Every room in Tate Britain (part two)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a striking neo-classical building (opened 1897) complete with columned portico and grand steps leading up to the entrance, which faces out onto the river Thames. To the left of the main entrance a ramp and steps lead down to the lower floor, which holds a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened in 1987) – nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s enormous collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a small room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Haunting, scattered sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, to walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of the main chronological sequence are seven or eight single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1910

I left off my coverage of every room in Tate Britain (part one) with the advent of the Great War, half way through the 1910 room. The second half of the room includes post-War art:

  • Alfred Wallis St Ives (1928) Wallis was a ‘naive’ artist, a retired sea captain who took up painting on scraps of cardboard or wood he could scrounge. He was discovered and taken up by professional artists Ben Nicholson, was exhibited in London and became a sensation.
  • Eric Gill The East Wind (1929) Gill was commissioned to create relief sculptures for various public buildings including the BBC building in Portland Square. This is a scale model of one of a series commissioned for London Underground headquarters. I venerate it for its combination of medieval and modernist influences.
  • Stanley Spencer The Resurrection (1927) From my visit to Cookham and the Stanley Spencer gallery there, I got a powerful sense of Spencer’s very English, eccentric reverence for his birthplace, which he saw as an earthly paradise suffused with God’s presence. Thus his resurrection is placed in the homely graveyard of Cookham church.
  • Frank Dobson Sir Osbert Sitwell, Bt (1923) Both Dobson and Sitwell were part of the packed but somehow second-rate literary and artistic world of the 1920s. This is modernism watered down to become Art Deco.
  • Charles Sargeant Jagger No Man’s Land (1919–20) The wall label makes the interesting point that in the immediate post-war years there was a flood of memorials. Jagger served and was wounded twice. His most famous memorial is the stunning Royal Artillery memorial (1921–5) at Hyde Park corner.
  • William Roberts The Cinema (1920) Typical of the way the Futurist and Vorticist experiments on the eve of the war were turned into a formula afterwards.
  • Wyndham Lewis Edith Sitwell (1923-35) I’ve loved Lewis for thirty years. This comes from his later ‘portraits of poets and writers’ phase, when the harsh Vorticism of the pre-War had been softened right down to create realistic though still beautifully stylised portraits. Apparently the sittings were fraught, with Lewis unable to conceal his growing contempt for Sitwell and her brothers and the shallow English dilettantism he thought she epitomised.

Just in this one room I think you can see the damage the Great War did. On its eve there was a tremendous sense of excitement and anticipation as the European figurative tradition was rejected and transcended by artists in Paris and London and Rome and Moscow and Berlin and Vienna. But, apart from killing off many of these artists, the War somehow damaged Modernism. The post-War saw a great retrenchment and retreat from the heady visions of its eve. Moscow was taken over by revolutionary utopianism; Berlin was characterised by the bitterness of the losers, Grosz and Dix; Paris saw a bewildering confusion of styles; and here in England, although Modernist mannerisms and styles dominated, they somehow feel secondary, lacking the first fine careless rapture. Compare and contrast the phenomenal excitement of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (1913) with the smooth professionalism of Dobson’s Sitwell (1923).

  • Related maybe to Spencer’s naive view of the English landscape but rerouted into an uncanny proto-surrealism is the work of Paul Nash, demonstrated here by Landscape at Iden (1929). The discretely placed, carefully spaced, unconnected objects are reminiscent of the strange dream landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, only in a bucolic Sussex landscape not the Italian’s eerily emptied Renaissance piazzas.

Henry Moore

There are two rooms dedicated to Henry Moore, one of England’s most famous twentieth century artists, one of the most successful, prolific and easily recognisable. Typifying the philistinism which crippled the nation’s art collections in the 1920s and 1930s, the Tate’s then Director, JB Manson is quoted as saying in 1938 that Henry Moore would enter the Tate over his dead body. The wall label quietly crows that Tate now owns 634 works by Moore, who ended up a director of Tate, as well as a Companion of Honour and Order of Merit. The first three acquisitions were:

It may be blasphemy but seeing two rooms full of his work assembled like this gave me the overwhelming impression how morbid and dated Moore is. His international reputation was sealed when he won first prize at the 1948 Venice Biennale and from then onwards commissions flooded in and work poured out. The first room is long and narrow, with half a dozen smaller works and some of the wartime sketches of Londoners sheltering in the Tube during the Blitz. The second room contains a video of the artist at work and half a dozen enormous sculptures such as Draped seated figure (1958). Je n’aime pas.

One of the wall panels shows how one of his works ended up on the windswept Stifford council estate in Stepney and photos of the proud councillors in suits and ties and pearl twinsets and horn-rimmed glasses standing nervously around this object from another planet. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition included sections showing how Hepworth, Moore and their contemporaries’ work was in part driven by utopian hopes for a new, more egalitarian or even socialist society, after the sufferings of the Second World War. Their sculptures are part of the world, the mindset, the culture of the exciting new high-rise flats of the 1950s and 60s. Is the art as much of an optimistic failure as the utopian and now discredited architecture?

1930

  • Edward Burra Snack bar (1930) Burra is undervalued, an English combination of the strange detachment of surrealism – then flourishing in France – with the biting social satire of a Georg Grosz.
  • There are several examples of Ben and Winifred Nicholson’s pallid white relief sculptures.
  • Gerald Leslie Brockhurst’s Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (c.1931) A traditional technique applied in unpropitious times, the darkness of catastrophe creeping in from the East. It’s an oddly haunting image.

The room is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (1940–1), the other works barely exist next to it. Monumental primitivist sculpture is one of the enduringly successful strands of the first half of the century of catastrophes, as practiced by Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill, Epstein.

1940

In my opinion something bad happened to English art during the 1930s and 1940s and lingered on into the 50s. Although there is a wide range of works on display, most by people I’ve never heard of, the main works by the main figures all seem to me depressed, dark and murky. The overcast climate, the windswept streets, the London fogs become part of the terrible political situation, which went rapidly downhill into the horror of the Second World War, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, in a vortex which seems to have dispirited and demoralised so much art from this period.

  • Graham Sutherland Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods (1940) the reproduction makes this picture appear more interesting than it is, in a science fiction-y kind of way. In fact it is a good specimen of Sutherland’s horrifying distortions. I like his portrait of Somerset Maugham (not on display). It’s fitting that Churchill’s wife destroyed Sutherland’s portrait of her husband, it was so revolting. But much of his painting seems damaged, stricken, scary.
  • David Bomberg Bomb store (1942) Compare and contrast with the same artist’s phenomenal Mud bath from 1914. Hasn’t there been a tragic decline from clarity and excitement into static murk?
  • Alan Davie Entrance to Paradise (1949) You can’t blame them for being depressed but a lot of the English work from this period is black, psychologically and pictorially. Paradise looks like this?
  • Francis Bacon Study for three figures at the foot of the cross (1944) It may be a masterpiece and Bacon a vast presence in post-war English and international art and it’s hard not to respond to its power and horror. But I don’t like it. It adds to the circumambient murk the added flavours of despair and nihilism.
  • Stanley Spencer Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937) Spencer had the same naive approach to painting himself, his wife or mistresses naked as he did to painting Jesus preaching in Cookham. But I find it depressing that even he shares in the ‘human beings are hunks of meat’ mentality epitomised by Francis Bacon’s screaming, tortured beasts. There was something dehumanising about the times, which light, politely experimental pieces like Ben Nicholson’s white reliefs struggle against in vain eg White relief (1935)

1950

  • R.B. Kitaj Erasmus Variations (1958) Kitaj, an American, moved to Britain in 1958 to study art after serving in the US Army. This is, therefore, a very early work. Interesting, but unrepresentative of what was to follow.
  • F.N. Souza Crucifixion (1959) Born to Catholic parents in the Indian state of Goa, Souza moved to Britain to study art. 1. It’s noticeable that there is more explicitly Christian art in the Tate’s display of the 20th century, than in the displays of previous 400 years. 2. This is actually a strikingly modern work, with its consciously third World feel. Alternatively, you could say more recent works by artists from former colonies haven’t progressed much beyond where Souza was in 1959. Dark, though.
  • Lowry The Pond (1950) Last year’s big Lowry exhibition crystallised why I don’t like him. For some reason people in the North see him as some kind of advocate or champion of their culture, when the art very obviously embodies a faceless, anonymous, grey-skied, depressive worldview, fully reinforced by interviews with the miserable old so-and-so.
  • Peter Lanyon St Just (1953) This painting is darker, murkier in the flesh. I’d have dismissed it as another 1950s abstract in the dirty greens I associate with Graham Sutherland, but for the lucky coincidence that I happen to have visited the smashing exhibition of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings earlier this week and saw how his work would evolve into bigger, brighter, happier pictures.

1960

An explosion of talent, which contemporaries must have experienced with tremendous excitement.

  • Anthony Caro Early one morning (1962) His unashamed use of industrial materials must have blown a few minds.
  • Bridget Riley. My understanding of Riley was recently improved by the exhibition of her early work at the Courtauld Gallery, so that I enjoyed and appreciated her two works here as among the most original and exciting in the 1960s room: Hesitate (1962) and Late morning (1967-8), both examples of her interest in optical effects or Op Art.
  • John Hoyland 28. 5. 66 (1966) A kind of missing link between Riley’s clean and precise line paintings and the shimmering blocks of colour made by Mark Rothko, which I recently saw at Tate Modern.
  • Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) Born of Italian parents, Paolozzi was a sculptor, collagist, printmaker, filmmaker and writer. The Tate search engine suggests they have nearly 400 of his works. He’s represented here by Konsul (1962) a big, impressive abstract sculpture, reminiscent of the found materials used by the Italian Arte Povera artists.
  • David Hockney is here of course, represented by the early Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) which is Pop but ruined by a very mid-century urge to deform the human figure, and the later A bigger splash (1967), one of his countless California swimming pool series.
  • John Latham Film Star (1960) The books are stuck to the surface of the canvas and stick out prominently. I like art with stuff stuck to the surface, from the cubists onwards, as if the art is enacting the struggle to emerge from the actual world of junk and rubbish which surrounds us.
  • Patrick Heron Azalea Garden : May 1956 (1956) I don’t know much about Heron but this was a welcome relief from so many dark images.
  • Peter Blake is associated with happy shiny Pop Art so it comes as surprise to see just how dark are works like On the balcony (1955-57) and Self portrait with badges (1961). Very dark. Painted at night.

1980

  • Gilbert and George England 1980 Either you like G&G or you don’t. I find the scale, the brightness and the humour of their stuff a terrific relief from the murk and darkness and nihilism of so much of the painting of the 1940s to 1970s.
  • A case in point is Leon Kossoff. This reproduction of Booking Hall, Kilburn Underground (1987) in no way conveys the three dimensional nature of the painting, with its gloops and loops of oil rising above the surface like muddy waves in the North Sea.
  • Prunella Clough Wire and Demolition (1982) One of the stories of these rooms is the steady increase in the number of women artists. I know nothing about Clough but I liked the brightness and kookiness of the composition.
  • Richard Long has been making walking art for decades, either creating art works along the way of his massive hikes across the UK or in remote foreign locations, then photographing them; or bringing raw materials back from his trips and creating generally simple geometrical shapes with them. The sculptures are genuinely connected to the source locations. In the middle of the 1980s room is Red Slate Circle (1988) and very wonderful it is, too.

1990 and 2000

After a series of same-shaped rooms, the space devoted to the 1990s and 2000s is much larger, irregularly shaped, brighter, with bigger sculptures and installations as well as bigger, more brightly coloured paintings and several videos.

  • Damien Hirst Forms without life (1991) One of his many vitrines or cabinet pieces. There it is. Hirst is the Henry Moore or David Hockney of our generation, an initially exciting and liberating presence who has turned himself into an international brand amid an unstoppable torrent of output, of never-ceasing product.
  • Jane and Louise Wilson Blind landings (2013) These sisters produce black and white photos of ruined buildings and sites. I learned about them via Tate’s exhibition of Ruin Art, which featured their massive and hugely evocative photos of abandoned Nazi defences on the Normandy coast. What’s not to like, indeed love, about their beautifully framed and shot and composed images of architectural desolation?
  • Howard Hodgkin Porlock (2012) Born in 1932 Hodgkin has been a presence in English painting for 60 years. Lots of his work is big and bright and colourful so it’s disappointing he’s represented by this brown and grey daub.
  • Martin Boyce Suspended fall (2005) Anyone who’s visited Tate Modern’s Alexander Calder exhibition will know about the history and evolution of the ‘mobile’. Instead of lovingly crafted organic shapes, Boyce has smashed up a modern chair and suspended its pieces from metal brackets. An apt image of English vandalism.

One-off rooms

  • Charlotte Moth Downstairs, next to the cafe, is the Archive display room. This is currently given over to a display by Charlotte Moth, born in 1978. According to the wall label Tate has over 1 million items in its archive and 800 full collections. Moth was given free run of it and came up with a show titled ‘Inserts 2015’. It consists of 10 vitrines ie glass-fronted cabinets displaying photos, magazines, newspaper cuttings and other ephemera from the 1930s to the 1960s, inspired by and often depicting the staging and positioning and unveiling of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth. Plus a ten-minute video, Filmic sketches, taken in places mentioned in the cases. My favourite was a b&w photo of a clutch of civil dignities uncomfortably posed around a lean modernist sculpture in front of a new red-brick civic centre. Standing there in their black suits and ties and twin pearls and horn-rimmed glasses, how they hope it will all somehow make sense. But it won’t. 15 years later, the Sex Pistols will be playing in that civic centre, the failure of the post-war dream converted into sonic fury.
  • Bruce McLean This room is dedicated to a a 23-minute black and white film McLean made in 1970 titled In the shadow of your smile, which consists of the artist sitting behind a desk with bits of studio bric-a-brac in vision, talking into a microphone about how he is struggling to create work in the shadow of his art school teachers Anthony Caro and such like, with deliberate bad edits, sound interference, drifting in and out of synch with shapes or tape damage appearing in the image. Phenomenally dated.
  • Gustav Metzger (b.1926) Metzger was born of Polish Jews in Nuremberg. He was lucky enough to get out of Germany on the eve of World War II but, obviously, a lot of his family will have been murdered along with tens of millions of others between 1939 and 1945. This room is devoted to the idea of Auto-Destructive Art which Metzger developed right at the start of the 1960s, art made on transient, destructible media like wood or cardboard. He was a vociferous political activist who managed to get arrested a few times. The act of making things and then destroying them is as important as displaying them, so there are photos and pamphlets and brochures about his work. Images of auto destructive art.
  • John Gerrard The room is devoted to Sow Farm (near Libbey, Oklahoma) (2009) consists of one continuous tracking shot around the Sow Farm of the title, an industrial buildings isolated in a perfectly flat landscape, looking like… well, you can bring your own associations to this flat, silent, eerie moving image.
  • Tracey Emin This small room contains My bed (1998) looking as dirty, unmade and surrounded with detritus as ever, along with several Francis Bacon paintings which she’s chosen – Study of a dog (1952) and Reclining woman (1961), and some of her drawings, apparently of a female nude. To quote the wall label: ‘By virtue of bringing the domestic into the public sphere, without directly representing specific events, the installation is forcefully and compellingly suggestive of personal narratives.’
  • Art Now: Vanilla and concrete In a room off to the side near the main entrance is an exhibition of art now, comprising works by three women artists:
    • Marie Lund Stills What look like big brown abstracts but, on closer investigation, turn out to be four large canvases painted to convey the effect of curtains. Raising the vessel, a couple of attractive bronze plates each with what looks like the impact of a meteorite denting them. Loads a bunch of sacks cast in concrete with polyester sewing. Not so impressive, rather like Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts.
    • Rallou Panagiotou A Pop Art-ish interest in mass-produced everyday objects. These made me smile, what a relief after the murk and Bacon pieces of meat. Liquid Degrade white is a straw and lessons in eye liner is two eyebrow shaped black swirls stuck to the wall.
    • Mary Ramsden Her work, according to the wall label, is inspired by the smears and traces left by fingers on touch screens and smart phones. Hyper modern subject matter, but I felt I’d seen many, many abstract works in the preceding galleries which looked just like her paintings, so I liked her least of the three.

Related links

Other museums

British Folk Art @ Tate Britain

This is the third exhibition at Tate Britain based around a loose theme which gives rise to a very varied and miscellaneous set of exhibits. Folk art has the benefit of being a well-established genre (as the numerous books in the shop at the exit testify) – more so that Ruin Art and Damaged Art, the previous two shows. Still it makes for a a slightly confusing experience, having to consider and assess ship figureheads, naive paintings, pin cushions, thatched figures and ornamental jugs.

Definition

The commentary didn’t give a clear definition, more two or three ‘approaches’ to what folk art might be. It is generally made by people who aren’t academically trained artists. It is not defined as ‘art’ by scholars and historians of art. It is not generally bought and sold on the international art market.

British Folk Art | Heart Pincushion. Artist Unknown. Beamish, The Living Museum of the North (Photo: Tate Photography)

British Folk Art | Heart Pincushion. Artist Unknown. Beamish, The Living Museum of the North (Photo: Tate Photography)

The commentary says it was after the Second World War, around the time of the Festival of Britain, that ‘serious’ academic interest first began to be given to these objects. Around the time, in other words, that people stopped making them and that centuries-old traditions of festivals and figureheads and dances and plays were destroyed by the new mass media world of radio, TV, film and rock’n’roll.

My definition would be: artefacts made by (generally anonymous) untrained craftsmen and women which have an obvious non-practical, aesthetic purpose but which, until very recently, were rejected from scholarly consideration by the ‘art establishment’. Of course, in the last generation as neo-liberal capitalism has generated vast surpluses of capital looking for a home, all kinds of things have become vehicles for investment and so I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the hand-made art-works of Napoleonic prisoners of war didn’t now have their own niche and price bubble.

British Folk Art | Bone Cockerel (detail) Artist Unknown. Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

British Folk Art | Bone Cockerel (detail) Artist Unknown. Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Characteristics

Early on a curator usefully describes the appeal of at least some of these hand-made, home-made objects: it’s the way folk art combines physical toughness and robustness and solidity with whimsy and delicacy and inventiveness. Another way of putting this might be that, glutted with the dead ends of ‘formal’, ‘academic’ Art, thrill seekers and aesthetes have turned in the past generation to objects their forefathers rejected as crude and vulgar.

Patchwork Bedcover made by James Williams, Wrexham 1842-52. St Fagans: National History Museum

Patchwork Bedcover made by James Williams, Wrexham 1842-52. St Fagans: National History Museum

Variety

But the key thing about folk art is it is a very broad genre indeed and the show contains only a miniscule fraction of the vast number of artefacts which homes and local museums must contain all across the land; what the commentary describes as ‘an unknowable multitude of objects, events and memories’.

To give you an idea, the exhibition includes:

  • Trade signs – a room full of enormous objects which would have hung outside shops in the 18th and 19th centuries: a giant wooden fish, boot, key, teapot etc
  • Tobacco rolls, looking a little like beehives and representing a tobacconist’s shops
  • Models of sides of meat hung in butcher’s shops for customers to understand the cuts
  • Warning signs of the Trespassers will be prosecuted type: 18th and 19th century signs warning that beggars and vagrants will be prosecuted
  • Pub signs, presumably one of the most enduring forms of folk art
  • naive paintings of 18th and 19th century cricket scenes
  • quilts, lots of quilts made by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons: one of the most intriguing was one made by wounded soldiers during the Crimean War
  • Napoleonic Prisoner of War art, a genre in its own right, was represented by the extraordinary cockerel made from bones (above)
  • naive paintings of scenes of rural fetes, hunting, rural life
  • harvest jusgs and toby jugs
  • the artefacts, woven and quilted, used for well dressing
  • massive ships’ figureheads, a whole room of them, the biggest of which is not, as you’d expect, a busty woman, but an imposing Indian figure actually carved in India from Indian hardwood, heads of lions and unicorns and blackamoors who stood outside tobacconist’s shops and figures of Scotsmen because, apparently, most of the tobacco imported into Britain came via Glasgow
  • decorative pincushions and pincushion covers
  • a small selection for carved slate which was used to decorate fireplaces in cottages built near the slate mines of North Wales in the 1820s-40s

As with the other exhibitions mentioned above, one has the sneaking suspicion that the show was conceived with half an eye to finding a way to display some of the very minor works which Tate has picked up along the way and needs to bring out of the dusty archives. Thus we had sections on a handful of named artists (unusual for generally anonymous folk art):

  • George Smart from Frant near Tunbridge Wells was a tailor with a sideline in creating (and presumably selling) multiple copies of a handful of stock scenes and characters
  • Needlework by Mary Linwood who made a living from fine needlework (in worsted embroidery or crewel embroidery) reproductions of ‘proper’ painted art – her stuff was exhibited at one of the longest-running shows in art history, yet written out of academic art history etc and, to be honest, I walked looked at the half dozen works here and walked on without a flicker of interest
  • Alfred Wallis, the self-taught painter based in St Ives who was ‘discovered’ and taken up by establishment painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood from 1928. His work stands out here, as at the lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery show which is currently running, for the confidence and boldness with which he captures his vision, like a child arranging his ships, the sea, the houses, the pier of St Ives in the picture plane according to their importance, completely regardless of perspective or realism.
George Smart, Goose Woman c 1840. (Image courtesy of Tunbridge Wels Museum and Art Gallery)

George Smart, Goose Woman c 1840. (Image courtesy of Tunbridge Wels Museum and Art Gallery)

All in all more like being at a production of the Antiques Roadshow than a traditional art exhibition. I liked, for example, Wallis’s paintings or the ship figureheads, very much, but I think I’d have got more out of an exhibition dedicated solely to Wallis or to ship’s figureheads.

Related links

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 @Dulwich Picture Gallery

The artists

The painter Ben Nicholson was born in 1894 into a highly very artistic family, the son of two successful painters. In 1920 he met and married Winifred Roberts (b.1893), also a painter. In the early 20s they met the potter and ceramicist William Staite Murray (b.1881) and regularly exhibited their paintings along with his pots, and a little later the younger painter Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood (b.1901) with whom they became good friends and went on painting holidays together. In 1928 in St Ives Ben and Kit met the self-taught ‘primitive’ painter of the sea, Alfred Wallis (b.1855).

Ben Nicholson, 1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano), Oil on canvas, 43 x 60 cm, Tate, London 2013 © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo © Tate, London 2013

Ben Nicholson, 1921 – circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano), Oil on canvas, 43 x 60 cm, Tate,
London 2013 © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo © Tate,
London 2013

The show

This lovely exhibition, curated by Ben’s grandson the art historian Jovan Nicholson, brings together some 80 paintings and pots into a detailed examination of the personal and artistic relationships between these five artists during the 1920s. It is low-key and thoughtful and genteel and restrained. It is not loud or revolutionary or Modern. It is very English.

Winifred Nicholson, Flowers in a Glass Jar, c. 1925, Oil on canvas, 47 x 34 cm, Private Collection, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Flowers in a Glass Jar, c. 1925, Oil on canvas, 47 x 34 cm, Private
Collection, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

It was an interesting era. Just after the Great War which they’d been too young to fight in, their generation wanted to say ‘goodbye to all that’ and, like Robert Graves, be artists together living in a cottage with a wood-burning range, close to the earth, honest and true, away from the pomp and circumstance and bombast which had led to the great catastrophe.

Their home at Banks Head in Cumberland had no electricity till after the second war. Its rawness is captured in Winifred’s painting of their only source of heating and cooking, the old metal ‘range’, titled Fire and Water (1927).

Little England

The reviewer for the Telegraph (link below) said he fell asleep half-way through the show. He was expecting too much. This isn’t huge and sumptuous like Veronese at the National Gallery or big and bold like Matisse at Tate Modern. It is along similar lines to last year’s fascinating Crisis of Brilliance show at DPG. By showing the interconnections and cross-fertilisations of a group of not-really-A-list artists it conveys a much broader sense of the art world – and the wider world – of the time.

William Staite Murray, Vortex, c. 1926-9, Stoneware Bowl, H 8.3, D 19, © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

William Staite Murray, Vortex, c. 1926-9, Stoneware Bowl, H 8.3, D 19, © York
Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

‘Fun’

In his guided tour the curator Jovan repeatedly used the word ‘fun’ and his enthusiasm was infectious. He explained how Ben and Winifred often painted the same view side by side, Ben interested in form, Winifred in colour. They corresponded and exhibited with Staite Murray, discussing form and shapes and patterns which were appropriate in paintings and pottery.

The fun comes from examining the works created by the artists and teasing out the network of subject matter and influences and, to this end, paintings of the same views or subject are hung next to each other.

Form and flowers

A striking early example is Ben’s first abstract painting from 1924, a slightly weedy response to the post-cubist explosion of abstraction taking place on the Continent in the work of, say, Mondrian or Matisse. But it changes our reading of the image to know that it was painted at the same house in Chelsea, and probably is based on the same view out the window, as Winifred’s King’s Road, Chelsea 1925. The two are hung next to each other and the more you look, the more Ben’s abstract brings out the abstract element in Winifed’s painting, and the more Winifred’s helps you see the originally figurative elements in Ben’s.

Northrigg Hill

Another example comes in the third room where the show hangs a painting each by Ben, Winifred and Kit of the same view in Cumberland, giving the opportunity to directly compare and contrast. Winifred probably wins for her subtle use of colour. Jovan pointed out that she has made the lane snaking to the horizon pink, an unlikely colour for a Cumbrian road, but one that fits with the colour scheme.

Apparently, Ben was obsessed by questions of form and had competitions with Kit Wood to sketch or paint the same view using as few lines as possible. Winifred thought about colour and Jovan tells the story of her discovering a vibrant new shade of pink which she told her husband about – and which he promptly used in a still life.

Ben Nicholson, c. 1925 (Jamaique), c.1925, Oil on canvas, Private Collection / © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo: © Tate, London 2013

Ben Nicholson, c. 1925 (Jamaique), c.1925, Oil on canvas, Private Collection / © Angela
Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo: © Tate, London 2013

English modernism

They were conservative. They were attached to England and a vision of England which sought to combine Continental modernist elements without the violence, without sacrificing the interest in beautiful landscape of their native tradition. If you view it from a 21st-century cosmopolitan point of view, lots here can look weedy, tame, genteel, twee. So don’t look at it that way. Usually I dislike and despise the insipid decorativeness of the Bloomsbury artists of the post-war era. But this exhibition won me over and I began to really enjoy the paintings.

I liked Ben Nicholson’s scoring of the surface of the canvas in paintings like Still Life LL or Still Life with Jug, Mugs and Bottle. Of this latter painting Jovan pointed out that the top of the goblet is in front of the jug, but the bottom of the jug is in front of the goblet, a discreet trick of perspective. Jovan said that whenever he looks at a Ben Nicholson he always looks first for the humour. I personally was excited by the rough scraping of the paint surface in a piece like 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2), which was apparently scoured with sand from the beach in the view. I think it is a really great painting, striking and forceful.

Staite Murray

Staite Murray was his own man, older (b.1881) and a successful teacher at the Royal College of Art. He was Buddhist and much influenced by the Chinese Sung dynasty ceramics that had begun to appear in London in the 1920s. His interests in a restrained, domestic and organic type of modern decorativeness led to the exchange of many letters and ideas and designs and motifs, with Ben especially, and they exhibited together numerous times in the 1920s.

William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931, Stoneware Jar, H 56.5 cm, D 30.5 cm, © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931, Stoneware Jar, H 56.5 cm, D 30.5 cm, ©
York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

 

Each room in the exhibition has some examples of Murray’s work and, like all the works here, it would be easy to dismiss them as a bit traditional, a bit dull – but the closer you looked, the more you saw the care and attention to detail which had gone into their creation. I liked the one with cascades of falling arches down the side – Cascade – and a tall, striped pot humorously title named The Bather (1930) because of its similarity to the classic one-piece bathing costume of the time.

There’s a lightness and humour to most of the exhibits here, a calmness and humanity, which  is more appealing the more you look and allow it to influence you.

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c.1922-3, oil on board, 50 x 55 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c.1922-3, oil on board, 50 x 55 cm,
Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Christopher Wood

The possible exception is the work of Kit Wood, younger than the others, which has an intensity created by his use of black and very dark paint. Here he paints Winifred’s favourite subject, the vase of flowers on a windowsill with a landscape behind it but how different the affect is, the dominant colour being the black of the windowsill picked up by the black flowers, the black top of the boat and the black hedgerow in the left distance.

Christopher Wood, Anemones in a Cornish Window, 1930, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 48.2 cm, © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art Library

Christopher Wood, Anemones in a Cornish Window, 1930, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 48.2 cm,
© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art Library

Kit doesn’t share the general sweetness & light and it comes as no surprise to learn that he had the classic young man’s tempestuous relationship with a lover/muse (the Russian-born Frosca Munster) of whom he painted a large primitive nude – The Blue Necklace – which is completely out of keeping with most of the rest of the show where the human figure is very rare. Still, it was surprising to learn that he was an opium addict who struggled to find a supply in the isolated rural locations where the artists liked to live and paint.

Alfred Wallis

Kit and Ben were staying in the tiny village of Feock in Cornwall (and had made a number of wonderful paintings of the nearby Pill Creek) when they went on a day trip to St Ives and met the self-taught mariner and ‘primitive’ painter Alfred Wallis. After an adventurous life at sea, Wallis (b. 1855) had taught himself to paint using ship paints applied to irregularly-shaped cast-off pieces of wood or card with holes knocked in the top so he could hang them on his walls with nails.

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c. 1928, Oil on card, 16.5 x 26 cm, Private Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c. 1928, Oil on card, 16.5 x 26 cm, Private
Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Wallis’s paintings are almost all of ships and the sea and St Ives with a confident disregard for perspective or realism. They are wonderfully liberated and expressive, and in some ways Wallis the amateur is the real star of this show – his style was much stronger, more fully-formed and rooted, than Ben or Kit or Winifred’s and he had an immediate impact on them.

Again the exhibition carefully related works together for us to compare and contrast, in this case the Wallis originals next to the paintings Kit and the Nicholsons created immediately afterward meeting him and seeing his work. The impact is clear and obvious in, for example, this work by Ben which is one of the standout pieces in the show.

Ben Nicholson, c.1930 (Cornish Port), oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Angela Verren-Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS

Ben Nicholson, c.1930 (Cornish Port), oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s
Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Angela Verren-Taunt 2013. All rights reserved,
DACS

Typically, Christopher Wood brought a much darker palette and emotional turmoil to his paintings of the same setting. In the deliberate primitivism of his depiction of the human figure, in the use of a figurativism which ignores the previous 500 years of academic painting, Wood here reminds me of LS Lowry.

Christopher Wood, Herring Fisher’s Goodbye, Oil on board, 37 x 59 cm, 1928, Private Collection

Christopher Wood, Herring Fisher’s Goodbye, Oil on board, 37 x 59 cm, 1928, Private
Collection

Ben championed Wallis’s work back in the London galleries where he and his friends exhibited, and continued to correspond with Alfred, some of their exchanges being included in the exhibition and catalogue.

Epilogue

Just as with the Crisis of Brilliance show there is a sad epilogue describing the artists’ careers after this lovely decade:

Ben met Barbara Hepworth, fell in love with her and began the process which led to his divorce from Winifred in the 30s, although they stayed friends to the ends of their lives. Under Barbara’s influence the interest in abstract form which you can see peeping out of many of these paintings came to the fore and by the mid-30s he had become pretty much the face of British modernist painting. The Telegraph critic says it was a mistake to include a mid-30s abstract piece at the end of the show as it makes everything leading up to it look like juvenilia. I disagree. I think many of the paintings from the 20s are more rewarding, varied and interesting than the milk-and-water abstract white cutouts which he developed in the 30s and which I’ve always thought were poor copies of more virile European experiments.

Winifred ducked out of fame and fortune and accepted a lesser career, spending part of the time in Paris, hobnobbing with the cream of the avant-garde, but continuing to explore the subtle use of colour in her lovely still lifes of flowers.

Kit killed himself. Isolated in St Ives from a regular of the opium to which he was addicted he began to smoke the dregs of his supplies, bringing on worse hallucinations and psychological problems exacerbated by his intense relationship with the Russian muse. He took his life in August 1930, aged just 29.

William continued experimenting with ceramics, building his own kiln and patenting the design. But he happened to go to visit relatives in Rhodesia in 1939 just before the second world war broke out and ended up staying and, as Jovan said, mournfully, he never potted again.

Alfred Despite the eloquent support of Ben and Winifred, Wallis sold few paintings and lived in poverty until he died in the Madron workhouse in Penzance in 1942.

In this characteristically gentle painting, Winifred gives a primitive impressionist account of a sailing boat on the water which also shows her and Ben’s son in the foreground playing at a rockpool with a toy sailing boat which, Jovan told us, Alfred gave the couple as a gift – an image of English pastoral and human kindness which exemplifies the spirit of this life-enhancing exhibition.

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 101.7cm, Courtesy of Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 101.7cm,
Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Art and Life continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 21 September.

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Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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