Introducing 'Drawing in the Dark: Henry Moore’s Coalmining Commission' by Chris Owen

In this blogpost we're providing a peek inside the pages of Chris Owen's newly released book: Drawing in the Dark: Henry Moore’s Coalmining Commission. Read on for an extract from the early part of the book (and if you want more, you can now order your copy HERE).


… [In] the coalmining drawings … there was the problem of getting form out of darkness – of making the light from the miners’ helmet-lamps produce figures out of thick blackness – of drawing in the dark. 
– Henry Moore, 1973 [i]

Figure 1: R. Saidman, Henry Moore Sketching Jack Hancock, a collier, January 1942 (Henry Moore Archive).

For a visual artist trying to record the physical world around him, light would seem to be an essential prerequisite. Drawing in the dark almost appears to be an inappropriate challenge. Henry Moore first ventured down Wheldale Colliery in December 1941, preparing to draw the coalminers at work in the dark, dusty atmosphere (fig.1). Five years earlier, he had been a member of the organising committee for the International Surrealist Exhibition, the first major show of Surrealism in London. For the group’s leader, Andre Breton, drawing in the dark meant retreat from the physical world, to free up the subconscious; ‘in a dark room’, with ‘eyes wide open’, he suggested, the artist could perceive new ideas and images, which the rational brain would never generate.[ii] But the Second World War forced artists who had recently been exploring their psyche through the inner eye to focus their gaze outward again, to observe the grim reality of wartime conditions now confronting them. For most, that reality included dealing with the night-time ‘blackout’, but for Henry Moore it also meant drawing in the dark, in one of the deepest coalmines in Yorkshire.  

As a war artist, working for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), Moore had first depicted civilians during the Blitz, sheltering in gloomy but lamp-lit London Underground stations. Now far underground, eyes wide open, Moore tackled a new creative problem, drawing his surroundings in the dark. This was an optical challenge, which imposed a great strain on the human eye. Thirty years later, the artist described the process: ‘As each drawing develops, it is like going outside from a lighted room on a dark night – at first seeing nothing, then slowly distinguishing objects and distances – sensing space with unknown depths’.[iii] 

In another exchange from the 1970s, asked to recall what conditions were like on his first day underground at Wheldale Colliery, Moore replied: ‘If one were asked to describe what Hell might be like, this would do’, and he added, there was ‘black dust so thick that the light beams from the miners’ lamps could only shine into it a few inches’.[iv] The artist described his first sensation as ‘a dense darkness you could touch’.[v] It is a revealing turn of phrase. He was primarily a sculptor, well used to sensing the qualities of materials and forms by touch as well as sight. In the many photographs of the artist working in his studio, Moore is often shown handling a small plaster model, or caressing a larger sculpture, in stone or bronze. For him, ‘touching the darkness’ implied recognition of this subterranean blackout as a sculptural material itself. Moore valued the creative potential of negative spaces, and in 1937 he explained how making holes through his sculptures proved that ‘sculpture in air is possible, where … [the hole] is the intended and considered form’.[vi] He wrote similarly about the misty aerial perspective in many of Turner’s paintings as ‘air that you can draw’, explaining that the ‘space [Turner] creates is not emptiness: it is filled with “solid” atmosphere’.[vii] When he talked of ‘the difficulty of seeing forms emerging out of deep darkness’ in the mine, Moore was sensing this as a sculptural as well as an optical problem (fig.2).[viii]  He was endeavouring to carve forms out of the black dusty air, much as Michelangelo had carved captive slaves from solid white Carrara marble four hundred years earlier. […] 

Figure 2: Henry Moore, At the Coalface: Men Fixing Prop, 1942, HMF 1996, pencil, wax crayon, coloured crayon, watercolour, wash, pen and ink, 34.8 x 56.2 cm (13.7 x 22.1 in), Leeds City Art Gallery: presented by the WAAC. 

The coalmining series was completed almost exactly halfway through Moore’s life, and at a pivotal point in his career, which can perhaps be viewed as a brief respite in his life’s journey. Only three years earlier, London’s Tate Gallery had purchased its first major Moore sculpture. Four years later, his fame was such that the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) held a major retrospective exhibition of his work. If the years before the war can be viewed as the most creative and experimental in the sculptor’s career, the period after the war brought Moore soaring success, as his work came to symbolise the apparently universal human values that characterised international modernism. In 1942, the artist’s career was gaining considerable momentum, but the privations of war were holding him back from producing the sculpture which had established his reputation nationally and internationally. Far from being a distraction, it could be argued that the coalmining project provided Moore with the opportunity to take stock, to review the direction his life and work had taken, and to look forward to new themes, challenges and opportunities in the future.  

Looking in both directions, this commission would, unusually, draw Moore’s attention to the masculine aspects of his life – his relationship with his father, the male body as subject matter, men at work, military service, labour politics and warrior heroes. Looking back, drawing miners in the colliery where his father had worked for most of his life inevitably reconnected Moore with his childhood and Yorkshire roots. It perhaps challenged him to review some of the beliefs he had grown up with, about family, work and politics. Working in confined tunnels, filled with the stench and noise of labourers and machinery, also seems to have stirred repressed memories of his experiences in the First World War trenches. Moore admitted that the experiences of sketching in the mine and producing drawings afterwards were sometimes difficult, but he also acknowledged that they had opened new creative avenues. Looking forward, Moore was still exploring these new pathways in old age – illustration as a discipline, the male figure as counterpoint to his favoured female form, human beings both in action and interacting, his compromised commitment to the working-class cause, plus the challenge of drawing that ‘dense darkness you could touch’ – an experience which he never forgot. 

 – Chris Owen


[i] Clark (1974), Henry Moore Drawings, Thames & Hudson, London, p.291.
[ii] Breton, A. (1978) What is Surrealism? Selected Writings, ed. by Franklin Rosemont, New York, pt.1, p.133
[iii] Clark, K. (1974), p.291 
[iv] Wilkinson, A.G. (1984), The Drawings of Henry Moore, (published 1977 PhD thesis) Garland Publishing, New York and London, p. 313
[v] Ibid
[vi] Moore, H.S. (1937) The Sculptor Speaks, in The Listener, vol. XVIII, no. 449, 18 August 1937, p.139
[vii] Auden, W.H., and Moore, H.S. (1974) Auden Poems / Moore Lithographs, British Museum, London, p.11
[viii] Ibid .p.26