Dentist, modernist, activist: the many lives of sculptor Ronald Moody

<span>Head space … Ronald Moody with Johanaan in 1963.</span><span>Photograph: Val Wilmer</span>
Head space … Ronald Moody with Johanaan in 1963.Photograph: Val Wilmer

In the summer of 1938, the sculptor Ronald Moody might have been forgiven for thinking that the path of his career was set. He had exhibited alongside Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and his work was being well reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic. He moved from London to Paris, where he got married and began moving among a community of artist friends that included Man Ray and Wifredo Lam. Describing the headily productive atmosphere of the city at that time he recalled it as “so much like champagne, and yet where the artist can find peace and time for contemplation”.

Of course, the cataclysm of the second world war soon ended this idyll, and it also dramatically changed what Moody did and how he was regarded. While he continued to sculpt, he also became a broadcaster, poet, teacher, organiser, mentor and much more.

“Somehow it’s taken this long, and for the world to be as it is today, to allow us to understand and embrace him as a whole,” says Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski, author of a new book, Ronald Moody: Sculpting Life (Thames & Hudson), and co-curator, at Hepworth Wakefield, of the first major show dedicated to his work. Bringing together Moody and his contemporaries’ art alongside archival material, it casts new light on a varied life and career.

“It’s just over 100 years since Moody arrived in Britain from Jamaica and it’s 40 years since he died,” she continues. “So it feels like a good time to examine what he brought to the table. The label of 1930s pioneer of modernism is true, but he lived for a long time after that and everything else he did is also relevant in terms of looking at his work, as well as at his impact on the world around him.”

Moody was born in Jamaica, in 1900, into a prosperous professional family with strong links to the law and medicine. If he had any early artistic ambitions they were not encouraged, and when he travelled to London in 1923 it was to study dentistry, not art. But after a chance visit to the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum, Moody began to sculpt – initially using leftover plaster of paris from the surgery – and over time his focus switched. “Not that his medical background was wasted,” says Ahaiwe Sowinski. “His understanding of physiology informed his sculpture and his exemplary record-keeping has been a great help to those of us years later seeking to learn about his work.”

There was an internationalism to Moody’s activities in the 1930s, with associations to Harlem Renaissance artists in the US as well as eminent artists in the UK and Paris. His traumatic escape from the Nazis – a perilous 16-month long journey via Marseille and eventually over the Pyrenees – had a lasting effect on his health.

Back in London, he began to broadcast to Britain and overseas on the BBC radio series Calling the West Indies before embarking on the remarkably diverse range of activities he maintained until the end of his life, which included engagement with the newly formed Caribbean Artists Movement, as well as making work in the mainstream of British culture, such a bust of the comic actor Terry-Thomas, a family friend for whom his wife had worked for many years.

“And there was so much unsung work behind the scenes supporting artists and exhibitions and organisations and so on,” says Ahaiwe Sowinski. “Some artists solely make art, but Moody was also an ambassador and that is part of his legacy – you can trace the importance of that work through to many artists today. He allows us to build new connections and while this show looks back at his work, it is also an invitation for new scholarship and new understanding of what he achieved. I hope it is both a summation and a start.”

In the Moody: four works from the Hepworth show

Savacou, 1964
Commissioned for the epidemiological research unit at the University of the West Indies, this sculpture was described by Moody as “an abstracted parrot form” of Caribbean origins. The design was later used as the colophon logo for the journal of the Caribbean Artists Movement.

Johanaan, 1936
While Moody went on to work with a wide variety of materials, he was best known for his work with wood. This monumental early carving was sculpted from a trunk of elm given to him by his then wife-to-be, Helene.

Man … His Universe, 1969
A later work made out of glass resin that illustrates the duality of humankind through the depiction of a Janus head encircled by a mythical hybrid creature with the foot of a lion, body of a snake and head of a bird.

Marseille Figure, 1940-43
Moody carved this tiny 11cm figure when he returned to the UK after his escape from France. It is made from a piece of mahogany given to him as a Christmas present by fellow refugees in Marseille and he carried it with him as a sort of talisman for the rest of his life.

Ronald Moody: Sculpting Life is at the Hepworth Wakefield to 3 November. Ronald Moody: Sculpting Life by Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski is published by Thames & Hudson (£30).