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Tube Shelter Perspective INSIGHT AT END OF THE TUNNEL






Henry Moore, (1898-1986), Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941
pencil, ink, wax and watercolour on paper; 48.3 x 43.8 cm.
This image must not be reproduced or altered without
prior consent from the Henry Moore Foundation.

Thomas Ware, a Tate Member since 1996, tells how Henry Moore's bleak Tube Shelter Perspective brings back the memories of nights spent sheltering from bombs in the London Underground. For a child of the Blitz, the painting captures both the emotion and spirit of the moment

Before I was evacuated from London during the Second World War, I spent a few nights on the platform at Elephant and Castle Tube. On the more crowded nights, it seemed as if the bodies stretched all the way down the tunnel.

For me, Henry Moore's piece really captures that childhood gaze of the endless stacks of limbs running into the dark, the nameless faces, pale and indistinct, the floor foggy and sunken. In Tate Britain, the work hangs in a small room, 'Henry Moore in the 1940s,' along with other 'Tube Shelter' pictures and Moore's bronze sculpture Maquette for Family Group (1945).

While I like the entire series of 'Tube Shelter' pieces, this particular perspective has most resonance for me because of the sense of near vertigo caused by the gaze down the tunnel; the other pieces seem to be more grounded in solid backgrounds. But here, the tunnel pulls you into the work, the ghostly figures swirling around you.

The foggy impression Moore creates with the mix of wax, watercolour, ink, and pencil also stirs up my memories of the gloom and dust in the Underground. The uneven colouring of the people and the walls really brings out the visual distortions caused by the poor lighting in the tunnels. The strokes of wax conjure up the eerie reflections that came from pieces of tile or metal. Behind these reflections, the walls themselves fade away from definitive boundary, going beyond the pure physicality of the tunnel.

The viewer is aware of being in a Tube tunnel, suggested by the two rows of evacuees forming two human railway tracks disappearing into the darkness. These two lines provide the perspective, but the emotion of the place goes far beyond.

The only hint of colour comes in the specks of yellow that appear on people's clothes and skin. This is, for me, an uneasy sense of hope, the memory of sunlight mixed with the subterranean glow, the conditional spark of life that remained in the tunnels, our Limbo, waiting for the all-clear. In the other 'Tube Shelter' works on display in the room, colour comes across in much the same way. For example, the greens and pinks of Shelter Scene: Bunks and Sleepers (1941) melt into each other, into the bodies and into the grey walls, creating the sense of a living spirit that has faded under the circumstances, but has not been extinguished.

The helpless bodies wallow in the grey fog of the indefinite floor, body outlines becoming less defined as the eye probes the depths of the tunnel. One recalls William Blake's images of Dante's Inferno, the bodies prostrate and layered over one other. The Tube tunnel floor seems to wash over the figures like a London Styx. This forms an interesting counterpoint to the Family Group sculpture. The faces and bodies of the sculpture take on much the same look as the more visible figures in the Tube Shelter Perspective, creating stylistic associations between the two.

The thematic foil comes through the sculpture's emphasis on the family unit, as if to answer the desperate layers of bodies in the shelters with an affirmation of home and hearth.

I applaud the curator of the gallery for showing Moore's wartime works together, demonstrating the complexity of the war experience.

Tate Members who would like to nominate their favourite work from the collection are invited to send their nomination, in no more than 300 words, to TATE magazine, Cond Nast Contract Publishing, Vogue House, 1 Hanover Square, London W1S 1JU.

View other works by Henry Moore in Tate Collection

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