Ronald Moody: a way of life

Like the sons of most middle-class West Indians, Ronald Moody was expected to become a professional. Reluctantly, he trained as a dentist, but a chance turn in the British Museum changed his life forever. His niece Cynthia Moody profiles one of the Caribbean's premier sculptors

  • Wohin. Photograph by Cynthia Moody
  • Tacet. Photograph by Cynthia Moody
  • Three Heads. Photograph courtesy Cynthia Moody
  • Savacou. Photograph by Cynthia Moody
  • Anima (left) and Vision. Photograph courtesy Cynthia Moody
  • Moody with Concrete Family. Photograph by Val Wilmer
  • Moody working with actor Terry Thomas. Photograph courtesy Cynthia Moody
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  • Ronald Moody. Photograph by David Sharkey

“Why am I a sculptor? I have given myself a satisfactory answer. One does not choose a way of life – and with me it is a way of life – one grows into it; a subtle process of interaction of past and present. My past is a mixture of African, Asian and European influences and, as I have lived many years in Europe, my present is the result of friction of Europe with my past. This has not resulted in my becoming an ersatz European, but has shown what is valuable in my inheritance, which I think shows in my work.”

The influences which shaped Ronald Moody’s work are best seen in his serene figures in wood, especially Johanaan, his massive torso in elm, a piece that “seems to fuse racial types into a monumental image of man.” It was the first of these extraordinary figures, Wohin, “an unforgettable head of a man, of strange problematical expression; the lips parted, full of thirst; the eyes wide open, fixed on space,” that launched Moody’s professional career as a sculptor.

Ronald Moody was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on August 12,1900, into a high-achieving professional family. The youngest but one of six siblings, he received a classics-based education and developed a lasting commitment to Latin, literature and the arts. When the time came to choose a career, he toyed with the idea of choosing an arts degree, much to the dismay of his family. It was made quite clear that this was out of the question, so he reluctantly decided to study dentistry, this being “the least of all evils” and a means of getting away to think things out for himself and discover where his true interests lay.

Moody began his studies at Kings College, London University, in 1923. He was a voracious reader and soon became immersed in Plato and the metaphysics of China and India, which he debated vigorously with a growing circle of friends, predominantly writers and artists. He became an habitue of galleries and museums, and on a visit to the British Museum in 1928, his life changed dramatically – he turned left instead of right and chanced upon Egyptian sculpture. Many years later he wrote:

To my utter amazement I saw – if that is the right word – felt and I think, understood the tremendous inner force, the living inner silence, the irrepressible movement in stillness, which some of the pieces possessed, which also seemed to spread through my body. When I eventually left, people and things around me appeared to have changed. My relationship with them was clearer, closer and more distant. I scarcely discussed what had happened, but knew what I must do.”

Moody immediately began experimenting with plasticine, and soon graduated to plaster left over from his dental work . As there was neither time nor money for formal training, he found his way by trial and error, relying on the guidance and criticism of informed friends, “being encouraged on the one hand and completely torn to bits on the other.” By the time he qualified in dentistry in 1930, he was already achieving striking results in sculpture, but the need to earn a living forced him grudgingly to set up his dental practice. During the next three years, he spent his days cooped up in his surgery, dashing home at night to sculpt.

In 1934, inspired by his questioning of man’s spiritual destiny, Moody embarked on his first venture in wood, Wohin, named after the Schubert song. The impact of this work was such that film director Alberto Cavalcanti took an active interest in his career. Johanaan (1936) followed soon after, as did other pieces. By 1937, Moody had a substantial collection and, as a result of Cavalcanti’s influence, held a solo show in Paris, followed by another in Amsterdam in the spring of 1938. They were outstanding successes. An eminent French critic wrote: “Based on solid foundations, his art often reaches great heights, and the robust suppleness of a work such as Wohin can leave no-one indifferent.” A Dutch critic went even further: “Nobility is the hallmark of Moody’s art. Nobility of form in which the nobility of the soul of the creator is manifest . . . Ronald Moody is one of the greatest sculptors of today.”

Encouraged by these accolades and the commissions that followed, Moody abandoned dentistry, and in the spring of 1938 settled in Paris, where he was joined by Helene Cowan, a close companion since student days, whom he married at the British Consulate on July 22. Two prodigiously creative years followed, accompanied by growing recognition and participation in prominent exhibitions, such as the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Tuileries. Moody had every reason to look to the future with supreme confidence.

This halcyon period was brought to a brutal end when Paris fell to the Germans in 1940. Fortunately, in December 1938, 12 sculptures had been sent to America for exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and elsewhere, for Moody had to abandon all his remaining work and tools in a friend’s studio when he and Helene fled Paris, just two days before the Germans entered. They joined the multitudes making their way south and, after two peril-ridden, foot-sore weeks, reached Marseille, where Moody was stranded for ten months before eventually escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain. This was after two abortive attempts, the second of which ended in a week’s imprisonment and interrogation.

Following his return to London in October 1941, there was little time or energy for sculpting, what with compulsory work as a dentist and Civil Defence duties. In any case, Moody had neither studio nor tools, and suitable wood was well-nigh impossible to come by. On learning of his predicament, a complete stranger sent him a set of chisels, planes and gauges, while friends went out scavenging for wood – a railway sleeper became Sleeper Mask (1943); a dark oak beam belonging to a cider press produced two torsos, Vision and Anima (1944); and from a slender piece of golden oak from a cart-builder emerged Three Heads (1946), the only modem piece in Jawaharlal Nehru’s collection of classical Buddhist art.

Moody was profoundly affected by his experiences in France and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, and much of his subsequent work concerned the dichotomy between man’s potential for self-destruction and for spiritual evolution.

Three Heads, the first of many symbolic sculptures that mirrored Moody’s dismay, was finished in time for his 1946 solo show at the Arcade Gallery, Bond Street. But it was the massive figure of Johanaan, flanked by Vision and Anima, which attracted the most attention. I can see them still, standing like sentinels at the far end of the gallery, dominating the war-shabby surroundings with the immensity of their presence.

The show was a critical success, and Moody’s career seemed once again to be in full flight: exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam and London were scheduled for the following spring, and he was seriously considering returning to Paris to live. But all was brought to nought in February 1947 when he succumbed to tuberculosis, the outcome of the privations undergone in France.

During the next three years, Moody was virtually unable to work and, devastated by this second setback to his career, he took refuge in an exhaustive study of metaphysics and gnosticism, formulating the personal concepts that influenced his work thereafter.

In May 1950, Moody was well enough to hold his rescheduled solo show at the Galerie Apollinaire, London, which was opened by the Secretary of State for the Colonies. It was, perforce, largely retrospective, consisting of work done before he fell ill and supplemented by pieces recently retrieved from the United States and Paris. Nevertheless, it was well-received by the critics and led to extensive press coverage and the acquisition of The Priest (1939) by what is now the Government Art Collection.

By then, Moody had resumed his regular talks on the BBC programme Calling the West Indies, starting with an eight-part series on the History of Art, scripted during his convalescence. Throughout the 50s, he gave talks and participated in BBC programmes such as Letter from London, Caribbean Survey, and West Indian Diary. He also wrote articles and reviews, and collaborated on Amadu’s Bundle, a collection of traditional Fulani stories, published in 1972.

Meanwhile, Moody was becoming well-known for his portraits and was invited to become a member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors the year after its inception in 1952. He was elected to the Council in 1959 and participated in all the Society’s annual and thematic shows until 1971. He also exhibited with other distinguished groups such as the Kensington Artists, Chelsea Artists and the Royal Academy. He became involved with the Societe Africaine de Culture in Paris and served on the London Committee for the Second Conference of Negro Writers and Artists (Rome, 1959), where he presented a paper, The Responsibility of the Artist.

The role of the artist as observer-interpreter is a recurrent theme in Moody’s writing, which he visualised in The Onlooker (1958), one of the rare works in wood from this period. Preoccupied with society’s growing obsession with technology and the all pervasive post-war use of concrete, he used this material in War and the Human Being as part of the symbolism of his concern. Quickly becoming fascinated by the textural effects he was able to achieve, Moody worked mainly in ciment-fondu for the next seven years, producing his monolithic Concrete Family, two members of which, The Mother (1958) and Man (1959), were shown at the SAC Rome conference.

In July 1959, Moody moved to a purpose-built complex in Chelsea, where Johanaan and Concrete Family stood by the window opening onto the yard at the rear. They would inevitably have influenced Elisabeth Frink, who occupied the studio adjacent to his.

Moody’s 1960 solo show at the Woodstock Gallery, London, included The Mother and Reclining Figure (1959-60) in concrete. They came as a profound shock to his adherents, who were aghast at this dramatic departure from the powerful forms in wood to which they were accustomed. Moody was unrepentant, and his second Woodstock exhibition, held a year later, contained many new pieces in concrete and fibreglass, including portraits. However, by then, these works were beginning to be appreciated.

Moody had long been interested in the cultures indigenous to the Caribbean and had made a special study of the Taino and the beliefs that gave birth to their art. He drew largely on this when asked to give a talk on The Visual Arts in the West Indies, at the Royal Commonwealth Society’s 1962 summer school at Oxford; and a year later, when commissioned to sculpt a piece to stand on the campus of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, he chose as his subject a deity in Taino cosmology, Savacou, who controlled thunder and strong winds, and served time on earth in the form of a bird before returning to heaven as a star.

On August 21, 1964, Savacou was unveiled on the lawn of the Commonwealth Institute in London, where it was displayed for a month. Seven weeks later, Moody departed for Jamaica to organise the plinth – his first visit since leaving for England 41 years earlier. His brief stay was taken up with Savacou and family affairs, and there was little time to dwell on the changes that had taken place. Nonetheless, after his return to London, the renewed links with the past led him to join the Caribbean Artist Movement in 1967. Although he remained wary of any kind of political or social activism, he participated regularly in their exhibitions and debates, while maintaining his individualistic stance. In 1970, the CAM magazine Savacou, published in Jamaica, adopted as its colophon a design based on the sculpture’s head.

In 1972, Moody returned to Jamaica as a special guest of the Fine Arts Festival to open Art 72, a 30-year review of Jamaican art. His two-week stay was jam-packed with social engagements, radio and television interviews, and featured a slide presentation of his work, which resulted in Edna Manley’s intention that the proposed National Gallery of Jamaica should buy his massive head Tacet (1938). Despite his heavy schedule, Moody managed to spend time with many of the leading artists.

Savacou marked Moody’s abandonment of concrete in favour of metallic-resins. He explored their textural potential in diverse amalgams – bronze, aluminium, lead, glass and copper – mostly in symbolic works, but also in portraits, all but one of which were in copper resin thereafter. At the same time he became fascinated by the visual effects he was able to create with coloured inks, and produced a series of over 30 “ink paintings” which he described as “abstracts inspired by the richness of nature and life in general.”

By the early 70s he was working exclusively in wood again, and his last four symbolic figures were carved from the hardest he could lay his hands on. They included two versions of the apocalyptic Time Hiroshima (1977), the only work duplicated by Moody throughout his career, indicating the extent of his despair over man’s future.

Thoroughly disillusioned, Moody turned to the past; and his last sculptures are remembrances of the late 30s, when the future had everything to offer. Allowing for different woods and techniques, they are virtually identical in form and detail to the works they conjure up, especially in the case of the tiny head of his wife, Helene, carved after her death in 1978.

Moody’s latter years brought kudos. In 1977 he was awarded the Musgrave Gold Medal, Jamaica’s most prestigious cultural award, and served as chairman of the UK Visual Arts Sub-Committee for the Festival of Art and Culture ’77 in Lagos, Nigeria. In 1980 he received the Jamaica Institute Centenary Medal, “for his long contribution to art,” and in 1981 the M.A.A.S. Award, London, “For an outstanding contribution to sculpture in Britain.”

Moody never recovered from Helene’s death. He felt, “As far as my work is concerned, I have reached a stage of inner bankruptcy.” His health, which had long given cause for concern, deteriorated rapidly, and sojourns in hospital became more frequent. Although very frail, he attended the opening of the Remembrance exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute on August 31, 1983, which marked the twenty-first anniversary of Jamaican independence. There, he was surrounded by seven of his most memorable sculptures, which spanned his long career. Within a few weeks, he was admitted to the Westminster Hospital, where he died on February 6, 1984.

In recent years there has been growing appreciation of Moody’s importance as an artist. He has been represented in several high-profile exhibitions in the UK and United States, and his work is now found in prestigious collections, including the Government Art Collection and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Marking his centennial, Johanaan is one of 100 works selected to represent the Tate collections in the book marking the opening of Tate Britain. There, Moody is grouped with visionary artists such as Blake, Spencer, Turner and Frink – a fitting recognition of his place in 20th century British art.

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