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.

Meanwhile, the museum’s sepoy, Gurkha and Sikh – along with an obligatory general – were reporting regularly for sessions in the artist’s tent, over a six-month stint. ‘The point is that these Indian troops will sit, while these officers, generals & people are so busy, or think they are, and they keep on wanting results.’ From here, it seems an odd sort of exercise: men summoned thousands of miles from east and from west to jointly create, with dogged patience, likenesses that would in some oblique manner redound to Britain’s honour. Very likely things looked that way even then, ‘snafu’ (‘situation normal – all fucked up’) being the catchphrase of the era. But there being a niche in national policy for the production of war art, Coldstream duly picked out the regimental insignia on the chests of his sitters. Insofar as his portraiture characterises, it seems to cleave to familiar Raj typecastings: his subjects keep up a stoic deportment, with pathos not far away.

There’s arguably a democratic aspect to it: ‘No doubt he believed that they deserved to be recorded as much as the generals,’ Laughton observes. Equally, its remit might be compared with the Paris-Match shot of an African saluting the French flag on which Barthes pounced in his account of modern myth: ‘I see very well what it signifies to me: that . . . there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.’ But that would be to look a long way over the painter’s shoulder. From his own level, as I imagine it, he was doing his best to shake off a period of disorientation with the normal, quiet intensity of the brush touching the canvas, an action made in acknowledgment of the presence of someone else in front of him. That did not involve making any privileged claim on the nature of his sitters. (His reply when people asked how to place themselves before the easel was ‘Sit exactly as if you were having your portrait painted.’) What the result amounted to might be in doubt: ‘Dry and I fear evasive,’ were his words for Subedar Jaggat Singh. ‘But I have worked out a lot of my worst points in it and perhaps it will have been useful as a purge.’

The story of Coldstream’s life moves on to invaded Italy, where he is seen hunting for suitable windows from which to paint bombed buildings, and liaising with aristocrats; then, after a two-year absence, back to London and swiftly into the mainstream of teaching that would dominate his life through the next three decades. But that Egyptian tent seems as good a point as any to sample it, his personal style remaining generally consistent throughout. Somewhere in Coldstream’s offing, it was probably always snafu. His entry into the Slade, as an 18-year-old student in 1926, was a sliding away from the traditions of a professional Scottish family, doctors and Indian civil servants. (Was his Desert Army posting an attempt to reconnect with them?) When, ten years later, he effectively found his voice as a painter, it was against a London avant-garde hubbub of Surrealism and Abstraction. He had briefly toyed with the latter before going on to work for the GPO Film Unit, since the logic of the times seemed to point anyone with an interest in the look of things inexorably in that direction. ‘After Degas the camera,’ he pontificated to a friend: it seemed unlikely that painters would have anything left to say about the observable world.

It was only while in John Grierson’s employment – collaborating with Auden, Humphrey Jennings and Britten – that Coldstream rediscovered a private, ‘regressive’ zest for painting, working out of hours on ‘a craze for doing heads and faces’. Whatever rationale could be attached to the use of paint for recording how people appeared to him, he henceforth became obsessed by the exercise. The refrain of his diaries and statements, especially when challenged by critics, became an almost defiant enjoyment: ‘I do like painting.’ The assertion is borne out by the sensual underlay of his canvases. ‘Touch’ was his answer when students asked what mattered in painting: it created a space apart, uniting serious practitioners, whether figurative or abstract, and distinguishing what they did from other ways of looking and acting. But the world might well have no use for it. As he also drily told them in professorial addresses: ‘It is uncertain we can make you more useful members of society . . . Our concern is with the subject.’

Painting was a peremptory fascination, at cross purposes with the normal run of human affairs: yet with the mid-1930s inception of the Euston Road style, he hit on a knack of working as if the practice were somehow systematic, a game with agreed rules. Like a crossword, in his own parlance, something just about doable if you picked away at it and didn’t leap to too many conclusions: something to which the experience of the professional man might relate. (Hence, possibly, Coldstream’s considerable early popularity.) Superficially, the scheme seemed to be that you could deliver a painting by describing the relations between points in a certain field of vision, such as the corner to a mouth or the nick in a lapel, and between the field’s differences of tone. You used these points as hand-holds in a climb up the mountain of appearance, and the honour of the exercise lay in the rigour with which you pushed your forward moves, manual judgment following visual fact. This was a highly teachable drawing-class modus operandi, and as a former pupil, Laughton happily enters into the spirit of it, scrutinising the ‘registration marks’ with which Coldstream recorded ratios of intervals across the scene he was scanning as if he were auditing a pictorial bureaucracy.

But it’s something of a feint, to say the least. It reveals nothing about what makes a painting come alive, as Coldstream was naturally aware: one of his finely turned self-deprecating lines referred to ‘the sort of configurations I make under the guise of representing what I see’. One hazard of his tactics is that for almost any spectator, even Laughton on occasion, those marks can seem to choke stretches of Coldstream’s work to procedural death. But sometimes, undeniably – I would haul forward from the Tate’s collection the 1936-37 Mrs Winifred Burger or the 1976-77 Reclining Nude – something really compelling happens. What? One answer is hinted at by Laughton in his preface. During bad patches, Coldstream would keep a meticulous diary ‘as though to convince himself he was still in charge. (He could not bear not to be in charge of events.)’ The ‘registration marks’ can in this light be seen as a stuttering rhythm of driven anxiety, rather than as a domineering reductionist grid. In such an interpretation, an uncertainty with epistemic implications – how is anything, ever, to be ascertained? – energises his tremulous, sometimes stabbing brush.

Maybe that makes Coldstream sound too much like a London Giacometti. When Ayer called him ‘the only natural logical positivist he had ever met’ (this is how I heard Lawrence Gowing quote the remark; Laughton leaves out the ‘natural’, rather spoiling the gag), he was claiming him for an ethos in which nothing is ever allowed to become too mysterious – in effect, for a birthright to the breezy world of chaps, wangling and committees in which both men were assured operators. Coldstream’s numerous portraits of this academic-governmental milieu, a large part of his income and oeuvre, are often thumpingly strong images delivered through fascinating arguments between brushstrokes. But Laughton is pushing it when he calls the suits-and-specs commissions of the 1960s ‘a whole new series of investigations into the human condition’. Surely, like the Indian soldiers, these lords of the realm are playing their customary roles without qualification. The painter, one feels, knows very well what kinds of social beings he is representing; he is aware of the comedy implicit in them. One notes that his old friend Auden hailed him: ‘You, whose tongue is the most malicious I know.’

What effectively separates his sort of painting from his reported talent for mimicry – and from other brands of mimesis – is a kind of thought experiment, what his colleagues from across campus might have called a ‘veil of ignorance’. Let’s suppose we know neither what we’re observing, nor what we’re creating. ‘A painter should not care about or study how his picture looks. The sort of painting I like might have been done in the dark.’ ‘You are not producing an artefact, otherwise you ought to be in some other line of business.’ Call those teasing paradoxes, call them expedient pretences, they nurture the kind of imaginative texture Coldstream specialises in. It is one where there forever remains a reserve of unbounded, muzzily warm light into which the eye can home, before and beyond any facts the picture reports. There are always factual relations to be discovered, but precisely what they belong to is held over: situation normal suspended. Meanwhile, those relations seem to gather themselves, as if unwilled, into elegantly satisfying constructions on the canvas.

It’s a lyrically aesthetic approach to artefact-making formulated in a 1930s ambience of laconic, deadpan attitudes, a style in which Coldstream was a deft verbal performer. ‘As far as I can remember, once I have started painting I am occupied mainly with putting things in the right place.’ In a sense, it spilled over into the administration that dominated long stretches of his postwar career. Coldstream, as Laughton reports him, was a man of thoroughly conformist political instincts, but determined through all his committee-chairing to keep a space – a niche, at any rate – for imagination and singularity. His policy drafts kept open art-school doors for the visually gifted illiterate. He considered it excellent for artists to talk with academics, but was determined that the two categories should not merge (as has since increasingly happened). The 1959 Coldstream Report helped shape the loose, loud, open-ended British art-school world through the next decade, and some would say helped foment the conditions in which large parts of it fell off the rails during the sit-ins of the late 1960s. As Slade Professor, Coldstream staved off that period of crisis with a negotiating style that seemed to find an ear for all sides: as in his art, sustained deferral of decisions saw him through.

Unlike the majority of painters who function as historical sidekicks, Coldstream’s career has a ready biographical dimension, placed as it was at the nexus of public, metropolitan life. Moreover, those around him credit him with star quality: repeatedly, they are quoted comparing his lean and dapper presence to that of Fred Astaire. Around this charismatic protagonist, a clutch of character roles run through the script – a Horatio-like confidant who bears the name Jack Rake, a professorial secretary who acts as a kind of Jeeves, and a Boswell in the form of the diary-keeping painter William Townsend, a ‘born back-room boy’ at the Slade. The material has found an equally fitting shaper in Bruce Laughton, who writes a judicious, richly informed narrative and is full of discriminating curiosity when it comes to the paintings. He reads into the personal evidence, but not too pushily; readers can infer as much or as little as they like when he writes: ‘His relationship with her was definitely physical but for some reason he hated staying the night.’

Relationships: that’s the story’s cracked backbone. Charm and a conviction of his own dramatic significance get Coldstream into a fair few beds in its course, but – for some reason or other – security is never achieved. That line comes from the most tragic of his amatory dealings, a 1950s liaison with the young art historian Phoebe Pool, sustained across several spells of her hospitalisation for mental illness, only to be suddenly snapped when he fell for a model at the Slade. Pool would eventually throw herself under a Tube train. It is not that Coldstream’s way with women was sadistic: it was more a case of a shuffle between winsome hopelessness and rat-in-a-corner desperation. Laughton has two marriages and broods of children to chronicle – one in the 1930s with the painter Nancy Sharp, who forsook him for Louis MacNeice, one in the 1960s with Monica Hoyer from the Slade liferoom – but most enjoys himself sifting the correspondence at the turn of the 1940s with Sonia Brownell, who comes out of this book with recommendations few others have wanted to lend her, not least through Coldstream’s gorgeously sensual portrait. But before and beyond the transient passions, behind the clubbable chaps’ chap, we return to a thin man sitting alone and worried, pencil poised to scribble terse self-questionings in a notebook or essay a hesitant, constricted doodle. The prevailing emotional weather of his life is disconsolate yearning.

The book, however, doesn’t leave a melancholic aftertaste. Its centre ground is relatively public and work-oriented. In effect, it offers a purchase on an era of temperate cultural optimism that has now become remote and alien. In the context of a profoundly disrupted, snafu century, it might yet be possible to establish, little by little, tentatively proceeding by registration marks, a new kind of innocence with respect to the subject: an interpretation of history along such lines seems to underpin Coldstream’s project. That project was in a sense quite humble: he was not exactly an ‘ambitious’ painter, and there is little cumulative momentum to his oeuvre. It could snarl itself up in its own heuristic constraints and cramp the hands of lesser disciples. But Coldstream’s practice and policies, at the heart of the postwar dispensation, hardly seem in retrospect restrictive in character. There were in all his dealings openings for warmth and light. So many decades away from his heyday at the Slade, it is hard to reimagine the mild, ecumenical goodwill of Butskellite high culture, but there is something to be said for refusing to put yourself in crisis mode. Stuart Brisley, performance artist of apocalyptic self-harm, was given a post on the Slade staff in 1968; he reports happy memories of his boss, and says he learned much from him. Brisley made his mark by a display in which he submerged himself in a bath full of cattle and pig guts and offal. ‘Afterwards Coldstream was heard to say: “I simply can’t understand it. He went to quite a good school!”’