I do like painting

Julian Bell

  • William Coldstream by Bruce Laughton
    Yale, 368 pp, £30.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 300 10243 7

‘People of all generations just stood around, uncertain of what to do next … It sort of petered out.’ Bruce Laughton’s William Coldstream is an attempt, 17 years on, to gather up the tatters of a wake held at University College London. The unnamed participant touches on a more general diffidence about how to remember or appraise William Coldstream. He has a niche in accounts of the 1930s art world, as co-founder of the short-lived but influential ‘Euston Road School’, and a slot in curators’ surveys of ‘British figuration’. But in that category, his profile is now eclipsed behind more histrionic personalities such as Bacon or Freud and, more particularly, by the higher pitched, punchier art of his pupil Euan Uglow. A few portrait commissions remain on public view in contexts of fusty formality, but for the most part the Coldstreams are for the storeroom.

This, Laughton reckons, is an unworthy coda to the former hegemony of his old teacher, once teasingly dubbed by a colleague the ‘prime minister of British painting’. From 1949, through his 26 years in the Slade chair at UCL, Coldstream was an indispensable fulcrum in all transactions between academia, government and the arts. The friend of Auden, Ayer and Gombrich was also the author of two decisively important reports on art education. During this postwar period, the relative scarcity of canvases issuing from his studio only added to their cachet. A Coldstream manner got disseminated through art schools nationwide: ripples of its influence still register here and there in outlying reaches of the painting pond. But it is as if a regime had been effaced from public memory. How come he is now so out of sight?

I went to track down three canvases by Coldstream in the stores of the Imperial War Museum. They hung at waist height on the fourth sliding rack of the Cs, facing into a recess, from which position the glare of the corridor striplight fought against them from behind; nonetheless, they kept a comfortable dignity in this limbo. Their paintwork emitted a muffled warmth. It mainly consisted of a tentatively rhythmic scumbling of much thinned siennas and umbers, with prods here and there of dun greens, whites and hot rose madder. To take the pictures in felt like slowly coming to in an unfamiliar bedroom. In each, the prods had gathered together to produce an Indian soldier. I enjoyed – and I felt that the painter had enjoyed – the visible process through which loose turpsy dabs and sharp little checking manoeuvres had coalesced into a definite body. But then in one case, a portrait of a sepoy from Rajasthan, the fine vertical hatching of the highlights and the unpicking of facial contours had become something exquisitely abstract, a daydream played out on the features of the sitter. A relish for process had become a proceduralism that checked the canvas’s primary warmth, and insofar as this was a painting of someone, I wasn’t sure how much I liked the result.

Coldstream painted these three soldiers in 1943, in a camp four miles from the Pyramids. He had wangled a posting as ‘Official Portrait Painter, Middle East’ from the War Artists Advisory Committee – largely because, Laughton’s biography suggests, this was a point at which he badly wanted to get out of England. At 35, his moment of arrival on the London scene was some way behind him. The Euston Road gang, who six years before had launched a school to revive observational painting, had dispersed, with the main studio teacher Claude Rogers stuck in the Sappers and the school’s polemicist Graham Bell, shortly to die in air training, berating Coldstream for a lack of radicalism. Coldstream had recently saved a further colleague, Victor Pasmore, from court martial for desertion by leaning on Kenneth Clark to vouch for him as ‘one of the six best painters in England’, but artistically the two were by now on very different tacks. More urgently, there was now no woman, or prospect of a woman, left to give focus to Coldstream’s life. Four years after a separation from the mother of his first two children, he had obtained his divorce, but was also recently severed, after protracted agonies, from one of the co-respondents, Sonia Brownell (the ‘Euston Road Venus’, the future widow of Orwell). In the mails from No. 11 Reinforcement Camp, he was now embarking on a bruised, cautious intimacy with a married confidante in comfortably distant Wiltshire.

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