In 1952, after the death of King George VI and as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II approached, patriotic fervour gripped the nation. Ever sensitive to political events and the public mood, Henry Moore found himself meditating on concepts of kingship.
In King and Queen (1952-53), a bronze sculpture slightly larger than lifesize, two barefoot figures sit side by side. Their serene poses mirror one another, reinforcing their partnership. Their heads are pan-like, with angular jaws, pierced eyeholes and prominent nasal ridges that run the length of their faces. Their throne is a simple bench, their crowns loops of bronze that merge with their heads, and their robes are likewise plain and indistinguishable from flesh. Moore’s vision of royalty has little to do with the sentimentality of contemporary events but rather presents calm, hieratic figures that convey ancient authority.
Moore was inspired by an Egyptian sculpture of Horemheb and his wife that he had seen at the British Museum. He also recalled reading fairytales to his then six-year-old daughter Mary. These sources may account for the striking hybrid of abstracted heads and bodies and naturalistic hands and feet.
Human hands are important. Mary, and Moore’s wife Irina, may have modelled for the hands in this sculpture. Its very conception was also determined by manual dexterity. Moore made the initial model for this work in wax, which he poured into trays and cut into strips, resulting in the ribbon-like quality of the figures. One can sense Moore pinching the soft wax between his fingers. Touch, and the importance Moore placed on hands as a means of expression, will be examined in an exhibition later this year curated by Edmund de Waal, in which this work will feature.
Sedentary yet anticipatory, King and Queen echo a pose familiar to many of us and repeated worldwide. Similarly, casts of this sculpture now preside over rooms and gardens in Belgium, Scotland, the US and Japan. Moore’s work offers escape but also reflection – on power, eternity and human connection.
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