Down in the bowels of The Wallace Collection lies an armoury, filled to the brim with countless items of historical brutality. Dullards like me and you might walk through and just see weapons and armour. Very pretty weapons and armour, sure, but still, little more than tools of war. But the great Henry Moore saw something else in the helmets displayed in those dusty glass cabinets.
When he came to art school in London in the 1920s, after having served in World War One, Moore became particularly fascinated with the protective headgear of ancient soldiers. Walking through this show – which pits his ‘Helmet Head’ sculptures against the objects that inspired them – you suddenly start seeing the world like Moore does.
The main thing you see is that helmets have a dual purpose. They protect the bonce, and they project an image of fierceness and strength. In the process, they act as an intermediary between the inner world and the outer world of the wearer: they aren’t just physical shields, but mental and emotional ones too.
The helmets displayed here are from the middle ages through to the Renaissance, with some WWI items for context. Placing them in an art gallery, rather than an armoury, accentuates their sculptural qualities, their unique aesthetics. With their swooping nose guards and extended eyeholes they feel somehow modern.
Then you see Moore’s own responses, and realise he sees something much deeper in them than their surface aesthetics. Look at the wild-eyed, terrified staring of ‘Helmet Heads’ one and two; the fierce exteriors hide an inner world of fear and fragility. Each helmet houses a twisting, gnarled shape inside, like being able to see someone’s nervous system.
And it makes sense, because the hollowness of a suit of armour or a helmet implies the human, it implies a life that can or did inhabit the space. It also implies a state of war that the fragile human inside is ill-equipped to deal with. Moore expresses that duality brilliantly.
It’s worth noting that, though the exhibition is fascinating, it’s a small show and you don’t get a huge amount of art for your entry fee. But what you do get is great. Moore’s gorgeous ‘Helmet Heads’ are about an interior life that must be shielded. A battle between emotion and confidence, between inner truth and projected strength. If only you could wear Moore’s sculptures in your daily life, you feel like the world might be a little easier to navigate.