Adam Scovell sets off in search of Henry Moore’s ‘Two Piece Reclining Figure No.3’ in South London, and contemplates the optimism of post-war public art and architecture
“Have you seen the Henry Moore sculpture near Kennington?” my flatmate asked me one day. We had been discussing public sculptures in a general sense, culminating in a shared desire to visit the Henry Moore sculpture park in Hertfordshire. I had known that Moore’s sculptures, those eerie but beautiful figures in the landscape, had also been dotted around much of London, often in contrast to their surroundings – forever the marker of that Festival of Britain optimism that briefly rebuilt many of the cities after the war. But I was quite unprepared to see a sculpture by Moore in such a beautifully poignant context. For pictures of the sculpture in question, the Two Piece Reclining Figure No.3 sitting in the Brandon Estate near Oval, had a fitting architectural match – a mixture of grass and concrete – that I had not seen before. A visit was therefore unavoidable.
Though the date of working on the cast of Two Piece Reclining Figure No.3 is unknown, the half a dozen sculpts produced from it were made around 1961. This is in spite of having considered working on the ideas behind sculpture for quite some time beforehand, the figure fragmented in two seeming to materialise, like so much British sculpture, out of the ashes and hardship of the Second World War. The abstraction of the human form, designed to convey the uncanny in more rural climes, works equally well when housed in the urban environment. Rather than being a figure formed out of the raw soil of a landscape, as if the land has arisen to follow its viewers through moors and fields, Moore’s urban sculptures work in reverse. They resemble a movement backwards, as if its figures have been deformed and contorted by urban life and the environment, faces rendered anonymous by pollution and brutalism.
One of these sculptures was purchased for the estate as part of the large post-war Abercrombie Plan, an initiative set forth with a sizeable budget to acquire and display art in the public realm alongside the new estates and work in rebuilding Britain after the war. The plan is surprisingly modern in hindsight, acknowledging that the psychological perception of a place is down to not just basic amenities but also creative detail, with an understanding that art had a very public, tangible role to play in moving forward. As Moore himself once said, “Art is not to do with the practical side of making a living. It’s to live a fuller human life.” It was bought only a year after Moore’s casting of the sculpture and was at the time the most expensive of the public art purchases for the scheme at £8000. In spite of a spate of thefts of similar public artworks over the years, the sculpture has remained thanks to the support of the local residents and is now Grade II listed. Moore was proven right; regardless of the area’s problems over the years, such things were valued beyond monetary terms.
The day was unusually warm when wandering to visit the sculpture. The weather allowed for various tangents in between, proving South London to be brimming with cultural history. After a brief visit to Van Gogh’s house in Stockwell and several places dedicated in name to Charlie Chaplin and his connection with the area, the large field that leads to the Brandon Estate came into view. It’s an unusually alien vista; its dated futurism being genuinely alluring. The estate is one of the more ambitious post-war projects, designed by Edward Hollamby in 1958. Its variety of tall towers has space to breathe, giving rise to a great deal of green land in between. It is in the middle of regeneration too, with the surrounding area being fitted out with increasingly familiar signs of modern gentrification. But the area and the estate is perhaps now more infamous for its drill group association, several of whose members have been injured and murdered in the last year, lampposts still adorned with dying flowers in commemoration.
Thankfully these weren’t the only flowers as became clear on finding Moore’s sculpture, its slowly oxidised colour glinting away. Moved to a more public position in 1989, the sculpture now stands on a minor incline and is foreshadowed by an array of crocuses whose purple and white petals gleamed in the bright sunlight. The sculpture sits perfectly within its space, reflecting that same post-war optimism that built all of the flats all around it. I wanted to snap this context on the Polaroid more than the sculpture itself, seeing many photographs online that suggest (through angle and emphasis), due to the social decline of the area, a contrast between the high art of the sculpture and the high-rise of the estate’s design rather than a connection. Moore’s sculpture haunts the very edge of my photograph though really the area in its inception was born out of a same desire for progress; found in the deeply human form, relaxing in the afternoon sun.