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Stephen Writing About Art
featured artists:
1. Picasso
2. Cecil Collins
3. Roger Hilton / William Scott
4. Ben Nicholson
5. Kurt Schwitters
6. Roman Brooks / Claude Cahun / Marcel Moore
7. Ithell Colquhoun
Seperate web page: Artists In Movies A-Z

When Pablo visited Sheffield


Thirty three years since living briefly in Sheffield imagine my surprise at discovering I used to eat lun.ch in the same greasy-spoon café that Pablo Picasso dropped into during his second visit to England, twenty seven years earlier…!

A new piece of public art inspired by Picasso has been installed in the Gardens in Sheffield city centre. The stainless steel sculpture, by Sheffield based artist Richard Bartle, features seven life-size doves perched on the chimney of Bar Ha!Ha! on St Paul’s Parade next to the Peace Gardens, and is inspired by Pablo Picasso’s visit to the Second World Peace Congress held in the city in 1950. This was the second of Picasso's two visits to England. In 1919 he stayed in London for seven weeks to work for Diaghilev on the Russian Ballet's production of The Three Cornered Hat, staying at the Savoy and meeting the likes of Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey


Picasso arriving in Sheffield with
chrysanthemums is met by Communist
Party organiser Tommy H James.

During his visit to Sheffield, Picasso arrived at Sheffield Midland railway station carrying a bouquet of chrysanthemums and wearing an old raincoat and blue beret. He was welcomed by members of the local communist party, the press, and the public, and taken on a tour of the city. He ate a bacon sandwich at Thorpe's cafe in Fargate; had his hair trimmed at Peckitt's barbers, and drew a ‘dove of peace’ on a napkin in Butler’s Dining Rooms.
The Congress was to be a special debate on the Korean War, but the Government at the time refused to allow important speakers into the country and it was abandoned. Picasso gave a short speech, recalling that he had learnt to paint doves from his father, and ending by saying "I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war."
Later whilst returning to London he drew another Dove of Peace on a napkin, which he gave to the bodyguard who had accompanied him around the city. This drawing is now part of Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust’s collection and is now on permanent display at the Mappin Gallery, Weston Park Museum.

Butler’s Dining Rooms is alas, no more. For some years it has been a Balti restaurant. It was a short walk away from where I had a top floor studio above a printers overlooking the West Street. I remember the steamed up front window, the struggle to find a seat amongst all the regular diners, tradesmen and van drivers, and I can recall Stephen Butler serving up huge portions of meat and potato pie whilst his wife took your money. It was real Desperate Dan fare!
The fact that Picasso had a trim whilst on his whistle stop visit to Sheffield was the subject of a BBC radio documentary a few years ago produced by Sheffield writer David Sheasby. Sheasby turned his subject into a stage play, Trimming Pablo, “a Cubist narrative around the events of that November day, using drama, interview, archive and sounds.” The play has in turn inspired a film.

In the making this time last year in Sheffield city centre and still in production, ‘Trimming Pablo’ stars acclaimed British actor and Indiana Jones star Paul Freeman looking uncannily like the real Picasso. Mansfield-born filmmaker Tim Newton has plans to showcase the film at international film festivals including the Cannes, Toronto Film Festival and Sundance.
Freeman, who played bad guy archaeologist Dr Rene Belloq opposite Harrison Ford in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, said of the small budget production: "It's great fun. Tim is probably more hands on than Steven Spielberg… What attracted me to the role was a chance to play Picasso. I've been a fan since I saw his first major exhibition in the 1960s at the Tate."

Elizabeth Cowling in Visiting Picasso relates, “Of the sixty or so French delegates who arrived in Dover on 11 November, only Picasso and one or two others were allowed to land.” It was the night ferry and Roland Penrose hurried to meet Picasso at Victoria Station. Staying the night with Penrose at his home, Farley Farm in Sussex, Picasso took the train the next morning to Sheffield. Because of the government ban the Sheffield Conference was closed after only a day. Picasso returned to London and was greeted as a hero by painter Rodrigo Moynihan and fifty of his Royal College students.
At the small Bloomsbury home of John Desmond Bernal, the renowned physicist who died in 1971, a party was held in Picasso’s honour and in front of the assembled guests Picasso made an elegant drawing on the wall. The portion of plaster on which Picasso inscribed his drawing was later removed. Professor Bernal presented the mural to the ICA after it was saved from the demolition of his old flat. Here it was displayed in the foyer for a number of years but in more recent years it has led a quieter existence in the Clore Management Centre at Birkbeck College. It is now part of the the Wellcome Collection and is on view again to the public.

“For Penrose,” continues Elizabeth Cowling, “there was a solid silver lining to the embarrassing flop of the Sheffield peace Conference.” Picasso returned to Farley Farm before going back to France and a series of fascinating photographs taken by Penrose and his partner Lee Miller shows Picasso enjoying himself meeting the farm animals (including William the prize bull), playing with the couple’s three year old son Tony, and looking at Penrose’s work in his studio.
The 69 year old Picasso returned to France with postcards of Brighton Pavilion, peaked school caps for himself and his son Claude, a photograph of Penrose’s great aunt Priscilla Hannah at the Bath Peace Conference in 1875, a toy red London bus and memories of open log fires, whisky and soda night caps, hot-water bottles, cooked breakfast and tea, Ayrshire cows and rough house antics with a squealing and giggling Tony and Picasso bellowing “the ole, ole of approval”.

Picasso visiting Penrose:
"Picasso pointing at the Chiddingly Signpost, England 1950" - by Lee Miller

© Lee Miller Archives, England 2009. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk
Farley Farm House : A warm welcome awaits you at Farley Farm House, near Lewes, in the spirit of its former Surrealist occupants, the photographer Lee Miller and the painter and biographer of Picasso, Roland Penrose. Farley Farm House is alive and vibrant today as it documents Surrealism and Modern Art, the most exciting art movements of the 20th Century and in so doing informs our present day culture. Visitors may come to the house certain days from April until October and further information is available from Kate tel: 01825 872856

The Tate collection is full of gems, not least of all The Sleeping Fool (1943) by Cecil Collins (1908 – 1989).
As a student in London during the mid 1970s I used to seek out this little picture at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) and it was to be found, I recall, at the bottom of an undistinguished stairwell at the rear of the building, tucked away along with a few examples of British Surrealism (Cecil had been included in the 1936 “International Surrealist Exhibition” at the New Burlington Galleries, London).
Cecil (born in Plymouth) was on the staff at the Central School of Art where I spent three years as a student in the painting department and later almost five years as a technician. He was an odd little man – his clothes, possibly because of his humped back, seemed too big for his aging body – he looked rather like a kindly and softly spoken old professor, which I guess he was!
Cecil never taught me. He seemed to gather his own devotees about him by netting, it seemed to me, the more indecisive, more malleable students who might be receptive to his particular philosophy and magic. Along with one or two other members of staff who had been at the Central for many years Cecil was somewhat marginalised, if not plainly ignored, by the younger generation of art teachers within the department. Cecil just got on with his own thing!
When in 1975 it was suggested by the powers that be that Cecil should retire there was something of an outcry and a lot of influential art world folk insisted that the rules be relaxed in favour of Cecil’s case and that he should be allowed to continue teaching. This he was allowed to do and when I returned to the Central to take up the available technician post I found one of my duties was to set up Cecil’s life drawing room. This entailed arranging tables in a semi circle equipped with drawing implements and large sheets of paper (lots of it). All other furniture and props were removed to facilitate freedom of movement. Cecil would have both students and model moving about, movement was part of the experience along with quill pens and flowing ink. The students also drew with there eyes shut tight and often to music. All took place behind a closed door, screened for total privacy.
Rose Hilton describes taking part in the classes some time after I left the college in an article in a recent edition of the Tate etc magazine.
The influence of Cecil’s teaching has evidently been long lasting. I recently saw a brochure listing an ex-student of Cecil’s recreating the Collins life class experience at a spiritual retreat in Dorset.
In 2008 Cecil was included in a celebration of the legacy of William Blake Blake’s Shadow: William Blake and his Artistic Legacy at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. This places Cecil in a context more suited to him than Surrealism. Cecil's own legacy is not to be doubted. The Tate owns 75 of his works all of which are fascinating, absorbing and many, just outstanding.
The Venus of Lespugue & Other
Naked Ladies

( the title of the William Townsend Lecture given by British sculptor
Reg Butler at University College, London, 1980 )


(1)(2) (3)

“… because the forms are more organic, they permit associations with natural forms, and shapes seen in the landscape…” Michael Tooby on Hilton's‘January 1957’


Stephen writes;
The more I look at Roger Hilton's ‘January 1957’ the more convinced I become that this is a seated woman.
Over some thirty years I have read almost everything there is to read on Hilton and no one as far as I can see is willing to point out the fact that this is a figure, not an ‘abstracted’ landscape at all but a sizeable infusion of William Scott influence, and a continuation of a line of seated female nudes that go back through the 1950s to de Kooning and beyond...

Roger Hilton: ‘January 1957’


‘January 1957’ (the first Hilton to be purchased by the Tate) has no head or shoulders but if you take the ochre forms as ‘arms’ the eye is led down to a black ‘lap’ (on the way revealing a sketched-in ‘cleavage’) and from here wide ‘hips’ take the eye down to ‘legs’, both of a figure and of a chair. Moving back up the right hand side of the picture one finds the indication of an arm of a chair (a hint of pale yellow can be seen here). Once observed the image of a seated figure unfortunately persists in the mind’s eye.

Many of William Scott’s nudes of the same period vindicate the possible source of ‘January 1957’ and it is pleasing to suggest that the rounded hips filling the centre of the painting puts one in mind not only of the sculptures of Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler from the early 1950s but also the various Venus statuettes discovered during the early years of the twentieth century including the Venus of Lespugue, and the Venus of Willendorf illustrated full-page in Herbert Read’s The Art of Sculpture (pub 1956), and described by Robert Melville in 1957 as a ‘disquieting muse or midwife’ which ‘attended the birth of some of the most striking images of our time’.


WILLIAM SCOTT: Left: "Red Figure" 1954. Centre: "Seated Woman" drawing 1953.
Right: "Red Nude" 1956

Left: "Seated Figure, Orange" 1956 Right: "Figure-Red & Black" 1954

William Scott: photographed in front of two unfinished drawings
Photograph © James Scott 1958 Courtesy William Scott Foundation


Hilton to his credit was a canny individual but it would be unfair and too simplistic to suggest that by putting his thumb into the pie of influences that included Bissiere, Mondrian, Constant, Gear and William Scott, he pulled out enough plums to establish his reputation as ‘one of the best painters of his generation’ (Mel Gooding), or as Norbert Lynton put it, ‘the best’. There is more to Hilton than meets the eye. Yet his work has in the past been compared with that of William Scott (Hilton was also discussed in terms of abstract expressionism – he is obviously not an abstract expressionist…). There also remains the fact that Scott felt that his painter friends, including Roger Hilton and Patrick Heron, tended to note and adopt his pictorial ideas and locked his studio door prior to their visits to his house in Hallatrow (see William Scott by Norbert Lynton pp234).
As a gifted and award winning student William Scott (b.1913) visited West Cornwall as early as 1936 staying in Mousehole for six months. Settling in Brittany in 1938 he visited Paris and made friends among the artists there. In 1940 he visited Canada and the USA. During military service he established himself as a painter with one-man exhibitions in London and began to be included in various touring exhibitions around the UK and abroad.
There are many threads that form the pattern of Scott’s development as a painter. Still lifes hint at landscapes, landscapes hint at the figure, and the figure becomes still life right from the beginning of the 1950s when Scott was painting from sketches and memories of Cornwall (see ‘Sennen Cove’ 1950). Spending summers in St Ives Scott like Hilton became a regular visitor from London.

William Scott photographed by Roger Mayne 1956

In 1953 at a time when Hilton was visiting Constant (Nieuwenhuys) in Holland and was falling under the influence of Mondrian, Scott returned to New York. This time he met all the leading painters of the new New York School including de Kooning and returned to England impressed by the ‘scale, audacity and self confidence’ of their work.

Roger Hilton photographed by Roger Mayne 1956

At the same time Scott was still assimilating influences from Europe. Lynton writes, ‘WS was stimulated by the example of Dubuffet and Tapies, and also by de Kooning’s monumental nudes’. Likewise de Kooning would have been stimulated by the example of Dubuffet, particularly after Dubuffet’s success in New York and his lecture in Chicago in 1951.
The Matisse exhibition in Paris in 1955 showing Matisse in his last years, ‘moving confidently’ between figurative and semi-figurative and wholly abstract painting must have been one of many stimuli to the ongoing abstract versus figurative art argument. This controversy in Britain stimulated by Victor Pasmore’s conversion to abstraction was maintained well into the 1960s by many British critics who continued to throw doubt on the validity of abstract art.
In an undated fragment of writing Hilton describes Scott as ‘The greatest artist I know’. The work of these two painters for a moment became almost indistinguishable but in comparing Hilton’s ‘January 1954’ with Scott’s ‘Figure Into Landscape’ (1953) writers are at pains to point out the difference in intention. Hilton also purports a difference in another fragment of writing in which he describes Scott’s imagery as ‘totemic, literal and literary’ presenting Scott as a humanist rather than an abstractionist. Adrian Lewis suggests this fragment was written a short while before Hilton began to incorporate figure-suggestions between mid 1954 and late 1955, a time of marital breakdown between Hilton and his first wife Ruth.
At this time Hilton wrote to Terry Frost describing a change of direction:
‘I am tired of non-figuration. Though they may not be overtly figurative, I am going in future to introduce if possible a more markedly human element in my pictures… I’m not going to [be] ‘afraid’ of figuration any more… I feel now this tiresome dichotomy is ended…’
In ‘New Art, New World’ Margaret Garlake has pointed out another comparison that can be made between Hilton and Scott. She offers an analysis of what she terms ‘the erotic abstract’ – a ubiquitous theme throughout the 1950s she suggests, ‘for artists in London, Cornwall, Corsham and beyond’ but one approached in two individual ways by Hilton and Scott. Though both rely on ambiguity she sees Hilton’s work as full of existential anxiety and isolation and more comparable to Armitage and Butler. She quotes Hilton’s own words about hesitating between painting ‘abstracts (that) will be chaste, spiritual, calm’, and figurative images that ‘will be fulgurant, demonic, tragic, expressionistic, violent, wanton and destructive’.
By the end of 1955 Hilton was describing his new direction as ‘probably a flash in the pan’ and in a letter to Frost continued, ‘they are certainly figurative in intention, expressionistic, totemic and in fact, by all my previous standards, thoroughly bad…The Americans have made a challenge which cannot be ignored. I believe there is to be a show of their works. I feel very uncomfortable about all this as it looks as though I am just following the Scott line…’

The show of American art was the Tate’s ‘Modern Art in the United States’ that opened in January 1956. It included three paintings by Willam de Kooning including ‘Woman 1’ (1950-52).

Willem de Kooning: Left: "Woman 1949". Right: "Woman, I" 1950-52 (see MOMA label text below).

Several photographs taken for Hilton by Roger Mayne of paintings now untraced suggest a wobbly beginning to this change in direction and it appears that Hilton first introduced more overt figurative elements during the later part of 1955. In one picture a curious figure reminiscent of figures by Germaine Richier looms into view. Hilton in further correspondence with Frost expressed a tragic view of the human situation. Adrian Lewis reminds us, ‘In March 1957 Britain completed its first H-bomb tests. In referring to the modern world’s choice between destruction or creative construction Hilton seems to suggest he has a similar choice of possibilities in his own work.’

It seems that Hilton far from seeking to represent the climate of nuclear threat was, as always it seems, pulled in opposing directions. Another note found amongst Rose Hilton’s papers has Hilton wishing to ‘ravish the sense’, and ‘to eradicate the harsher and more unpleasant aspects of my work and replace them by winsomeness and charm’.

Various figures precede and succeed the subject of this article ‘January 1957’. ‘Centaur’ (1955) has again a semblance of William Scott about it and ‘October 1956’ has the confrontational nature of de Kooning’s Women series (both can be read as seated figures) and yet there is a negation of the figure, a crossing out as if denying the obvious or the easy option. Hilton was after something else.

Roger Hilton: ‘October 1956’


‘January 1957’ seems to mark Hilton’s ‘arrival’ in West Penwith. He painted in St Ives early in the year, became a member of the Penwith Society and in the summer began to rent a studio in Newlyn, painting there every summer for the next three or four years. Patrick Heron’s article ‘Introducing Roger Hilton’ appeared in Arts magazine, New York, in May.
Hilton’s decision to work away from St Ives was a conscious one. He was reluctant to be seen as one of the St Ives ‘school’ and later objected to the ‘landscape’ tag that his work after 1957 inevitably attracted with it’s earth browns and ochre influenced by local colour and it’s forms easily echoing the rugged landscape between St Ives and Lands End and about the cottage in Botallack purchased by Hilton and his second wife Rose in 1965.
It has been pointed out that despite Hiltons St Ives affiliations, landscape was of limited interest to him, and yet at this point at the end of the 1950s Hilton for a short while adds specific titles to his finished paintings rather than simply a date of completion. These include such titles as ‘Desolate Beach’, ‘Blue Newlyn’ (1958), ‘The Long Walk’ (1959), and ‘Grey Day by the Sea’ (1959 and 1960).
However, we might note a certain scepticism creeping into the poetic titling with titles such as ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Over the Hills & Far Away’. Hilton wrote, ‘In titling my pictures I took a look at them and wrote down the first thing that came into my head…’

Rose Hilton is reported to have said, ‘I don’t think Roger loved Cornwall, he didn’t like being classed as a Cornish painter’. She recalls however, that Roger did actually like the Cornish landscape. ‘I remember him saying whilst on a walk: “thank God I can enjoy it without thinking how to paint it.”

Roger Hilton gouche


If indeed Hilton painted the landscape by osmosis (a view both Ruth and Rose Hilton shared) then it was a means to an end. There is always a sense of resistance in Hilton’s paintings. This again differentiates them from William Scott’s. Mel Gooding sees Hilton as searching for an image out of ‘formlessness’ whereas Scott sought the abstract/symbolic from the ‘observed object’. Where Scott achieves ‘poise’ Hilton she claims, achieves ‘drama’, a ‘kinetic indeterminacy’.
In ‘January 1957’ and other paintings you can see Hilton denying himself both the luxury of the figure and of the landscape (or abstract/landscape) in order to work his way towards the more strident and outstanding signature pieces of the early 1960s. Hilton was seeking his own personal Holy Grail and this is I think the weakness of ‘January 1957’ but with paintings such as ‘March 1960’, ‘May 1963’ and ‘March 1963’, his crowning achievement.
In a catalogue of 1961 Hilton wrote, ‘Today one sees people who are changing abstraction into landscape (the easiest thing to do). For an abstract painter there are two ways out or on: he must give up painting and take to architecture, or he must reinvent figuration.’ In a letter to Peter Townsend he wrote of ‘Breaking up or breaking down, Going back or going on, It is all one process. You dredge up bits from the past, Past lives, past women, past children Above all, past paintings… It is your internal life which counts.’

Charles Harrison points out the inadequacies of reading Hilton’s paintings of the mid to late 1950s as pictures of landscapes or of figures. Rather than puzzling what it is that they picture and how that picturing is done Harrison maintains we will be better off ‘employed in exploring what it is that Hilton’s paintings make us feel, and in trying to see how it is that they make us feel it…’

Roger Hilton "March 1960"

This was too tall an order for one London critic at the time of Hilton’s retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in 1974. Richard Cork in his review titled ‘Lines That Go Nowhere’ was adamant that Hilton’s ‘blurring of content’ only led to uncertainty in the viewer and that there was no sure way of telling what Hilton ‘wanted to achieve beyond a series of throwaway gestures on to the canvas’.
If you can forgive Hilton his ‘preference for forthright attack and impetuous colours’ (Cork) you might just ‘get it’ and your contemplation of these often-difficult canvasses will have paid off. The reward is something rather indefinable, particularly in the parlance of analytical prose. Mel Gooding has come close to a description of Hilton’s ‘message of skill’ by quoting Gregory Bateson; ‘the painting is a communication about what cannot be put into words; it concerns the relation between the unconscious and the conscious; the skill of this performance is itself largely unconscious of its operation, it is the art by which access is made to the unconscious.’ Gooding continues, ‘ The paintings exert a push-and-pull effect, proposing pleasure and denying it at the same time. They exist in a state between beauty and ugliness’.
Like Rimbaud’s poet bringing forth his discoveries as either form or formlessness, Gooding
maintains that, ‘In going beyond conventions of abstract and of traditional figuration, in the marvellous works of the late 1950s an1960s Hilton indeed achieved what he knew was necessary,

‘a new sort of figuration, that is, one which is more true’.





  • Roger Hilton: the Figured Language of Thought by Andrew Lambirth (pub 2007)
  • Roger Hilton (St Ives Artists) by Chris Stephens (pub 2006)
  • Roger Hilton by Adrian Lewis (pub2003)
  • Roger Hilton, The South Bank Centre, London 1993 (catalogue)
  • Roger Hilton: Paintings & Drawings, Serpentine Gallery, London 1974 (catalogue)
  • The Evening Standard (March 14 1974)
  • William Scott by Norbert Lynton (pub 2007)
  • William Scott: Paintings, Drawings & Gouaches, Tate Gallery, London 1972 (catalogue)
  • William Scott by Ronald Alley (pub 1963)
  • Reg Butler, Tate Gallery, London, 1983 (catalogue)
  • Willam de Kooning: Tracing the Figure (pub 2002)
  • Kenneth Armitage by Norbert Lynton (pub 1962)
  • MOMA Gallery label text (2006): Willem de Kooning. Woman, I. 1950-52. Oil on canvas

    De Kooning took an unusually long time to create Woman, I, making numerous preliminary studies and repainting the work repeatedly. The hulking, wild–eyed subject draws upon an amalgam of female archetypes, from Paleolithic fertility goddesses to contemporary pin–up girls. Her threatening stare and ferocious grin are heightened by de Kooning's aggressive brushwork and frantic paint application. Combining voluptuousness and menace, Woman, I reflects the age–old cultural ambivalence between reverence for and fear of the power of the feminine.

  • MOMA Publication excerpt
    The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999:

    Woman, I is the first in a series of de Kooning works on the theme of Woman. The group is influenced by images ranging from Paleolithic fertility fetishes to American billboards, and the attributes of this particular figure seem to range from the vengeful power of the goddess to the hollow seductiveness of the calendar pinup. Reversing traditional female representations, which he summarized as "the idol, the Venus, the nude," de Kooning paints a woman with gigantic eyes, massive breasts, and a toothy grin. Her body is outlined in thick and thin black lines, which continue in loops and streaks and drips, taking on an independent life of their own. Abrupt, angular strokes of orange, blue, yellow, and green pile up in multiple directions as layers of color are applied, scraped away, and restored.

    When de Kooning painted Woman, I, artists and critics championing abstraction had declared the human figure obsolete in painting.

Illustrations to Title text:
  • 1. Kenneth Armitage: Seated Woman 1955-57 bronze
  • 2. The ‘Venus of Lespugue’, approximately 25,000 BC discovered in 1922 in Lespugue
  • 3. Germaine Richier: ‘Water’ 1953-4 (Tate collection)

Roger Hilton illustrated letter




Despite the abstract appearance of his paintings there is no mistaking Peter Lanyon was a landscape painter – his land-inspired nooks and crannies created by scraping away, over-painting or by the loaded brush and the sweeping arm, conjure fields, cliffs, deep zawns, mine shafts, footpaths and stone walls. Some of Roger Hilton’s paintings also evoke the landscape through colour, shape, line and marks which hold and resonate a sense of the natural, of the ‘incident’. That for me makes Hilton a landscape painter too – even though he wanted nothing of such a label.
Despite the fact that Gallery 1 at TSI collects together over a dozen landscape paintings of Ben Nicholson I would stick my neck out to maintain Nicholson was, in comparison, no landscape painter.
The quality of his landscape drawings are beyond dispute. The first St Ives harbour drawing (1928) in the exhibition has the quality of a Bonnard sketch. Yet his Cumbrian scenes in oils, in their fau naïve style seem a contrivance away from the observed. With their simplified trees and symbolic horse they are more nursery book illustration than landscape experienced.
It seems to me after being at the Tate for some time that Gallery 1 is a challenge for most people whatever the exhibition. People step over the threshold and suddenly have to leave at the door all their not unusual stresses and preoccupations (getting through the traffic, finding a car parking space, finding the money, finding the Tate, keeping in mind the needs of their family, friends, colleagues or partner…). Having paid their admission charge and climbed the stairs, they are suddenly confronted with Art and have to deal with it without any warm up whatsoever. Contemplation is suddenly called for. This is a tall order and I sympathised with the visitor who left Gallery 1 proceeding to the balcony whilst saying to her friend, “ I think its rubbish… I just don’t get it…”
What is going on exactly in these seemingly naïve and poorly accomplished paintings from the past? -
Nicholson makes choices. The naivety is definitely contrived. You can see he deliberately chooses a large stubby brush to figure trees which naturally then become child-like and basic. The largest of the paintings in Gallery One ‘Porthmeor Beach’ (1928) [Porthminster] reveals, it seems to me, that all the paintings in Gallery One are about ‘placement’. What Heron in his writings about Nicholson labelled ‘construction’, ‘balance’ and ‘clarity’ (significant placement perhaps?).
The paintings place elements, incidents in the landscape, - a copse, a horse, a house, a cloud, a tree – the edges dissolve a bit as though they are illustrations – and this is what happens in nursery books illustration, the placement of the story elements – the poetry - the witch, the tower, the moon, the dark wood, the hero on horseback…. These landscapes are not ‘impressions’, they are not ‘realist’ or direct ‘observations’. It is the placement which reveals they are a kind of painted ‘poetry’ – what else can this faux naivety be about? This combination of a simplistic impressionism with constructed ‘cubism’ moves Nicholson (and in this exhibition, us the viewer) towards shallow space, surface – “modernism”.
Later on in the exhibition, in drawing after drawing, Nicholson reveals his modernist credentials – the rooftops of St Ives are a selective view and the harbour side cottages selected or excluded according to his Wallis strategy. Rooftops tilt or rear up and the distant Godrevy lighthouse is picked out and the whole arrangement finds itself on a level with the picture plane. In Levant churchyard Nicholson deliberately pulls a gravestone through the branches of a tree to secure its shape on the surface of the picture plane.
Gallery Three delightfully compares drawn gravestones, painted rooftops and cottage walls with squares, rectangles and colours that are about pure picture making (but also whisper of harbour walls and Penwith farm fields).
In finding his way is Nicholson selfishly exploring his own furrow or exploiting perhaps the opportunities established by his mentors (Picasso, Mondrian…), or is he giving us all what the poet can give; the opportunity to find ourselves?

These constructions and purposefully naïve ‘placement’ pictures conjure perhaps, the archetypes of a fundamental human experience and maybe in that collective image we are each able to perceive our individual story. Isn’t this what pictures and contemplation are all about?


"Cumberland landscape - Walton Wood Cottage No 2"
by Ben Nicholson

(Ben Nicholson, A Continuous Line: 24 January - 4 May 2009 Tate St Ives)



Kurt Schwitters in England:
his final years

‘Stone’ (1945-7)

I feel rather sorry for ‘Stone’, the painted stone by Kurt Schwitters. Countless visitors pass it by at Tate St Ives with either hardly a glance or some derisory comment that seems to cement their response to this inconsequential painted pebble.
To my mind there is a sensitivity here going unnoticed. There is a softness to ‘Stone’ as if Schwitters, in his choice and manipulation, has succeeded in a transmutation. Through a simple choice of colour and placement the hard stone for a moment becomes almost malleable, mutable.
‘Stone’ surely represents the artist as alchemist. It dates from the last period of Schwitters' life, a short period spent, surprisingly, in a cottage in Ambleside, Cumbria..
Back Story:
Kurt Schwitters is generally acknowledged as the twentieth century's greatest master of collage. Soon after his first known collage, Hansi, he began making assemblages from scraps of refuse, including one he called the Merz picture. Subsequently he referred to all his work as Merz.
"Everything an artist spits out is art," Schwitters allegedly said. The word "Merz" has a variety of associations, starting from "Kommerz" (commerce) to Schmerz (pain) and ausmerzen (to discard). With "Merz", Schwitters defined his own unique movement, it changed his life. He found himself at the forefront of contemporary art and quickly allied himself with the avant-garde, including various European Dada groups, the Bauhaus, and the new generation of Contructivists from Eastern Europe and the Netherlands.
Over the next decade he undertook radical experiments in such fields as abstract drama and poetry, cabaret, typography, multimedia art, body painting, music, photography and architecture. He published a Merz magazine which appeared irregularly from 1923-32.
For thirteen years (1923-36) he also worked on an extraordinary construction that came to be known as the Merzbau; it was what we would now call an Environment and eventually spread to eight rooms of his house in Hannover. Its original name was the 'Cathedral of Erotic Misery' and its contents were as shocking as anything produced by radical young artists today. Because it was in his apartment at Waldhausenstrasse 5, where he lived with his family, only a few people saw it.

With the rise of National Socialism in Germany after 1929, Schwitters found himself in serious difficulties. As the artistic community emigrated or went into hiding, so Schwitters was robbed of much of the impetus that was crucial to his art.
Schwitters kept a low profile during the Third Reich and emigrated to Norway in January 1937, but the Gestapo were on his trail. In 1937 Schwitters was designated a degenerate artist.
Abandoning the Hannover Merzbau to an uncertain fate, Schwitters completed a similar construction in Oslo, but in 1940 Nazi troops invaded Norway and he was forced to flee for his life. He finally landed in England, where he was interned until November 1941.

Kurt Schwitters' reputation as a major German dadaist meant nothing when he arrived in Britain as an alien in 1940. After months of internment, principally in the Isle of Man, he came to bombed-out London in 1941. The unfamiliar surroundings gave him fresh inspiration for Merz pictures. He was still an outsider, and he remained virtually unknown as an artist outside a tiny avant-garde circle. In May 1942 he met Ben Nicholson and his wife Barbara Hepworth. By the September of the same year he was visiting the Lake District with his new companion Edith Thomas.

Kurt Schwitters (seated, facing camera)
with Edith Thomas and Bill Pierce Senior,
Cylinders , Ambleside (1947)


Exile Merzbarn:
In 1944 a stroke left Schwitters temporally paralysed on one side of his body. The next year he moved with Edith Thomas to Ambleside. There he became a well known figure, although he did not talk about his past. His portraits of local residents were displayed in shops.
It is recorded that Schwitters' work in exile became increasingly organic, with natural forms and muted colours replacing the mass produced ephemera of previous years. Pictures such as Small Merzpicture With Many Parts 1945-6 used objects found on a beach, including pebbles and smooth shards of porcelain.Currently on display at Tate Modern are a selection of items similar in scale and date to ‘Stone’. All six ‘biomorphic’ objects, some similarly lent by Geoff Thomas (Edith Thomas’s son) could be held in one’s hand. All are abstract shapes (some carved from plaster and painted) which recall forms of nature.
With a fellowship of US $ 1,000 from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with which he had originally intended to restore the Hannover original (completely destroyed by Allied bombing raids on the night of October 8, 1943) Schwitters began to build in 1947 his third Merzbau into a stone barn on Cylinders Farm, owned by Harry Pierce near at Elterwater. He never finished it.
He died at the age of sixty, poverty-stricken and neglected, but in the knowledge that his work would one day be recognized as that of a genius.

At his death he had completed only one wall, now to be found in Newcastle University at the Hatton Gallery (see note below). The shell of the barn remains in Elterwater, near Ambleside. Sadly, no other of Schwitters extraordinary Merzbau constructions have survived.
Plagued by health problems in his remaining years, including temporary blindness, temporary paralysis and a number of strokes, Schwitters died in Kendal on January 8th 1948, of a heart attack, and was buried in in St. Mary’s cemetery Ambleside.

His grave was unmarked until 1966 when a stone was erected by Edith Thomas with the inscription Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz. The stone remains as a memorial even though his body was later disinterred and reburied in Hannover, Germany, the grave being marked with a marble copy of his 1929 sculpture Die Herbstzeitlose.

The Hatton Gallery (The Quadrangle, Necastle Upon Tyne) is part of the Great North Museum which will soon include the eagerly awaited Great North Museum: Hancock which opens in spring this year. Described as “one of the most impressive exhibition spaces in Britain”, the Hatton Gallery has been at the heart of cultural life in the North East since the early twentieth century.
The Hatton stages a highly-regarded programme of historical, modern and contemporary art exhibitions. Over recent years this programme has included major historical monographs, diverse partnership projects and exciting new commissions from leading contemporary artists. On permanent display is Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbarn.
THE ARMITT LIBRARY: The Armitt is situated in Ambleside, Cumbria, in the very heart of the Lake District. It is a unique place combining Gallery, Museum and Library and is a treasure-house for scholarship and fun, art and entertainment. It encapsulates all that is best about Lakeland and its people and preserves that essence for future generations to enjoy. Included are various photographs and documents related to Schwitter’s time spent in Ambleside.
LITTORAL ( www.littoral.org.uk ): is a non-profit arts trust which promotes new creative partnerships, critical art practices and cultural strategies in response to issues about social, environmental and economic change. Like most independent arts organisations, LITTORAL feel the need to acknowledge artist heroes and precursors. To this end LITTORAL is working towards an international exhibition, conference and festival programme in celebration of the life and work of Kurt Schwitters in England. Each year, in October, the working group organises a week-end public seminar and an open day at the site of the MerzBarn in Elterwater. Every two years the group aims to hold a major event - a conference or a Kurt Schwitters Summer School - focusing interest on a particular aspect of the artist’s work and life in England.
Preserving the Merz Barn: Future plans include the possible acquisition of the Cylinders Estate site of the original Merz Barn at Elterwater, near Ambleside. It is hoped to raise funding for this purpose through foundations, private sponsorship, the Arts Council and the HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund), to purchase the site and preserve the Merz Barn building, to make it more widely accessible to the general public and for future generations. On a nearby site it is also hoped to establish a dedicated Merz Barn and Kurt Schwitters in England Study Centre, with an electronic archive and photographic display documenting the history of the Merz Barn, with links to important international Schwitters archives and public collections in London, Hanover and New York. The committee is working on this proposal in partnership with the Armitt.





Romaine Brooks (1874 -1970), born Beatrice Romaine Goddard, was an American painter who specialized in portraiture and used a subdued palette dominated by the colour grey.
Brooks ignored contemporary artistic trends, drawing instead on the Symbolist and Aesthetic movements of the 19th century. She seems to have effectively and uncritically adopted the thematic preoccupations of her male colleagues of that period in the painting above (‘Le Trajet’, The Crossing also exhibited as The Dead Woman, 1911, - a portrait of the Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein), the frame of reference being the dead woman as an object of desire.
Her “Dead Woman” joins a long line of Ophelias, Lady of Shallots, Elaines, Isabellas, and similar martyrs, who appeared each year at the Royal Academy (from Newlyn, Thomas Gotch exhibited “Death the Bride”), the Paris salons and similar academies on the continent and in the USA, all celebrating the cult of the “consumptive sublime”, which saw ultimately, death become “a woman’s ultimate sacrifice of her being to the males she had been born to serve” (see Idols of Perversity by Bram Dijkstra).
Brooks had an unhappy childhood with an emotionally abusive mother and a mentally ill brother, which by her own account cast a shadow over her whole life. She spent several years in Italy and France as an impoverished art student, then inherited a fortune upon her mother's death. Wealth gave her the freedom to choose her own subjects, and she often painted people close to her, such as the Italian writer and politician Gabriele D'Annunzio, and her partner of more than 50 years, the daring sexual adventurer and writer Natalie Barney.
I was surprised to find that Paris based Brooks had come over to Penzance during the autumn of 1904 (renting a studio in St Ives) to study with the Newlyn painters. “This was the very place,” she recorded, “where one could study an ever-changing opalescent sea.”
She worked to reproduce “an endless gamut of greys”, attending Stanhope Forbes’s School of Painting. When she exhibited “lined up on my mantel piece a dozen or so of the small pieces of cardboard each showing a successful or unsuccessful grey attempt”, her guests “trooped out… in silence”. It wasn't long before she moved back to Paris. (see Wild Girls by Diana Southami)



A year ago, whilst half-heartedly watching a television documentary about the Nazi occupation of Jersey, my ears pricked up when the presenter appeared in a Anglican churchyard at the sea’s edge (beside a headstone bearing the Seal of Solomon) and began to speak about two Jewish women buried side by side, who had shared their lives as artists. Not only this, but they had survived the Nazi persecution of the Jews and one of them was a well known surrealist!
Who was this Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob and her partner Suzanne Alberte Malherbe ?
None other than;
“Claude Cahun” (1894-1954) and
“Marcel Moore” (1892-1972).
Suzanne Malherbe, also known as Marcel Moore, was a French illustrator and designer. She was born in Nantes and died in Jersey in 1972. She was buried with her partner Claude Cahun in St Brelade's Church.
Cahun, born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in Nantes, was the niece of writer Marcel Schwob and the great-niece of Orientalist David Léon Cahun. She was a surrealist artist, photographer and writer. You know her images. Her work was both political and personal, and often played with the concepts of gender and sexuality.
Their partnership interestingly, dates from the first decade of the twentieth century, when as schoolgirls they met in Nantes. The collaboration evolved continuously and generated hundreds of rolls of film over a period of four and a half decades. The last of these picturing Cahun date from 1954, the year of her death.
Schwob/Cahun described herself more than once as Moore’s ‘fabrication’. Around 1919, she settled on the pseudonym Claude Cahun, intentionally selecting a sexually ambiguous name, after having previously used the names Claude Courlis (after the curlew) and Daniel Douglas (after Lord Alfred Douglas). During the early 20s, she settled in Paris with her life-long partner and stepsister Suzanne Malherbe. For the rest of their lives together, Cahun and Malherbe (adopting the pseudonym "Marcel Moore") collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photomontages and collages. She published articles and novels, notably in the periodical "Mercure de France", and befriended Henri Michaux, Pierre Morhange and Robert Desnos.
Around 1922 she and Malherbe began holding artists' salons at their home. Among the regulars who would attend were artists Henri Michaux and André Breton and literary entrepreneurs Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.
Cahun started associating with the surrealist group, and later participated in a number of surrealist exhibitions, including the London International Surrealist Exhibition (New Burlington Gallery) and Exposition surréaliste d'Objets (Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris), both in 1936. In 1934, she published a short polemic essay, Les Paris sont Ouverts, and in 1935 took part in the founding of the left-wing group Contre Attaque, alongside André Breton and Georges Bataille.
In 1937 Cahun and Malherbe settled in Jersey. Following the fall of France and the German occupation of Jersey and the other Channel Islands, they became active as resistance workers and propagandists. Fervently against war, the two worked extensively in producing anti-German fliers. Many were snippets from English-to-German translations of BBC reports on the Nazi's crimes and insolence, which were pasted together to create rhythmic poems and harsh criticism. The couple then dressed up and attended many German military events in Jersey, strategically placing them in soldier's pockets, on their chairs, etc. Also, fliers were inconspicuously crumpled up and thrown into cars and windows urging the German soldiers to mutiny. Their bravery has gone unnoticed by most WWII historians.
In many ways, Cahun and Malherbe's resistance efforts were not only political but artistic actions, using their creative talents to manipulate and undermine the authority which they despised. In many ways, Cahun's life's work was focused on undermining a certain authority, however her specific resistance fighting targeted a physically dangerous threat. In 1944 they were arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentences were never carried out. However, Cahun's health never recovered from her treatment in jail (they were almost starved to death). She died in the hospital of St Helier, in Jersey, on the 8 December 1954 (pulmonary embolism, cardiac arrest). On her tombstone, in the cemetery at St Brelade's Bay, Suzanne Malherbe had engraved a phrase from the Apocalypse of St John "And I saw new heavens and a new earth."

Where most Surrealist artists were men, and their primary images were of women as isolated symbols of eroticism, Cahun epitomized the chameleonic and multiple possibilities of the female identity. Her photographs, writings, and general life as an artistic and political revolutionary continue to influence countless artists including Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin.

Ithell Colquhoun:

Investigating 'Potentate II'


Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988), writes Richard Shillitoe, "was an artist, poet and novelist. In addition, she was a practicing magician. She regarded all these activities as intimately related to each other, presenting different aspects of her quest to understand nature. For much of her adult life she lived and worked in Cornwall, drawn by a sense of connectedness with the landscape and with the local myths and traditions... Colquhoun’s personal magical researches led her to membership of a number of occult societies. The included the Ordo Templi Orientis and the Order of the Keltic Cross. She was also a member of Druidical Orders and a branch of the Theosophical Society. In 1975 she published The Sword of Wisdom, a biography of MacGregor Mathers, the founder of the occult order The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This was an historically important group that at one time included Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats amongst its members. As her magical activities developed, she adopted a magical motto, Splendidior Vitro (‘more sparkling than crystal’) and, from 1962 onwards, ceased to sign her works with her signature, using instead a sigil formed from the initials of her magical name: art and magic had become indistinguishable...During the 1940s she spent increasing periods of time Cornwall, initially purchasing a very primitive building in the Lamorna Valley. This accommodation, which lacked electricity and running water, could only be inhabited in the summer months. She moved into a permanent studio in Paul in 1959. This became her home for the rest of her life."

A curious and previously ill-cared-for painting on paper by Ithell Colquhoun now resides in storage at the Penlee Gallery and Museum in Penzance, where it is awkwardly out of place amongst a collection devoted to fine paintings by other Lamorna and Newlyn artists, but principally of an earlier age. Clearly written on the reverse is the title: "Potentate II"
A misleading caption has described the painting as: "very vibrant image of a female form. It is a cross between dadaism and the Occult, both of which Colquhoun was very influenced by."

The ambiguity of a lot of Colquhoun's work, and the ambiguity naturally resulting from the technique probably employed here, can suggest elements of the feminine, and yet the dominating motif here is surely the somewhat oriental visage of a sage or magician staring out of the picture. He seems to have blue wings! - How can one now investigate such an art work? A starting point might be its title: 'Potentate'. The ideal tool might be the internet: here we find Wikipedia explaining;
"Potentate" (from the Latin potens, 'powerful') as "an informal term for a person with potent, usually supreme, power... The term was used by the Christian Church to describe Jesus, it can be found in 1 Timothy 6:15. One example of this use is in the hymn "Crown him with many crowns" in which Jesus is described as "potentate of time"... Originally, it designated the absolute monarch (synonymous with autocrat, which was also used as a title) of a great state. From the negative connotations of such rule, mainly in the Orient, derives its generalized use for the head of any totalitarian and/or abusive regime, as a synonym for despot, dictator, or tyrant ..."
but then:
"Potentate is the title used by the A.A.O.N.M.S. (Shriners) for the head of a local Shrine."
following the link to Shriners we find:
"The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, also commonly known as Shriners and abbreviated A.A.O.N.M.S., established in 1870, is an appendant body to Freemasonry, based in the United States. The organization is best-known for the Shriners Hospitals for Children they administer and the red fezzes that members wear. The organization is headquartered in Tampa, Florida."

This is yet another masonic guild that Colquhoun may well have been intrigued by, although as it is a rather whimsical, if well meant, fraternity, a men's fraternity rather than a religion or religious group, and nothing to do with her passion; magic and alchemy, - and not a guild she could have joined being a woman, - perhaps she is mocking or ridiculing the Shriners by creating a painting using their symbolism.However, I am astonished to find that if you invert the Shriners logo it matches the head-dress of the obviously male figure in Colquhoun's painting!

"Potentate II" is like a Rorschach ink blot, and so it is. Colquhoun often used surrealist techniques to 'find' images, in this case decalcomania. Richard Shillitoe in his book on Colquhoun says of the Penlee painting :
"Potentate II ("oil on card laid down on board") is a figure from a spirit world, conjured from Aladin's lamp; condensed, materialized, ectoplasmic."
Writing to me in an email Mr Shillitoe continues, "It looks to me more like a male figure than a female one, and definitely exudes masculine power and menace. You have obviously looked at it very closely, and it is observant of you to see the visual similarity between the inverted headdress and the Shriners symbol. However, I have reservations. Colquhoun was a member of a number of Masonic organisations, as well as other esoteric groups, but I have never seen a reference to the Shiners in any of her published or unpublished writings. She certainly used symbols in many of her paintings but the usage and the meaning is generally clear. I can’t think of any other example in which the symbol was hidden, by, for example, inversion. None of this, of course, is conclusive. Personally, I would say that the visual similarity is a chance effect, but, to an occultist like Colquhoun, there is no such thing as chance: everything has a meaning..."
For further information on Ithell Colquhoun, her publications and public galleries where her work can be seen, please visit www.ithellcolquhoun.co.uk

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