St Albans is not a city one would normally associate with coal mining or the sculptor, Henry Moore. However there is a superb exhibition currently at the St Albans Art Gallery focussing on Moore’s wartime sketches and drawings: Henry Moore – Drawing in the Dark.
Henry Moore was primarily a sculptor and his works adorn galleries and public spaces the world over. Lesser known are his drawings but he was a very accomplished draughtsman. As a war artist he produced a set of drawings in 1940-41 depicting life in underground shelters in London, during the blitz. His reputation grew from this series and he was commissioned by the government to record coal mining life as part of the war effort.
He spent two weeks underground at Wheldale Colliery in West Yorkshire making sketches for the series of drawings of 1942. The drawings depict men and boys at the pit in various activities from working the coal face, to tunnelling and transporting the coal.
Mining became very highly mechanised in the second half of the twentieth century but Moore has captured the individuality of the human effort, the distortion of the body to accomplish difficult tasks in difficult conditions, and the oppressive heat and dust pervasive in the deep tunnels.
The exhibition set in two rooms in the gallery taking the spectator through the preparatory sketches to the final drawings, all in limited palette of black, grey and brown. The portraits are so expressive as the miners appear to look through the plane, beyond the artists into an uncertain future. There is a series of films, (silent in the gallery but with headphones) produced by the British Council from the fifties describing British Coal Mining. There is one of Moore’s more familiar works, a bronze casting, Warrior with Shield, 1954, which beautifully augments the drawing collection.
When I visited there were several other visitors present but I was taken by the almost reverential atmosphere. There was almost a religious recognition of these long dead workers from a past industry, long disappeared in the UK. I was deeply lost in my own thoughts at times, as a St Albans Boy who spent twenty five years in underground coal mining. I looked around and there appeared to be others deep in the own thoughts. Maybe they also knew intimately what Moore was depicting. The exhibition is a triumph for St Albans Art Gallery.
“A dense darkness you could touch,
the whirring din of the coal cutting machine,
throwing into the air black dust so thick that
The light beams from the miner’s lamps
could only shine into it a few inches…”
Henry Moore c 1970