New Acquisition to the art collection
Still Life with Pigeon (1928) by William Coldstream (1908-1987)
We are always very grateful that people generously offer us items for the museum collections. We were recently delighted by a gift of the painting, Still Life with Pigeon (1928) by William Coldstream (1908-1987). Coldstream was one of the most influential British painters of the 20th century, seen by many as a pioneer of new realism within the modern movement.
The son of a doctor, Coldstream was born in Belford, Northumberland on 28 February 1908 and grew up in north London. Educated locally, he attended the Slade School 1926-9, an institution with which he would be associated for most of his career and where he formed important friendships with such artists as Claude Rogers and Rodrigo Moynihan. In 1933 he held a joint exhibition with H.E. du Plessis, sponsored by the London Artists’ Association, at the Cooling Galleries; he first showed with the London Group in 1929, became a member in 1933 and showed sporadically until the late 1960s.
In 1934 Coldstream’s concern about the role of the artist in society and financial problems prompted him to join the GPO Film Unit under John Grierson, where his collaborators included W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. He continued to paint, however, and an annual stipend from Kenneth Clark (in response to the Plan for Artists that Coldstream wrote with Graham Bell) enabled him to return to full-time painting in 1937. Later that year, he, with fellow realist artists Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore, co-founded a School of Drawing and Painting, known as the Euston Road School, with which their circle would become synonymous. Believing that avant-garde art had lost touch with all but a small elite, they aimed to record the visible world in an objective manner and re-establish a connection between artist and public. Coldstream’s practice was based on an idea of ‘straight painting’ in which disinterested vision and precise measurement would replace the personal and subjective, thus creating a direct transcription of what the painter saw.
Coldstream wanted to develop a method of painting which objectively recorded the perceived world. This led to a painstaking process of measurement, transcription and slight adjustments. Coldstream rarely considered a work to be definitively finished. His tentative approach is made clear by the fact that his measuring marks remain visible across the surface of many of his portrait paintings, including the model’s skin. This element of doubt and hesitancy was related at the time to existentialist philosophy and had a parallel in the paintings of Alberto Giacometti. Though he became principally a portrait painter, Coldstream’s continued political commitment was witnessed by his 1938 painting trip with Bell to Bolton, Lancashire as part of Mass Observation’s social survey of Britain.
In 1940 he enlisted in the army and trained as a gunner until commissioned as an official war artist in 1943. He travelled to Egypt that year and to Italy in 1944. He returned home in July 1945 and joined several friends as a tutor at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in November. He became Head of Painting in 1948 but was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art, University College, London the following year. Through his position at the Slade, Coldstream became a key art world official. He was a trustee of both the National Gallery (1948-63) and the Tate Gallery (1949-63), a director of the Royal Opera House (1957-62) and chairman of the British Film Institute (1964-71). Having chaired the Art Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain (1953-62), he became Vice Chairman of the Council (1962-70). As Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (1958-71) he was said to have reshaped British art education through what became known as the First and Second Coldstream Reports (1960 and 1970).
These responsibilities, which were rewarded by a CBE in 1952 and a knighthood in 1956, and his famously slow working methods restricted Coldstream’s production to three or four paintings a year. As a result, he rarely showed his work: a touring retrospective in 1962 was his first one-person exhibition, though others followed in 1976 and 1984 at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London. He retired from the Slade in 1975 and, following some years of ill-health, died on 18 February 1987.
An early work, Still life with Pigeon is an interesting addition to the two other paintings we are fortunate enough to hold in the permanent collection by the artist: Giraffe House (1930) and Mrs G.A Auden (1936-7). Giraffe House ( also known as At The Zoo) was the second of two Regents Park subjects painted from drawings on at Coldstream’s studio at 76 Charlotte Street( formerly the old studio of the landscape painter John Constable ), the other being the Lion House. The picture demonstrates his command of tone, composition and chiaroscuro. Reminiscent of a stage set, the animals are bathed in a flood of light, the source of which is unknown while the audience is kept in darkness in front of the building’s proscenium arch. The woman on the left of the picture is Coldstream’s sister, Winifred and the person second from the left is the painter, Nancy Sharp, later his wife. Mrs G.A Auden painted at 42 Lordsworth Road, Harbourne, Birmingham represents Mrs Constance Rosalie Auden, mother of W.H Auden whom Coldstream called ‘the original dragon of his (Auden’s) middle-class mythology’ [Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-1987 (Exhibition Catalogue); Tate Trustees, Tate Gallery 1990]. The work was begun in the late autumn of 1936 and was commissioned by the poet who was intent on launching Coldstream back into full-time painting while they were both working at the G.P.O Film Unit. The portrait was completed by 19 January 1937.
As a group these works represent different aspects and the creative development of the artist’s oeuvre. The application of paint and muted tonal palette of the Still Life with Pigeon can be seen to develop through the other two paintings. For the first time in almost twenty years the three paintings have been reunited and can now be seen displayed together in the art gallery; they were last shown in public as part of the major retrospective exhibition and tour of the artist’s work organised by the Tate Gallery in 1990-1991. The paintings are a significant contribution to the body of works held in the collection by important British painters representing the development of British art in the first half of the 20th century. These include artists from the London Group, such as L.S Lowry and Walter Sickert, Wyndham Lewis from the Camden Town Group, and Coldstream’s fellow Slade School alumni such as William Orpen and C.R.W. Nevinson.