Wallace Collection shows sculptures alongside the armour that inspired them

Henry Moore was fascinated by the Wallace’s collection of armour. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Henry Moore’s celebrated series of helmet head sculptures, which he made sporadically over three decades, will this week be exhibited together for the first and probably only time.

The group of seven works will go on display at the Wallace Collection in London for a groundbreaking exhibition that explores the artist’s fascination with armour and reveals how much how it fed his imagination and inspired his work.

As one of the 20th century’s greatest sculptors, Moore has been endlessly analysed, studied and theorised about by art historians. There is, however, still more to learn, the curators of the new show say.

The artist made many visits to the Wallace Collection in the 1920s and 1930s. While most people go for the jaw-dropping art collection, Moore lingered over helmets and armour.

One of the Wallace Collection’s pieces to have inspired Moore. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“It is kind of remarkable,” said the show’s curator, Hannah Higham. “That in all the many, many volumes of Moore scholarship … no one has actually looked at a Wallace Collection helmet and gone ‘this face opening looks just like that sculpture’.

“This exhibition is never likely to happen again. This is the only place you are going to see it.”

The show is a collaboration between the Wallace and the Henry Moore Foundation, and has been talked about for a number of years.

The Wallace Collection’s director, Xavier Bray, also said it was curious that the subject had not been explored before, and that he hoped the project would show the power of exhibitions. “You see one thing and it helps you understand that, you see another and it helps you understand this. To me that is why exhibitions have to happen.”

The show includes some of the items that inspired Moore, from an ancient Corinthian helmet to a magnificent full set of armour made for a member of the court of King Vladislaus II of Bohemia and Hungary, who ruled at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Moore saw it less armour, more as sculpture.

Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads at the Wallace Collection. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The series of numbered helmet heads are the show stopper at the end of the exhibition. The first was made in 1950 and the seventh in 1975. They can arguably be interpreted as Moore’s expressions of anxiety or hope over world events.

He became a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958 and produced Helmet Head No.3 shortly afterwards. He made the sixth and seventh in 1975, the year democracy was restored in Spain after Franco’s death and the Vietnam war came to an end.

Higham said: “If you plot the production of the helmet heads against world events you get quite a clear correspondence between them and moments of conflict.”

Bray views Moore’s helmet works as an artistic cry for peace in a turbulent world. “His interest in armour reflect his preoccupation with the universal themes of war and peace, which have renewed relevance for contemporary audiences,” Bray said.

Visitors will doubtless make their own interpretations. “He liked the fact that there was ambiguity about meaning,” said Higham. “He didn’t want to make clear statements. It is up to you to read into them.”

The exhibition represents a new chapter in the history of the Wallace, a remarkable collection left to the nation by the widow of Sir Richard Wallace in the 19th century with the condition no work could be loaned. That means people who want to see Frans Hals’ cheery The Laughing Cavalier or Velazquez’s severe The Lady with a Fan in real life have to go to the Wallace.

The Moore show is the first charging exhibition it has held in its new expanded exhibition space.

“It is about shape and form and experiment and about the way Moore was looking around him and the way he was looking at the Wallace Collection,” said Higham. “Hopefully people will shoot upstairs afterwards and they will look at armour in a whole different way.”

Henry Moore: The Helmet Heads is at the Wallace Collection from 6 March to 23 June

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