Although it does not trumpet its existence, Henry Moore's southern fiefdom is open to visitors under the auspices of a charitable foundation set up by the artist himself in his final years. Visitor numbers have increased every year, but for art lovers and the simply curious, Perry Green remains one of southern England's best kept secrets.
The Henry Moore Foundation is based round the 15th-century house and 70 acres of grounds where the sculptor lived and worked for four decades with his Russian wife Irina. The house is not open to the public, but visitors to the estate can see Moore's workshops and gardens with a special display of 29 sculptures. The layout of the estate has been kept much as it was during the artist's lifetime. Yet this is no passive memorial. Two of Moore's assistants are still working away repairing vandalised public commissions, and preparing other pieces for exhibitions the world over.
In an age before artists became self-publicists, Moore remained a modest, enigmatic figure beavering away quietly behind the ancient Hertfordshire hedgerows. Today, such an atmosphere is retained by allowing the public to view Moore's house and works while honouring his sense of privacy. Ninety-minute tours of the studios and grounds give a fascinating insight into the artist's ideas and working methods. These tours are available by appointment between April and mid-October. However, to celebrate the sculptor's centenary year, the foundation is holding an open day on Saturday 20 June. A Yorkshire brass band will disturb the peace with impunity while visitors will be able to wander through the gardens and studios without booking.
If you elect, as I did, to book a guided tour, you will find that the foundation has honed the visitor experience to a fine art. I joined a mostly elderly group whose agility was easily a match for the two A-level art students in tow. Groups are kept small (15), with plenty of informal interaction encouraged by the volunteer guides. We began our tour with Moore's finished pieces in the gardens, then traced his great themes such as "mother and child" back to their genesis as ideas-cum-small-maquettes, now on display in Moore's studios.
"Gardening is Irina's sculpture," Moore remarked of his wife's great contribution to Perry Green. There are no formal flowerbeds, only areas of lawn surrounded by banks of hornbeam, ash and willow, providing a backdrop for the unfolding drama of this, the perfect outdoor art gallery. Through a gap in the shrubbery looms the 25ft-tall bronze Large Figure in a Shelter. It was amazing to discover the variety of finishes you can get in bronze, from shiny smooth to craggy and weatherbeaten like Moore's face in old age. A lot of stroking and tapping went on and group members were not afraid to contribute their own spontaneous reactions: "Good Lord, they're hollow."
From the massive we then moved right on to the minuscule. In the Bourne maquette studio we felt close to the man and his unerring feeling for natural forms. We were guided through the scaling-up process, from a tiny, palm-size maquette to plaster cast and through to larger-than-lifesize bronze. This was Moore's nursery, where he grew his ideas. The accumulation of 40 years bursts from every cranny, with shelf after shelf of tiny maquettes, and objects such as pig bones, flints, pebbles, shells - even a rhino skull.
Our final stop was at a restored barn housing a superb sequence of tapestries based on 24 of Moore's drawings. After our guide left us, there was a chance to go solo to see the five large sculptures in the fields. As we had learnt, there was nothing neat about Moore's elemental, primeval vision, and it was reassuring to discover that the estate had not been over sanitised. Avoiding the sheep's droppings, I headed for the giant Reclining Figure on the hill. Surely it echoed the shape of a chicken bone I had spotted earlier on his studio shelf?
The Henry Moore Foundation, Dane Tree House, Perry Green, Much Hadham, Hertfordshire SG10 6EE (01279 843333). Open April-mid October: tours start at 2.30pm on weekdays and must be booked in advance. Weekend tours by arrangement. Adults pounds 3; senior citizens pounds 1.50; under 18s and students free. Open day Saturday, 20 June, 12.30pm-5.30pm - gardens and studios open free. Refreshments and entertainments. Free bus service to/from Bishop's Stortford station 12.30-3.30pm and 5-5.45pm