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The online catalogue does not include details of all our collections. Contact us for further information on collections not yet featured online.
Learn about Ancient Greek Myths and Legends and Greek pottery.
More information on Ancient Greek pottery in The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery collection:
Earthenware kylix or cup with black figure-painted decoration
Earthenware lekythosn or oil flask
Earthenware hydria or water jar decorated with the red-figure technique
Large, earthenware vase in the form of a Greek column-crater
‘To My Father from your Loving Son: A Message from the Front
Father’s Day is a day of honouring fathers and many of us will be sending cards and gifts to celebrate. The day itself is relatively recent, having been introduced to Britain some time after the Second World War, nevertheless there is a long tradition of honouring and showing appreciation to one’s father.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 separated family members from each other. Sending gifts and letters home (and vice versa) was important to soldiers and their families. This embroidered postcard was sent from a soldier serving in France during the First World War to his father in Longton. This kind of embroidered postcard was a common souvenir for soldiers in France to send home. The museum collection includes several of this type of postcard but this is the only one which was designed to be sent to a soldier’s father.
Embroidered silk postcards were used in France before the advent of the First World War but they saw a boom in popularity with soldiers who wished to send home souvenirs. Many different designs were created, with sentimental messages and patriotic images being particularly popular.
This poignant example is embroidered on the front with ‘To My Father from your Loving Son’. Also included in the envelope is a small card which reads ‘A Kiss from France’. The writing on the reverse says ‘Dear Father, I hope you will take this as remembrance from your loving son’.
The envelope that the postcard came in is marked ‘YMCA’, ‘On Active Service’ and ‘Passed Field Censor’. The YMCA was one of the largest providers of civilian support to soldiers and their families during the First World War. The charity spent £7 million on notepaper for over 200 million letters home.
Imagine how uplifting it must have been for this father to receive a postcard from his loving son on the front line. Whilst they were separated, postcards like this were vital channels of communication, in this case for a son to show his love for his father.
Father’s Day Nostalgia Over the Decades
We started celebrating Father’s Day in the UK shortly after the Second World War. Here we bring together some objects from across the decades which would probably have been perfect presents at the time.
The coronation of Elizabeth II took place on 2nd June 1953. This rectangular biscuit tin commemorating the event would have been a perfect gift for Father’s Day later that month. This tin was for biscuits made by Thos Parkinson Ltd, Preston.
Many dads have a sweet tooth and 60s retro sweets are still a popular gift today. Here was an ideal combination from local firm Walker’s Toffee, based in Longton, complete with a little hammer to break the toffee!
This is also the decade when England won the World Cup in 1966. No surprise there was mass rejoicing and many commemorative items made. This jigsaw was certainly a well-used and loved item.
Thunderbirds had its UK TV debut on 30 September 1965 but repeats were still screened until the early 1970s. Although originally a children’s programme it soon became a favourite for the older audience as well. This puppet of Alan Tracy, who was the youngest Tracy brother was the principal pilot of Thunderbird 3. He swaps roles with John on the space station, Thunderbird 5, once a month.
The 1970’s saw some very iconic cars on film and television which were to result in a cult following. Corgi produced many toy cars during the 1980’s to address this market and produced the Lotus Esprit, made famous in the 1977 James Bond film, The Spy who Loved Me and the Red Ford Torino from Starsky and Hutch.
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was one of the first mainstream home computer systems and was a must have item in the 80s. The museum collection includes games such as Chequered Flag racing game and Planetoids arcade game.
The first mobile phone introduced in the UK was in 1985 and was associated with the ‘Yuppie’ generation. Along with the ‘Filofax’ this was seen as a denoting a sense of success and achievement, who would have thought these ‘bricks’ of technology would develop into what we see today. This is the ‘Peoples Phone’ cellular mobile dating from the 90s. The model is the CTN6000 and it is still in its original box with the charger and adaptor. A new mobile is still a popular present today.
We have celebrated the millennium and welcomed in a new century. But some things remain the same. Commemorative ware was produced to mark the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 1952-2002. This unmarked bone china mug would have been perfect to have dunked those biscuits in from the Coronation!
We continue to look for presents for our Fathers and regardless of budget we will always find that special present to let them know we love them. Whether this is in the form of new technology, gadgets or something to soothe their ‘sweet tooth’ it is the thought behind the present that is important and the most appreciated.
49 Years, 11 Months
The history of Potteries Motor Traction Ltd (PMT) can be traced back into the 19th century. So it’s no surprise that the museum collections include objects, photographs and ephemera relating the company. We continue to grow this part of our archive with four objects recently donated by the family of Reginald Johnson. They entail a coat and badges worn by Reg during his career at PMT, which lasted for 49 years, 11 months.
Object like these are valuable because they have people’s lives and stories at their heart. This turns day-to-day objects into pieces of history.
Reg started off in the garages in 1930 but was called up to drive buses during the Second World War, a role in which he stayed for most of his career. As his time at PMT continued, so did the accolades: a safe driving medal, 25 years’ service, 40 years’ service, and many glowing reports from his customers.
“I must refer to our driver, Reg Johnson. By the first stop on Monday morning he had become ‘one of the party’ and his interest in his work and his announcement of places of interest en route added the finishing touches to a well planned, effortless and reliable holiday. His consideration and help when one of the party became unfortunately ill whilst at Tewksbury and had to leave the coach was admirable and noted with appreciation by all present.”Letter to PMT, 11th August 1959
Towards the end of his career Reg begin to suffer from heart problems and, after several trips to hospital, decided that it was time to retire. He was only one month away from marking his fiftieth year at PMT.
Reg seems to have been committed to giving his passengers comfortable and stress-free journeys. His son recalls that, if Reg ever took a wrong turn, he’d quietly navigate himself back on track rather than stop and turn around – leaving his passengers worry-free and none the wiser!
His safety record was almost blemished by a meeting between a double-decker bus and Stoke Railway bridge, but his conductor managed to warn him just in time! Reg also made a story for the Evening Sentinel as he was convinced he sighted a UFO whilst driving his bus through Werrington.
You can find out more about Reg and these objects by searching our Collections Pages.
The Secrets of Playing Cards – Part 1
This week is Volunteers’ Week, an annual celebration of volunteers to thank them for the contribution that they make. So what better time to share this blog by Holly who has helped document some of our old sets of playing cards.
At the beginning of 2020 I began to volunteer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. My task was to sift through dozens of playing cards (fortunately, several at a time rather than individually else I would still be doing them now). Some of the cards and their imagery will be used in a future exhibition linked to Alice in Wonderland.
The imagery on the cards is very beautiful and some date from the mid-nineteenth century, whilst others were created in the 1920s and 30s. It is also interesting to mention that many of the cards have made long journeys from various parts of the world to reach their final destination of the museum. For instance, some have come from locations such as Germany, Austria and Italy, whilst others have found themselves in the UK from places as far away as China.
Lastly, as a historian, I wonder about the people who put so much time, effort and skill in to creating the cards, as well as those who played with them. Questions form in my mind such as where did they live? What people touched the cards and what lives did they go on to lead? With some of the cards being so old, I can imagine that many could tell a tale or two if they could only speak to us. With that being said, I would like to share with you some of the cards that stood out to me and some of the history connected to them.
One of the first set of playing cards I came across were the one’s named ‘Gibert. Paris’. As you can tell from their name they originated from France and were produced between the years of 1820 and 1860. These cards were eye-catching primarily because of their hand coloured images.
One of the first sets of cards that stood out to me are the one’s named ‘Gibert. Paris’. They originated in France and were produced between the years of 1820 and 1860. These cards were eye-catching because of their hand-coloured images. One of the images that instantly caught my attention was of a woman named on the card as ‘C-Tesse De Rochefort’, which I would assume the ‘C-Tesse’ infers to the French word ‘Comtesse’, which in English means ‘Countess’. The woman in the image clearly looks like a countess and her clothing would suggest she originated from the mid to late eighteenth-century. She looks very similar to the tragic Queen of France Marie Antionette with her white hair swept back in to a chignon, jewellery adorning her neck and ruffles and ribbons decorating her dress. She is in fact a fictional character from the French book ‘La Comtesse de Rochefort Et Ses Amis’, which in English translates to ‘The Countess de Rochefort and her friends’ written in 1879.
Another image is that of a gentleman named ‘Chever D’eon’, who was is fact a real person known as ‘The Chevalier D’Eon’, whose life was very intriguing to say the least. In English, ‘Chevalier’ means a ‘Knight’ or a chivalrous man. Interestingly, D’Eon was both a French soldier and diplomat, who lived in London during the mid to late eighteenth century. However, D’Eon’s story becomes even more fascinating between the years of 1786-1810, as this was the period that D’Eon decided to live as a female.
In England, during the latter part of the eighteenth century there was constant speculation regarding D’Eon’s gender and this culminated in a court trial that declared D’Eon to be in fact female. At this time, the stereotype of a woman disguising herself as a male to join the army, often in pursuit of her sweetheart was widely recognised, thus the notion of D’Eon as a woman was generally accepted. Despite a perceived lack of feminine ‘delicacy’, D’Eon was defended by feminists such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as an admirable example of ‘female fortitude’ to which British women might aspire.
Another in the collection is the card named ‘Diane De Poitiers’. This card is very striking and the woman depicted in it incredibly beautiful, especially with her style of dress, which I assume would be common for a noble woman living in sixteenth-century France. After a little more research, it seems Diane De Poitiers was also a real person. A noted beauty of the sixteenth-century and royal mistress to King Henri II, Diane lived a fascinating life and is definitely worth a mention from this collection of cards. The playing cards also contain the names of other factual and fictitious historic French individuals such as ‘Comte De Brissac’, ‘Bussy D’Amboise’ and ‘Dame De Monsoreau’, which I compel readers of this blog to research, as all of these individuals lead very interesting lives as well.
Thanks to Holly’s help sorting and scanning these collections, you can explore them as part of our online collections.
Tourists to the Potteries 1698-1933
We think of tourism as something that developed in the 20th century with the widespread adoption of rail, motor and air travel but for from the 17th century onward, those that had the money and leisure to do so, travelled around Britain, often keeping journals of where they visited and what they saw.
Unlike other parts of the country, such as the Lake District or Wales, North Staffordshire was not celebrated for its scenery, but some of the major roads running north-south and east-west passed very close to modern-day Stoke-on-Trent, bringing a variety to travellers to the area.
The majority of these travellers commented on the most distinctive feature of the area: the pottery industry, while others remarked on the state of the roads, the smoke arising from pottery making, or gave their opinions on the population.
One of the earliest visitors was Lady Celia Fiennes (1662-1702) who travelled extensively through England between 1698 and 1702. In the summer of 1698 she came to north Staffordshire passing by Trentham Hall, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to visit the pottery works of the Elers Brothers at Bradwell, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, just off what is now the A34, before complaining about the state of the road to Betley (now the A531).
“..and then to Trentum, [sic]and passed by a great house of Mr Leveson Gore, and went on the side of a high hill below which the River Trent ran and turn’d its silver stream forward and backward into S’s which Looked very pleasant Circling about ye fine meadows in their flourishing tyme bedecked with hay almost Ripe and flowers. 6 mile more to NewCastle under Line [sic].
I went to this NewCastle in Staffordshire to see the makeing of ye fine tea potts. Cups and saucers of ye fine red Earth in imitation and as Curious as yt wch Comes from China, but was defeated in my design, they. Comeing to an End of their Clay they made use of for yt sort of ware, and therefore was remov’d to some other place where they were not settled at their work so Could not see it; therefore I went on to Beteby [Betley] 6 miles farther and went by a Ruinated Castle ye walls still remaining called Healy Castle-this was [a] deep Clay way.
Over fifty years later, in 1750, Dr Richard Pococke (1704-1765) was travelling in north Staffordshire. Unlike Celia Fiennes he was able to visit several potteries after leaving Newcastle-under-Lyme:
“On the 6th [July] I went to see the Pottery villages and first rid [sic] two miles to the east to Stoke where they mostly make the white stone. I then went a mile north to Shefly [Shelton] where they are famous for the red china; then to Andley Green [Hanley] a mile further north, where they make all sorts, and then a mile west to Bozlam [Burslem] where they make the best white and many other sorts, and lastly a mile further west to Tonstall [Tunstall], where they make all sorts too, and are famous for the best bricks and tiles; all this is an uneven, most beautiful, well-improved country, and this manufacture brings in great wealth to it; and there is so much civility and obliging behaviour, as they look on all that come among them as customers, that it makes it one of the most agreeable scene I ever saw, and made me think that probably it resembles that part of China where they make their famous ware.”
It’s often said that Stoke-on-Trent people are friendly and approachable and it clearly always been true, with almost 270 years ago the local population being described as civil and obliging. I’m not sure about the area looking like China though.
A few years later the Swedish industrial spy RR Angerstein visited England and reported on the state of various industries in England. On visiting the Potteries, he described the making of salt-glazed stoneware and then continued
“When, as it sometimes happens, many kilns are glazing with salt at the same time, there is such a thick smoke of salt in these manufacturing towns, that people in the streets cannot see 6 feet ahead, which, however, does not cause any difficulties. On the contrary the smoke is considered so healthy that people who are ill come here from far away to breathe it.”
Oh, how tourism has changed! Some things don’t change however and Angerstein bought a quantity of pottery from at least two of the factories that he visited, making him one of the earliest known visitors to a factory shop.
The preacher John Wesley (1703-1791), visited the Potteries many times between 1760-1790 on his preaching tours and mentioned Burslem several times in his diaries.
‘1760, March 8th – Went from Wolverhampton to BURSLEM, (near Newcastle under Lyme), a scattered town on the top of a hill, inhabited almost entirely by Potters; a multitude of whom assembled at five in the evening.
‘1781, March 8th – I returned to Burslem. How is the whole face of this country changes in about twenty years! Since which, inhabitants have continually flowed in from every side. Hence the wilderness is literally become a fruitful field. Houses, villages, towns, have sprung up: and the country is not more improved than the people.
Wesley’s legacy in the area is clear with many Methodist chapels while the most famous portrait bust is that modelled by Burslem potter Enoch Wood, which was widely agreed at the time to be the most accurate portrait of the preacher
In 1795 Dr John Aiken (1747-1822), physician and author, published his A description of the country from thirty to forty miles around Manchester.
By this time north Staffordshire had changed considerably since Pococke’s visit in 1750 with the building of the Trent and Mersey Canal, the turnpiking of roads and, as Aiken writes, the building of new roads.
“Stoke-upon-Trent is the parish town…. It has like most other parts of the pottery improved much since the Staffordshire [Trent & Mersey] canal was cut. It contains some handsome buildings, and from its contiguity to a wharf upon the canal, it is conveniently situated for trade…. The river Trent passes here, and at times with rapidity, nevertheless the brick arches which carry the navigation above the river do not seem to have sustained much injury…. A new road has lately been cut from this place to join the London road between Newcastle and Trentham. …From this place to Newcastle… the prospects are extremely beautiful and near at the midway, a view so populous, and at the same time so picturesque is seldom met with.”
Despite, or perhaps because, of improvements in the transport system, few 19th century travellers published their impressions of Stoke-on-Trent. It was left to the author JB Priestley to give a long account of his impressions of the Potteries, when he visited in 1933, and which was subsequently published in his English Journey.
“After federation into one city had been first suggested, the inhabitants of these towns [Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, Fenton and Longton] argued and quarrelled most bitterly for years. Finally, the obvious advantages of federation carried the day and there appeared on paper, the mythical city of Stoke-on-Trent. But when you go there, you still see the six towns, looking like six separate towns. Unless you are wiser than I was, you will never be quite sure which of the six you are in at any given time.”
Visitors to Stoke-on-Trent today often find it difficult to distinguish where one town ends and the next starts. One thing has changed dramatically since Priestley’s day however – the industrial pollution:
“There was more smoke than I had ever seen before, so that if you looked down upon any one of these towns the drift over it was so thick that you searched for the outbreak of fire, there were no tall chimneys, no factory buildings frowning above the streets; but only a fantastic collection of narrow-necked jars or bottles, peeping above the housetops on every side, looking as if giant biblical characters, after a search for oil or wine had popped them there among the dwarf streets. These, of course, are the pottery kilns and ovens, which are usually tall enough to be easily seen above the rows of cottage houses. I never got used to their odd appearance, never quite recovered from my first wild impression of them as some monstrous Oriental intrusion upon an English industrial area. But without these great bottles of heat, there would be no Potteries.”
Stoke-on-Trent has changed hugely since these accounts were written and some of the most significant changes have taken place in the last century. JB Priestly, writing in the 1930s would have seen sights that would not have been so very different from those that John Wesley saw in the 1780s – but neither of them would recognise Stoke-on-Trent today with its modern pottery factories, extensive green spaces reclaimed from old industrial sites and its much, much cleaner air.
The Art of the Staffordshire Hoard
Since its discovery in 2009, the decoration of the Staffordshire Hoard has attracted much attention. The remarkable craftsmanship of the Anglo-Saxons produced stunning and intricate designs through casting, filigree (delicate wire work) and garnet cloisonné (cut gemstones separated by strips of gold). The designs in the hoard are typical of Germanic (a diverse group of non-Roman tribes) decoration. They are frequently zoomorphic, that is composed of animal designs. These designs may have had a symbolic function as well as being purely decorative.
The art of the Staffordshire Hoard is predominantly what is known as Anglo-Saxon Style II. This involves animals in fluent, ribbon-like structures, often interlaced. It was rapidly adopted in the late sixth century by powerful elites to display their wealth and identity. The Staffordshire Hoard is possibly one of the best examples of elite Style II metalwork decoration. Spears were the most common weapon in Anglo-Saxon England and so a collection of sword, seax and other weapons fittings such as the Staffordshire Hoard would have belonged to a collection of extremely elite warriors. But how did this style develop and what were its influences?
In many ways, the Anglo-Saxon art of the Staffordshire Hoard takes its ultimate inspiration from Roman art. The earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers in fifth century Britain would have come across Roman culture and objects. There was also contact between the two cultures prior to this. Germanic soldiers fought in the Roman army and Stilicho, the son of a Germanic officer was at one time the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire. So-called ‘barbarian’ tribes would have come across Roman objects and decoration. Roman trade across Europe often included feasting equipment, glassware, weapons and armour. Friezes on many of these types of items included hunting scenes, foliage and human faces. These may have influenced Germanic craftsmen. Late Roman military belt buckles were influential in Anglo-Saxon decorative styles as well as Roman coinage. Visitors to the Staffordshire Hoard gallery at the museum often comment that the helmet reconstruction looks Roman. We do not know for sure that the helmet had a red horse hair crest but it remains a best guess based on the colours that dominate the hoard and other ancient helmets. All other known Anglo-Saxon helmets were inspired by Roman ones. It may be that the Anglo-Saxons deliberately invoked Roman design to portray themselves as the rightful inheritors of Roman Britain. They also made pendants from old Roman coins and the choice of red garnets may have been inspired by Roman military colours.
Saxon Relief Style
The first Germanic art style found in Anglo-Saxon England is the fifth century Saxon Relief Style. This style is heavily influenced by Roman decoration and uses geometrical patterns, classical borders, scrolls and animal elements. The Saxon Relief style came from northern Germany and is typically found in southern England, meaning we have none in the museum collection.
The Quoit Brooch Style
Like the Saxon Relief Style, the Quoit Brooch Style derives from the decoration of late Roman military metalwork. Quoit Brooch Style artefacts are predominantly found in Kent and the wider southern and eastern area of England. This has been linked by some archaeologists to immigrants from Jutland in Denmark, however, this is not necessarily accurate. The decoration uses similar scroll and animal motifs to the Saxon Relief Style.
Style I art was named by the Swedish scholar Bernhard Salin and is sometimes thought of as the first purely Germanic style in England. Style I uses a range of animal and human motifs including elliptical eyes and pear-shaped thighs that are still clearly visible in the Style II art of the Staffordshire Hoard. Style I developed from earlier Germanic artwork and, ultimately the Roman and Quoit Brooch Style decoration seen in England. It began in Scandinavia in the early fifth century and had developed in England by the late fifth century. The style is sometimes called Tiersalat or animal salad because of its fragmented images! In England, Style I art developed a distinctive, anthropomorphic, look. This can be seen in the human mask which is visible in the fragment of a brooch or mount from the museum collection.
Style I art developed some regional variations. Whereas examples from Kent often began to use garnet inlay and in East Anglia spiral ornament dominates, in the Midlands designs are often more crowded and have swirling elements showing their Roman origins. By the late sixth century, the immediate descendant of Style I art had begun to appear in southern England.
As the Style II decoration we see in the hoard developed, the ‘animal salad’ of Style I became a much more flowing, sinuous style of animal decoration. The ribbed bodies of animals became thinner and elongated with beasts interlocking, biting one another with their long jaws. As with Style I, regional styles developed. In East Anglia filigree is rare and elaborate garnet cloisonné is seen. This style influenced the decoration of manuscripts. In Kent, Style II art was more often twisting filigree animals.
Style II animals have the same ribbon-like bodies and pear-shaped legs as in Style I – compare the animals on the seax hilt-plate from the Staffordshire Hoard to the Style I mount from Rutland – but have become more flowing. The decoration on the hilt-plate is similar to later examples on Christian manuscripts like The Book of Durrow.
In other example of Style II art in the hoard, the animals have become even more flowing and abstract to the point they are often difficult to recognise. On the pommel cap below the zoomorphs eyes can be seen at the end of their sinuous bodies in shapes similar to those seen in Style I.
How to Explore the Museum from Home
It’s strange times we’re living in, and many of us are joining the working-from-home club or entering periods of social isolation. While our museum doors may be temporarily closed to the public, we’re fortunate enough that the wonders of the internet has made keeping everyone in touch easier than ever, and we’ll be using our social media channels to ensure that you’ll still have access to our amazing stories and objects from the comfort of your own home.
Even while the museum is open, only a tiny proportion of our approximately 750,000 objects can be on display at any one time so many of our treasures aren’t available to view. That’s why our curators are always working hard to make our collections accessible through other means, and we’ll be producing more online content than ever before over the next few weeks. Did you know that you can already explore thousands of our objects, and even browse the galleries themselves, from the comfort of your own device?
In July 2017, the galleries of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery were captured by the Google StreetView Team. So you can stroll through the museum on your own private viewing – check it out on our website: www.pmag.org.uk/virtual-gallery-tour/
You can also browse image galleries of our Temporary Exhibitions from throughout the museum’s history – we’ll be continuing to add more over time, so be sure to check back often.
Our website also hosts our collections online. Thousands of our museum treasures can be viewed as part of our Online Collections, and we’ll be working hard to add more in the coming weeks. You can even add your own descriptive tags to help other users find things they may be interested in, or leave a comment for our curators.
Another resource is Exploring the Potteries, which allows you to search resources from across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire County Council by exploring local maps. Find out about pottery, maps and photographs from near where you live!
Our Fine Art collection can be browsed through a partnership with ArtUK and ancient treasure held at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and other archaeological institutions can be browsed via the Portable Antiquities Scheme at https://finds.org.uk/. Our Peak District archaeology collections can also be browsed at Wonders of the Peak, hosted by Derbyshire County Council.
And of course, you can keep up to date with the work we’re doing behind the scenes and current projects, such as the restoration of the City’s Spitfire, on our museum blog.
Staffordshire Police Collection
We hold objects that used to be part of the Staffordshire Police Museum. The collection is varied and illustrates the history of policing in Staffordshire through photography, ephemera, uniform, and equipment.
Some of the Staffordshire Police Collection, and other objects relating to the history of policing, are available to browse in our online catalogue.
If you have an enquiry about the Police Collection please email [email protected].
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.