News and Interviews

Special Interview: Dr. Francis Warner on the AGO's Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty

Artists Francis Bacon and Henry Moore were contemporaries (though never collaborators) who shared an obsession with expressing themes of suffering, struggle and survival in relation to the human body. Their work has inspired generations of artists since and permeates our visual landscape, from Batman films to Toronto’s own city hall.

In 2013, Dr. Francis Warner, Emeritus Fellow, St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford, published an essay (originally a lecture from 1970) in Beauty For Ashes: Selected Prose & Related Documents (Colin Smythe) that first posited that the two seemingly disparate artists can be paired together in art historical and social terms. The essay subsequently inspired an exhibition of the two men's works, which has been met with critical acclaim.

The exhibition, called Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty recently arrived at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Dr. Francis Warner joins us today to discuss the exhibition, how an essay becomes an art exhibit and Toronto's own history with Henry Moore.

Open Book:

Tell us about your lecture that sparked this exhibit. How did these two artists become linked for you originally?

Dr. Francis Warner:

On Friday February, 13, 1970 I gave a lecture on these two artists to the Oxford University Critical Society. It was titled Henry Moore and Francis Bacon: The Bones and the Flesh. My friendships with Moore and Bacon, both of whom loved poetry and plays and collected my work as it was published, gave me a fresh way of approaching them — not simply as remote from each other artistically, but as similar products of the two World Wars, one of which I had been through as they had.

OB:

How did the lecture morph into the exhibition? Can you describe that experience?

FW:

In the audience of the 1970 lecture was an undergraduate named Richard Calvocoressi. Over forty years later I received a letter from him as Director of the Henry Moore Foundation inviting me to join him and Martin Harrison, editor of the Catalogue Raisonné of Bacon’s works, as curators of a proposed exhibition taking up the ideas I had propounded. Christopher Brown, the museum’s Director, had provided the Ashmolean for this.

It was the most successful exhibition ever held at the Ashmolean, drawing 44,698 visitors. The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto bought the exhibition, thanks to the generosity of our Honorary Fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford Albert Latner and his two sons Steven and Michael, both graduates of St Peter’s. The A.G.O. changed the sub-title from ‘Flesh and Bone’ to ‘Terror and Beauty’ adding a number of fine photographs of the Blitz, taken by Bill Brandt, all curated here by Dan Adler.

OB:

The Blitz has turned up thematically in your work previously and also features heavily in this exhibition. For Canadian readers and viewers, can you provide some context on the legacy of the Blitz for English citizens and artists?

FW:

The Battle of Britain lasted from early July to the end of October, 1940. Throughout that astonishingly beautiful summer and autumn the Royal Air Force (helped by Canadian and other Commonwealth pilots) and the Nazi Luftwaffe could be seen by everyone, spiralling above us killing each other.

Overlapping these dates, from 7th September began the night Blitz, concentrated on London for fifty-seven consecutive sunsets until the all clear sounded at four or five in the morning. Thereafter frequent heavy bombing continued until May 1941, and intermittently until around 8th May 1945 when a V.2. rocket hit Smithfield Market killing 110 people. During these five years Britain was at bay, fighting all-out war for survival.

Epsom, where my father was the Vicar, was the first and last target of the enemy raiders coming across the Channel for London. As a result I and my brothers and sister experienced the Blitz at first hand. It shaped our childhood: indeed my younger brother was born under the dining room table while we sheltered below in the cellar during one of the of the heaviest raids of the war — 27th September 1940.

The main target was Epsom’s railway junction, which fed Clapham, Victoria and Waterloo stations. In our four square miles over twelve thousand homes, including our first and second Vicarages, suffered. When we were bombed out we slept in the Parish Church.

Schools were a particular target. During my first term at school, Petworth Boys’ School to the south-west on the flight path over us was destroyed in a daylight raid, killing the Headmaster and 31 others, boys and staff. In my second term, on 20th January 1943, Sandhurst Road School, Catford, twelve miles north-east, was machine-gunned and bombed leaving 31 children and 6 members of staff dead on the playground. Seven children died later in hospital.

Artists such as John Piper as well as Henry Moore recorded the effects of the bombing, and as recently as last September, to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Blitz, Blitz Requiem, David Goode's music to my libretto, was performed in St Paul's Cathedral London.

OB:

Toronto and the AGO have enjoyed a great relationship with the Henry Moore Foundation over the years. Can you tell us a bit about what it means to see the exhibition in Toronto and your experience of the city (if any)?

FW:

On 1 December 1968, I gave a poetry reading, and a lecture on Samuel Beckett, at St Michael’s College, Toronto, and as a result was invited to be the guest of Samuel Zacks at 200 Bay Street — Ayala his wife was away in Israel — who introduced me to his art collection which included five sculptures by Henry Moore. One of them, Woman 1957-58 is in today’s exhibition. Sam Zacks had met Mr Moore when he visited Toronto en route to Montreal to advise on his ‘Locking Piece’ which was to be shown at Canada’s great exhibition Expo ’67.

Sam Zacks asked me what was going on in England. He knew that 41 younger artists had signed a letter to The Times in London on 26 May 1967 protesting that Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, through the Treasury, was putting up a large sum of money to help house Henry Moore’s generous gift for the nation of between twenty and thirty major works to the Tate Gallery. The signatories protested against the government ‘devoting itself so manifestly to the work of a single artist.’ As a result, the Tate had been dragging its feet.

Henry Moore had been hurt by this, indeed discussed it with me. Now in contrast he was heartened by the unaffected freshness and generous enthusiasm of your Director here William Withrow, Sam Zacks President of the A.G.O., Edmund Bovey who was to succeed him as President, and many other Canadians. Ottawa had just accepted a centennial gift of a Moore bronze from the British government for its new National Library; and collectors here such as John and Signy Eaton, and the Feheleys, all followed Sam and Ayala Zacks’s lead in buying his works. Then in May 1968 the University of Toronto awarded Henry Moore an honorary degree in Law.

The result of this was his gift to the AGO of the works now for ever in the specially built Moore Gallery Wing.

OB:

What are you working on now?

FW:

I am preparing the orchestral and choral scores of Blitz Requiem for publication later this year so that others can perform it. My dream is that it should be performed in Toronto as an act of gratitude for your coming to our aid in our extremity.

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In Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, the Art Gallery of Ontario brings together two giants of 20th-century British art in a major exhibition that features more than 130 artworks, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and archival materials.

Organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario in collaboration with the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. This exhibition was made possible through the generosity of The Henry Moore Foundation and The Estate of Francis Bacon.

The exhibition runs from April 5 to July 20, 2014

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