore and his Russian-born wife Irina were invited to join them in Norfolk, as were Barbara's friends Douglas and Mary Jenkins and the painter Ivon Hitchens. John Skeaping was to recall in a memoir:

“Henry, Barbara and I used to pick up large iron-stone pebbles from the beach which were ideal for carving and polished up like bronze. I rode and fished on the broads. Henry accompanied me on one of my fishing trips but he couldn't leave sculpture alone for long and took with him a piece of iron-stone and a rasp. Sitting at one end of the boat he filed away continuously, occasionally hauling in his line to see if he had got anything on the end.”

Back in London the Skeapings held a joint exhibition of 47 sculptures - John showing five ironstone carvings (ox, duck, stag, animal mask and Torso) and Barbara two (a fish and a half-figure called Carving). Four more appeared in Henry's 1931 show (two heads, a mother and child and a Reclining Figure).

The disc-like Norfolk pebbles determined a flatness of carved forms - small wonder John and Barbara, working to the maxim of “truth to material”, released fish from these shallow pools of stone. Stylistic similarities led the Tate to buy the Skeaping Fish in the belief it was a Hepworth.

But the personal partnership still drifted and in spring 1931 John and Barbara met and befriended Ben and Winifred Nicholson - both painters in a faux-naïve style, though Ben had lately turned to Cubism on a path to eventual abstraction.

When a second Norfolk holiday was mooted, Barbara wrote to the Nicholsons: “Do come and stay with us at Happisburgh…I enclose a photo of the farm - the colour is lovely. The country is quite flat but for a little hill with a tall flint church and a lighthouse… The beach is a ribbon of pale sand as far as the eye can see. The Moores and ourselves should be so pleased if you came…”

But that summer John asked Barbara for a divorce and she left for Norfolk without him. Family duties kept Winifred at home, where she heard from her ecstatic husband: “I do like these sort of free creative people they are alive and vital - you know like we thought of Derain & Picasso in Paris, with the same imagination and power and purpose.”

When John Skeaping had a change of heart and hastened to Happisburgh it was too late. His wife was lost forever. He returned to London and to the margins of British art.

Ben Nicholson left early also, his departure prompting a flow of love letters in which Barbara likened his head to “the most lovely pebble ever seen” and related how she and Moore had carted four large crates of beach stones to Stalham for the London train.

In The Listener, in 1937, Henry Moore wrote: “Although it is the human figure which interests me most deeply, I have always paid great attention to the natural, such as bones, shells and pebbles etc. For several years running I have been to the same part of the sea-shore - but each year a new shape of pebble has caught my eye, which the year before, although it was there in hundreds, I never saw…

“Pebbles show nature's way of working stone. Some of the pebbles I pick up have holes right through them.”

Those lucky stones or witch stones attracted Barbara and Henry on that 1931 holiday as a way of connecting both sides of a sculpture and making it more three-dimensional. Soon there was a small Hepworth Pierced Form in pink alabaster and soon after - or was it before? - a holed Moore.

Whoever spotted it first, the motif discovered in Norfolk claimed a central place in both careers. And for several years the two artists made sculptures drawing on natural, organic forms.

Ben Nicholson's paintings became increasingly sculptural, and from 1933 he made carved reliefs which also suggest the flatness of Norfolk ironstone pebbles.

In Hampstead the three pioneers were joined by art critic Adrian Stokes and his artist wife Margaret Mellis, and by leading international Constructivists Naum Gabo and Piet Mondrian, until all their creativity was threatened by looming war. Barbara suggested Happisburgh as a place of escape. Adrian and Margaret were charged with finding a rural bolthole where Ben and Barbara would join them.

They searched coastal Norfolk and Suffolk in vain - the Martello tower at Slaughden being rejected as dungeon-like and with the track from Aldeburgh menaced by drifts of stones.

In the end they found a haven outside St Ives. Ben, Barbara, their triplets, nursemaid and cook duly arrived and the focus of British modern art shifted from east to west.

Both the Stokes and Nicholson marriages foundered - Barbara remaining in Cornwall, Adrian returning to London, Ben eventually settling in Switzerland and Margaret moving with second husband Francis Davison first to Syleham near Diss and finally to Southwold where she has just turned 95.

With Margaret and a film crew in Cornwall in 1992, I took her to the Barbara Hepworth studio museum. “That's my chair!” she cried at one point. “How typical of Barbara to borrow something and then keep it as her own.”

The same charge was widely made about art borrowings in what Herbert Read had rather inaptly called a “nest of gentle artists”.

Some years later, in Southwold, Margaret and I watched a television documentary in which it was claimed that Ben's move from Winifred to Barbara had mirrored his artistic impulse as it shifted from representation to abstraction.

“Absolute balls!” shouted Margaret at the TV screen. “Ben left Winifred because she was so untidy!”

t Moore/Hepworth/Nicholson: A Nest of Gentle Artists in the 1930s opens today, January 31, at Norwich Castle and runs until April 19; www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

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