The reclining figure exerted an abiding fascination on Henry Moore. His long career was punctuated by many recumbent bodies, each one different to the last. Moore defined his own persona as an artist not so much by endless variety as by his ability to return to a familiar motif and make it new. In so doing, he renewed himself.
Born in 1898, the seventh of eight children of a mining engineer from Castleford in Yorkshire, Moore understood the meaning of hard labour and of an essential frugality which makes a little go a long way. After army service in the First World War and art school in Leeds, he gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1921. With Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill at its vanguard, sculpture was all about carving. The Reclining Figure Moore produced in 1929, based on a photograph of a Mexican rain god, Chac Mool, achieved an extraordinary balancing act: it was simultaneously a primitive goddess, barely emerging from the stone block, and a contemporary bather, unashamed of her nakedness and brazenly eyeing any onlooker who dared to approach.
During the 1930s, Moore was part of many fragile groupings of the avant-garde, alongside Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and other English Modernists. His feeling for the primitive came to rely less on the example of cultures distant in time and space than on a quest for a simplified essence of form. While he was aware of leading continental sculptors, such as Brancusi, Moore's work was never as uncompromisingly abstract as theirs. It remained recognisably figurative, even in the radically fragmented Four-piece Composition: Reclining Figure of 1934.
Life drawing, which had given Moore a solid grounding in human anatomy, was less of a routine from the mid-1930s. Partly under the influence of the Surrealists, Moore began to draw from his imagination. Ideas for sculptures came thick and fast. The seed of much of Moore's post-war sculpture was sown among the creative ferment and political uncertainty of these austere years. The reclining figure took on another meaning for Moore: one of continuity, a means of asserting the value of traditions that had been passed from culture to culture over the course of centuries.
A sense of urgency, and the desire to realise his ideas more immediately in solid form, lay behind the creation of a group of small reclining figures cast in lead in 1938-39. Fourteen of them formed the centrepiece of Moore's one-man show at the Leicester Galleries in February 1940. Modelling in beeswax he bought from Boots, Moore worked directly in three dimensions, then made the casts in his garden, heating the metal in a saucepan.
Reclining Figure: One Arm was conceived at this time, though not cast in bronze until 1968. The drawing it derives from, with four figures arranged in a neutral setting, resembles a sort of Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe. The furthest of the figures, the design for this sculpture, is not relaxed, like the others, but seems to be raising itself up on one arm. Far from passively resting, it wants to gain our attention, to join in and be part of the group. That same energy, which for Moore was just as important as a sense of internal balance and harmony, is fully embodied in the bronze sculpture. "It is free and stable at the same time. It fits with my belief that sculpture should be permanent, should last for eternity," Moore later explained. At the end of a decade of constant experiment, he was unarguably Britain's greatest living sculptor, and the reclining figure was the very essence of his art.
Timothy Wilcox's most recent book is The Ceramic Art of James Tower (Lund Humphries).