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Everybody's tree

By Christopher Andreae / April 2, 1987



IT came out about a year ago now, but it has the character of a small, though not unimportant, footnote to the much-documented, much-accoladed career of British sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986). This book, ``In Irina's Garden,'' was never intended to be more than modest: Indeed its protagonist, Moore's Russian-born wife, Irina, gave it her approval, so photographer David Finn tells us in his preface, only on condition that it ``should be simple and unpretentious.''

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An interesting essay by the distinguished poet Stephen Spender, charting a long friendship with the Moores, sets the tone well. So do the photographs by Finn - some, like the tree shown here, are really little more than good snapshots - and the vigorous draw-ings of winter trees against the sky by Moore are not the artist in top gear but show an aspect of his appreciation of the pleasant, stimulating surroundings of his home. All the emphasis is on the normality of the daily life of a hard-working married couple, one of whom happens to have been heralded worldwide as ``a great sculptor.'' It is a story as plain, direct, and unflam-boyant as the branches and twigs of winter trees.

Spender observes: ``What strikes one about Moore is the originality; what strikes one about the man is the humanity: and, putting the two impressions together, both the man and the work - the man in the work - suggest a kind of ideal norm of individual man as creative, imaginative, responsible, and even, in some profound sense, ordinary.''

If this (wrongly) makes Moore sound slightly dull, Irina Moore - usually, one gathers, reticent, but coaxed into recording some ``Reminiscences'' for this book - comes across as not at all so.

What she is is down to earth. The pretext of the book is that she has always been the gardener in the Moore household. Elsewhere Moore paid verbal tribute to this fact.

His wife puts it this way: ``Henry ... didn't work in the garden, he's no gardener. I don't even remember him mowing the lawn in the early days, although he says he did; but he did help me to plant things.''

It was after their wartime escape from London to Much Hadham in Hertfordshire - from where they never moved - that Irina Moore started to spend all her time in the garden. She had met Henry when he was teaching sculpture at the Royal College of Art and she was there studying painting. She describes his attraction to her, even though she was already, unknown to him, engaged to a ``terrribly nice'' man called Leslie. ``But Henry,'' she remarks,``was very pushy.''

When they got married, she says, ``I stopped painting.... You can't paint if you are looking after somebody like Henry. He encouraged me to paint, but I couldn't. He was a sculptor and I thought he was not bad.''

Even their one daughter, Mary, seems to have shown little interest in the garden. The garden was exclusively Irina's passion, supplying her artistic need. As it has grown in size over the years, it has also, as the photographs in the book attest, come to provide a most effective setting for Moore's sculptures.

And then again that note of simplicity surfaces in Irina Moore's remarks: ``I don't attempt anything that's very difficult. Even the trees I have planted are ones which grow quickly - like ordinary poplars. A poplar is a very simple tree. Everything here is very ... well ... `ordinary' isn't a nice name to give it. It's a simple tree, the usual tree, a common tree, every-body's tree.''

And then she adds, ``Henry has made a lot of drawings of those trees....''

He was certainly the kind of sculptor to appreciate trees, even if his subject matter was largely the figure. Landscape is often part of what might be called the double meaning of his works. Wood, particularly in his earlier days, was often his medium. He was an advocate of ``direct carving'' and, for a while at least, of ``truth to materials.''

This meant that the artist should appreciate the character of his medium, and that his art should never go beyond a particular material's innate capacity. Wood should still look like wood, even if it is carved into the form of a figure. When Moore drew trees, the same straightforwardness applied. The tree's lines became his strong black lines on paper, but they were never forced into some personal significance or expressiveness that seems untrue to their growth and appearance. Integrity seems very important in Moore's work.

And his wife has suitably valued a similar ``truth to materials'' philosophy in her married role. The strength of this is apparent when she says: ``We had some friends whose husbands were quite gifted; the wives were so overjoyed and overpraising that I don't think they helped their husbands very much - they spoiled them. I never did that with Henry.'' Which, one easily imagines, must have been exactly the way Henry wanted it to be.