Zoe Diao

Curatorial Fellow,
Whitechapel Gallery

Approaching the end of my Fellowship at Whitechapel Gallery, I made a few trips to further my research into the lives of artists who were living in 1950s Post-war London. These visits gave me an opportunity to reflect on my initial findings, allowing me time to examine rare research materials I hadn’t previously encountered, from extensive catalogues and artist monographs to autobiographical writings on artist conversations and creative exchange.


I chose Leeds as the destination for my first research trip. This was mainly due to it being home to many infamous post-war artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and David Hockney. While northern England sometimes feels peripheral to the bustling art scene in London, it's actually home to many canonical post-war artistic figures and is an area I’ve long wanted to explore. At the beginning of my research, I assumed the storytelling of British artists would contrast quite radically to that of international artists who later moved to London. After further investigation, however, I realised there was more of a crossover and exchange between these narratives; they were, in fact, concentric.

The Sculpture Research Library of the Henry Moore Institute is filled with extensive catalogues and monographs of both British and international artists. Here I discovered the autobiographical writings of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Edward Bainbridge Copnall, Ben Nicholson, as well as Edouard Roditi’s conversations with artists in 1960.

The Sculpture Research Library of the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds. Photo: Zoe Diao.


While in the Henry Moore Institute, I learned that the majority of the archival materials are housed in the Henry Moore Archive, part of the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens complex in Perry Green. The artist and his wife Irina Radetsky moved to the peaceful and scenic countryside of Hertfordshire in 1941, after their London flat was destroyed in the war. Perry Green is about thirty-five miles from the centre of London, with Sawbridgeworth being the closest train station and an absence of local buses for the last five miles. The remote openness of the space is really reflected through the seventy acres of sculpture gardens and rolling hills that surround the house, and while the artist’s home, studios and exhibition spaces are open to the public, it certainly feels like the landscape itself was Moore’s own studio through which he shaped and spun his sculptural ideas.

Henry Moore Archive, Perry Green. Photo: Zoe Diao.

In the archive, the team were extremely helpful and prepared the materials I requested before my arrival. I also had the chance to compare different and multiple versions of Moore's writings and interviews. Through this I discovered that he would repeatedly tell the story of how he learned about Michelangelo in Sunday school, inspiring him to become a sculptor; this story was retold in a multitude of ways and illustrated to me how artists often adjust their memories to convey a specific identity. I’m intrigued by this aspect of storytelling and how the malleability of autobiographical narratives can be shaped through time and across different archival materials.

The Reading Room of Henry Moore Archive, Perry Green. Photo: Zoe Diao.


Taking advantage of the convenient location of Delfina Foundation, I decided to pay a visit to the Tate Archive. It’s fascinating to see how different institutions organise their archival materials. While the Whitechapel Archive is organised chronologically by exhibitions, the Tate Archive is categorised under the names of artists and curators. In the archive, I went over the autobiographical manuscripts of British-Argentinian painter/photographer Eileen Agar, Russian sculptor and theorist Naum Gabo, and British painters Paul Nash and Ithell Colquhoun. I was also surprised by the number of revisions British art critic and curator David Sylvester made to his interviews with American artists in the early 1960s.

Another thing I noticed in my research was the absence of archival materials on East Asian artists at the time. Their names rarely appeared in any major solo and group exhibitions, even the Whitechapel Gallery East End Academy Triennial (first organised in 1932) - which claimed to be open to all artists based in East London - had no names of East Asian artists. The absence of materials on these artists didn’t deny the fact that there was a populous of them living in London in the post-war era, rather it was a poignant indicator that they were systematically overlooked. This couldn't be seen more clearly than in the 1962 interview of Chinese-born artist Michael Chow, who when questioned about his solo exhibition in Lincoln Gallery, London was asked first “which western artists have influenced your work?."

“My archival research process gathered from the Tate Archive” – Zoe Diao. Image courtesy Zoe Diao.

Zoe will present her final project outcome for the Curatorial Fellowship at Whitechapel Gallery later this month. To find out more about her research and work, visit 'Galleries in the Groove: Three Visionary Dealers, 1960s–80s' on show at Whitechapel Gallery, London from 21 December 2021 to 21 August 2022. The exhibition is curated and organised by Head of Curatorial Studies and Archives, Dr. Nayia Yiakoumaki, Assistant Curator Ines Costa and Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow Zoe Diao.