Artist biography

William COLDSTREAM 1908-87

The son of a doctor, William 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 1931, he married Nancy Sharp, a fellow Slade painter; they had two daughters before their separation in 1939.

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 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. 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. Coldstream had married his former model, Monica Hoyer, in 1961 and they had three children. He retired from the Slade in 1975 and, following some years of ill-health, died on 18 February 1987.

Chris Stephens

August 1998

Bibliography:

Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990

Peter T.J. Rumley, 'Sir William Coldstream: Catalogue Raisonné; 1926-83 and Artistic Career 1908-45', unpublished D.Phil thesis, University of Sussex, 1986

Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986