T03203 GUNHILLS, WINDLEY 1946–52
Inscribed ‘D.P.BLISS.52’ top right (and various inscriptions on reverse of canvas and on top stretcher bar, giving the present title as well as two others, ‘Bull's Cottage’ and ‘Evening Shadows’)
Oil on canvas, 30 × 40 (76.2 × 101.6)
Purchased from the artist through Robin Garton (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Exh: RA, May–August 1947 (in first state) (649), as ‘Windley, Derbyshire’; Douglas Percy Bliss, Alpine Club Gallery, July 1980 (8)
The following entry is based on a conversation with the artist in April 1982 and on subsequent correspondence with him and with his daughter Prudence. It has been approved by them both.
Following bomb damage to their London home, Bliss and his family moved to Derbyshire during the Second World War. In November 1945 they moved into Hillside Cottage, Windley, near Derby. Shortly afterwards, Bliss was appointed Director of the Glasgow School of Art. Thereafter Hillside Cottage was kept for holidays until he retired there in 1964. The Tate's picture was begun before Bliss took up his post in Glasgow in September 1946. It was painted from the motif, without any sketches, from his bedroom window on the first floor of Hillside Cottage. The title is derived from the hills in the background, which according to local tradition were so named because guns were posted there either in the time of Cromwell or during the southernmost stage of Bonnie Prince Charlie's march from Scotland in 1745. Bliss is sceptical about this tradition (of which he was ignorant when painting this picture).
The name Bull in one of the titles inscribed on the reverse is that of the occupier of the house to the left, which is actually named ‘Yew Cottage’. Mr Bull, who died in the late 1970s, worked on the estate owned by the Inglefield family, the local squires. Topiary (of which three examples in yew by Mr Bull appear in the middle of the picture) has long been a theme of interest to Bliss. In the Tate's picture the topiary nearest Yew Cottage represents a peacock with a huge head (with beak and crest) out of which a small tail springs horizontally. By 1982 its shape was less distinct and one of the other two topiary trees had been removed, as had the right hand section of the hedge of Yew Cottage as seen in this picture.
After the first state of the Tate's painting had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1947 it was photographed and reproduced in colour as the frontispiece of J.H. Ingram, North Midland Country, Batsford Ltd, London, Winter 1947–48. In this state the foreground hedges and topiary trees were represented as almost completely in shadow. Bliss decided to strengthen the design of the central portion by repainting it slightly earlier in the evening when the tops of the nearest two topiary trees still caught the light, thus contrasting with the fruit trees in shadow behind them, and when the foreground hedges were sharply divided into light and shadow. Prudence Bliss writes that ‘settling in the country on release from the RAF gave him his first opportunity to attempt (in the Tate's picture) a large oil painting direct from nature of the brilliant colour effect which appears at its strongest in landscape on a sunny evening in late summer. The first state of this picture was a relatively two dimensional rendering; the present state combines design on surface with design in depth’.
In Bliss's inscription at top right in the painting, the final digit is indistinct but is almost certainly ‘2’. Prudence Bliss explains that ‘as the new design depended on particularly brilliant light at a specific hour of the day (7–8 p.m.) and time of the year (August–September), it took many years to complete the painting to the artist's satisfaction’. She adds ‘even now when I see a strong light on the garden at 7 p.m. in August I feel a revived sense of urgency! Gunhills is virtually SSE of our house and only in summer when the sun sets in a north westerly aspect does this particular shadow pattern appear. Because of the hill behind us to the N W the sun itself vanishes rapidly so that we are rarely aware of spectacular sunsets in summer. At that time we seemed to have a sequence of bad summers. On the rare evenings when the sunlight appeared promising, my father would have no sooner got out his tackle than the sun would disappear, or we'd see a visitor coming up the lane; or the sun would sneak out as soon as he was busy gardening and then he'd drop whatever he was doing and literally run for the house!’
By comparison with its first state, the Tate's picture was enriched by a general increase in foliage and the introduction of the open window of Yew Cottage, while in contrast to these additions, cumulus clouds and a henhouse in the cottage garden were eliminated. There was relatively little overpainting in the lowest horizontal section of the picture, which represents part of the Blisses' own garden (a lane, running between the two hedges, divides it from Yew Cottage). At the lower right corner appear the figures of the artist's daughters Prudence (the elder, now a lecturer in Art History at Newcastle-upon-Tyne University) and Rosalind (now a painter and art teacher), wearing the gym tunics of their nearby school. They were painted in this picture by their mother Phyllis Dodd. Prudence Bliss writes ‘I remember how odd it felt to have to stand away down the garden as part of the view while my mother painted me from far off in the bedroom’. Husband and wife often both contributed to individual works; in their joint opinion he was stronger on trees and landscape and she on figures. A notable example of their collaboration is Mrs Bliss's ‘Prudence on Pegasus’ (repr.RA Illustrated 1939), in which the tasks were divided as described above.
The Tate's picture is one of a series showing the same view at different seasons. The other two, both in private collections, are ‘Spring at Windley’ 1946 (oil on board, 24 × 36in.), in which Mr Bull is seen standing in his garden, and ‘Winter at Windley’ 1949 (oil on canvas, 28 × 36in.) (repr.RA Illustrated 1950). ‘Lingering Snow’ 1951 (RA 1951) continues the view towards the right, the calfhouse at the left of ‘Lingering Snow’ being visible at the extreme right of the Tate's work. The Blisses' garden looking towards Yew Cottage can be seen in ‘A Window at Windley’ 1961 (reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of Bliss's 1980 exhibition listed above, and in colour on the cover of Scottish Field magazine, September 1980), while the relationship between the two gardens and the Blisses' house (at the right) is seen in ‘Phyllis at Windley’ 1958 of which a watercolour version is reproduced in colour in The Sunday Times Colour Magazine, 29 June 1980, p.69. ‘The Telephone Box’ c.1953–55 (which is inscribed on the reverse ‘Bull's Cottage’ and ‘The Lane at Windley’) is a view looking up the lane from a point slightly beyond the right edge of the Tate's picture; beyond the box of the title, two of Mr Bull's topiary trees can be seen clearly. A large number of Bliss's paintings since 1946 have been of the immediate surroundings of his house, including others of Gunhills and of Yew Cottage. He particularly admired the Pre-Raphaelite painters for the intensity of feeling they achieved through attention to particular detail. He also greatly admired the eighteenth century English landscape designers and would like to have been a landscape gardener had he not been an artist. Both these interests are evident in his paintings.
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984