John Banting

Conversation Piece


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Not on display
John Banting 1902–1971
Tempera on paper
Support: 524 x 460 mm
Purchased 1971

Display caption

Banting’s work frequently included figures whose heads were derived from the shapes of animal skulls, seashells or pieces of wood. This is closely related to the Surrealists’ twin fascinations with objets trouvé(found objects) and the juxtaposition of disconnected elements. Perhaps there is also an element of social satire in the suggestion of the polite conversation of the social elite. The technique also shows a disregard of artistic convention, as the background appears to have been produced with the palm of the hand.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

John Banting 1902-1971

T01470 Conversation Piece c.1932-35

Tempera on paper
524 x 470 (20 5/8 x 18 1/8)
Inscribed on original mount (since replaced) 'Conversation Piece' b.r.
Purchased from the artist through the Hamet Gallery, London (Winifred Emma Evans Fund) 1971
Britain's Contribution to Surrealism in the 30s and 40s, Hamet Gallery, London, Nov. 1971 (not in cat.)
John Banting, Hamet Gallery, London, Dec. 1971 (not in cat.)
Tate Gallery Report 1970-2, London 1972, pp.78-9, repr.

Conversation Piece is closely related to the themes of John Banting's socially satirical A Blue Book of Conversation (London 1946). According to an inscription in the artist's hand-bound copy, which was entitled For Social Service, he distributed ten copies around 1933-5.1 As noted in an earlier catalogue,2 Conversation Piece is particularly close to one of the book's illustrations:3 both include a pair of figures with heads based on the mouths of shell spirals. As these are open to the background, they may have been derived from eroded fragments rather than whole shells. With the exception of an emaciated arm, the corset- and epaulette-like parts of their bodies also suggest found elements. In the book, these figures are shown seated amid classically posed and delineated male nudes.

The composite structure of the figures is typical of Banting's method of 'converting' found objects, as recalled by his friend Barbara Ker-Seymer:

anything that took his fancy he immediately incorporated in his drawings and paintings; when he was in the country he collected leaves and bones, when by the sea, stone, shells, drift wood, more skulls and bone etc. He was a real scavenger and his studio was full of weird and wonderful objects, partly in their natural state and some converted by him.4
Banting contributed one such object to the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition (together with four paintings) and gathered several in a 'sale' at Ker-Seymer's studio in Grafton Street in the same year. These were described in the press: 'One is a rat's skull poised on part of the works of a clock. Another "arrangement" comprises half a dog's skull, an ear-ring, a glass stopper and a seashell reposing on a bed of red paper. "General Fodder's" portrait is made up of sea-bleached cork, cotton wool, a bottle-cork, a glass eye and spectacles.'5

The present dating of Conversation Piece to c.1933-5 is based upon the inscription in For Social Service.6 However it must be broadened as a stylistically related but unused double page print - of figures at a bar - was signed and dated in pen 'John Banting 1932'.7 Two proofs for A Blue Book of Conversation8 were used for undated letters to his friend the photographer Humphrey Spender, mentioning preparations for the ballet Prometheus in September 1936, while another letter included 'two bad proofs of my book of blue prints (mistakenly in line-block!) which may be out in February'.9 The line-block technique contradicts the suggestion that the book was printed by 'a commercial blueprint process'10 while the foreseen emergence does not seem to relate to the commercial publication in 1946 but perhaps to the preface dated 1935. In any case, the book project was underway by 1932 and until 1936, consequently broadening the dating of Conversation Piece.

The main flat forms of Conversation Piece were set against a textured and animated background. The green ground of the lower part seems to have been applied with the heal of the hand (a fingerprint is visible in the left corner) and elaborated with a yellow crayon; it originally covered the whole of the surface and it remains visible in some of the junctions between the forms and in the top corners (where it was protected by the pins holding the paper). The plum coloured sky was applied over this and the forms of the figures carefully delineated in pencil. These areas were then filled in flat planes of bright colour, the contrast between the bright orange of the hands and the powder blue of the bodies being especially notable.

Banting's compositional methods may be recognised as closely associated with the Surrealist object and the cadavre exquis. The possibilities of the former had been launched by Salvador Dal¡ in 1931, with the proposal of 'symbolically functioning objects' establishing new realities through unrelated juxtapositions.11 An exhibition of Surrealist objects was held at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris in 1936 to which a whole issue of Cahiers d'Art was devoted.12 The cadavre exquis was the term applied by the Surrealists in 1925 to the visual version of the game of consequences, whereby a head is drawn by one participant, a body and legs by the second and third, each without seeing the preceding contribution. Given Banting's connections with the Parisian movement, he must have been aware of both developments.

At the beginning of the 1930s, the language of disjunctive juxtaposition was used by Banting's friend Edward Burra for such caricatural figures as those in The Eruption of Vesuvius, 1930 (private collection)13 but was more generally associated with Parisian practicies. The substituted forms of Conversation Piece are closely comparable to the composite drawings of Picasso's Anatomy series. In the latter's Three Women VIII, 1933 (Musée Picasso, Paris)14 for example, limbs are similarly attached to figures made up of other recognisable elements (such as furniture). Banting's use of shell-heads may be more specifically linked to Max Ernst's series of butterfly and shell paintings of 1929-31, while the linear elements more evident in the illustrations to A Blue Book of Conversation may also be compared to the organic figures of Miró's paintings made in 1935-6 and published in Cahiers d'Art.15

The satire of Banting's A Blue Book of Conversation was explicit in the 1935 preface, which opened: 'Let us enjoy the spectacle of the dead burying themselves, denying with laughter our needed help as an arm pushes up the earth to collect more earth upon itself'.16 His text and illustrations brilliantly lampoon the conversation of the social elite from which he draws his characters. The discussion between the two shell-headed figures is especially frivolous:

Lady Turquoise Tuckroe: Spring's tingles fingling at all my ribbon-parted heart. My damask sub-tropical-heated Armand ...
Lady Diamond Lit: Is he, darling, well how darling of him ... Spring sets me a-travelling, you know ... Anywhere. Seville, the Orkneys, anywhere, Bali, any anywhere, Texas, Como, Fez, Cuba ... From nostalgia to nostalgia.17

While their elaborate names satirise such aristocrats as Lady Cunard - the mother of Banting's close friend Nancy Cunard - who had adopted the name 'Emerald' on a whim, their vacuity was matched by the emptiness of their shell-heads. Other characters in the book are shown as predatory, unctuous or dessicated through the adoption of skull, worm or cork forms. The cork head of Sir Giles Mundens-Furnace - which as the signature indicates was accidentally published upside down18 - was re-used with a prickly cactus companion in the contemporary painting Encounters on a Terrace, c.1936 (private collection).19

This approach may be summed up in Banting's explicitly political aphorism 'the rich kill time and the poor are killed by it'. It was first published in the London Bulletin in 193820 to coincide with his exhibition at the Storran Gallery, at which one reviewer recognised a 'ferocious imagery': 'landlords become inhuman masks of bark, socialites are translated, very persuasively, into objects with bodies made of wire, surmounted by gaping animal skulls'.21 In these years Banting's anti-Fascism led him to a Stalinist position, and he had already been involved in several of Nancy Cunard's campaigns. In 1931, she had tried to persuade Brian Howard - Banting's one-time lover - to write a pamphlet against conventional attitudes to religion, homosexuality and colour.22 In the following year, Banting accompanied her to New York, staying in Harlem. The trip was widely publicised because Cunard's affair with the black musician Henry Crowder had caused general outrage and a bitter public break with her wealthy mother. More significantly, Cunard was gathering material for her anthology Negro,23 which roughly shared the aspirations of the so-called 'Harlem Renaissance' of black political awareness as well as innovation in literature, music and art. Although Banting's contribution to Negro was a report on dancing in Harlem, he had an intimate knowledge of the publication. This lends a sharper satirical edge to the bigotry of the characters in A Blue Book of Conversation and implicit in the contemporary paintings.

Matthew Gale
October 1997

2 Tate Gallery Report 1970-2, London 1972, pp.78-9
3 A Blue Book of Conversation, London 1946, pp.32-3
4 Barbara Ker-Seymer, letter, 21 Dec. 1974, Tate Gallery catalogue files
5 Daily Sketch, 1936, Banting press cuttings TATE GALLERY ARCHIVE 779
6 Tate Gallery Report
8 A Blue Book of Conversation, pp.10,22
9 Banting, letters to Humphrey Spender, [?Sept. 1936], TATE GALLERY ARCHIVE 9717
10 Tate Gallery Report
11 'Objets surréalistes', Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, no.3, Dec. 1931, pp.16-17
12 Cahiers d'Art, vol.11, no.1-2, 1936
13 Repr. Andrew Causey, Edward Burra: Complete Catalogue, Oxford, 1985, [p.110], no.62
14 Repr. Picasso: A Retrospective, exh. cat., William Rubin (ed.), Museum of Modern Art, New York 1980, p.310
15 Cahiers d'Art, Paris, vol.11, no.8-9, 1936
16 A Blue Book of Conversation, p.v
17 Ibid., pp.35-6
18 Ibid., p.22
19 Repr. in col., A Salute to British Surrealism 1930-1950, exh. cat., The Minories, Colchester 1985, back cover, no.13
20 London Bulletin, London, no.6, p.26, 1938
21 New Statesman, London, 15 Oct. 1938, TATE GALLERY ARCHIVE 779
22 Anne Chisolm, Nancy Cunard, Harmondsworth 1981, p.224
23 Nancy Cunard (ed.), Negro Anthology, London 1934

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