Henry Moore: Sculptor of mathematical space

Image copyright British library
Image caption The writer Alex Bellos says "the strings, added to the sculptures, really brings them alive"

While instantly recognisable, few people associate Henry Moore's monumental abstract sculptures and reclining bronze figures - or as one critic somewhat derisively put it, "stones with holes in" - with the precise mathematics of geometric form.

But Moore was fascinated by what he described as the space an object displaced. "The hole became as important, as a shape, as the material that surrounded it. To try to know what actual three-dimensional reality is like".

The young Henry Moore's fascination with geometry was fuelled by regular visits to the Science Museum in the 1920's. Then a student at the Royal College of Art, he was a regular visitor to the museum's mathematics gallery, where a series of string models developed around the turn of the century were on display.

Now these models - and the sculptures and drawings they inspired - have been put on display in a new exhibition "Intersections" jointly hosted by the Royal Society and the Science Museum.

"What's different about this exhibition" says the curator, Cambridge University's Barry Phipps, "is that we're not just looking at the end product of an artist's thinking. We're thinking with Henry Moore, looking into his mind to see what an artist of such stature takes from a mathematical model, to inspire new forms in his own sculpture".

The models - elaborate cat's-cradles of interwoven straight lines, or strings - are beautiful structures in their own right.

With no computer graphics to help them, the Royal Society's librarian Keith Moore, says mathematicians were forced to build them to visualise their ideas about curved space.

"You can use them to develop curves, cones, and no end of interesting geometric shapes" he says. "You get some very interesting effects if the strings are made of different colours and you can begin to represent different dimensions, not in terms of abstract numbers but in terms of a physical experience".

Walking round the exhibition I bumped into Alex Bellos, the author of Alex's Adventures in Numberland. "My first thought is rather one of surprise" he says. "You tend to think of mathematical art as quite stern and devoid of life. But the strings, added to the sculptures, really brings them alive".

"The great quote about the beauty of mathematics" he added "is from Bertrand Russell who said the beauty of mathematics is the cold and austere beauty of a sculpture. And here we have sculptures expressing that beauty and there's nothing cold or austere about them".