How the horrors of war moulded Henry Moore

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When his Hampstead studio was bombed and work on his giant sculptures proved impossible, the artist Henry Moore took to recording the damage of the Blitz.

The resulting drawings of Londoners huddling for safety in the Underground proved some of the most moving examples of how the conflict affected everyday life. When Germany was defeated, Moore returned to producing the large-scale sculptures with which he made his name.

But a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London suggests that the experience of the Second World War had a lasting effect on his work.

The curators of the show argue that the major public commissions he produced thereafter, such as the Harlow Family Group and the Festival of Britain Reclining Figure, were a direct response to the experience of war.

Roger Tolson, the museum's head of art, said they were a deliberate celebration of the liberation and reconstruction of public spaces which people had been unable to use while war raged.

"In the post-war work, it's about saying that there's a public life that is rich, that we have earned, that we have reclaimed. We have fought for liberty and now we can own it."

The new show is the Imperial War Museum's first major exhibition of Moore's sculptures, although it displayed his war-time drawings 30 years ago.

It draws extensively on works from the Henry Moore Foundation augmented by important works from the Imperial War Museum itself, the British Museum, the Tate and private collections, to examine the period from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Mr Tolson said that before the war, Moore was preoccupied with his reclining nudes, his figurative pieces and the formal sculptural work such as his stringed pieces. "One senses that he was thinking about Modernism and trying to work out a language of his own," Mr Tolson said. "But the war comes along and imposes events and circumstances that he can't ignore and chooses not to ignore. There is a very striking and immediate engagement [by him] with the events of the time."

Moore, who was too old at 41 to fight, wanted to help the war effort, although he saw combat as a last response.

"He searched for an answer as to what was an appropriate response to fascist Germany," Mr Tolson said.

His social conscious had already involved him in the Artists International Association's campaign against General Franco's Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Works from that time include drawings such as Spanish Prisoners.

The war-time drawings from Belsize Park Underground, north London, so moved Sir Kenneth Clark, head of the National Gallery, that he purchased 16 of them in his role as chairman of the War Artists' Advisory Committee.

Unable to work on major sculptures, Moore also drew miners at work at Wheldale, Yorkshire, where he grew up. After the war he produced colourful textile designs and lithographs in response to post-war austerity.

Henry Moore: War and Utility runs until 25 February. Admission £7, concessions £5

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