T04857 Quarry Face, Worth Matravers 1956
Oil on canvas 915 × 1220 (36 × 48)
Inscribed ‘Fred. Brill’ 56’ in? another hand b.r.
Presented by Mr and Mrs John Gere 1986
Prov: Purchased by John Gere from Galerie de Seine 1958
Exh: Paintings by Frederick Brill, Galerie de Seine, June–July 1958 (20)
As its title indicates, T04857 depicts a quarry near Worth Matravers in the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset. According to a local historian whose views were communicated by D. & P. Lovell Quarries in a letter to the compiler dated 26 January 1990, the particular quarry was Seacombe Quarry, which ceased to be worked after the Second World War. At the foot of the quarry are two dark entrances, painted black. Above are the different strata of rock, painted predominantly in white and yellow. Ochre, blue and green are used to define the edges of the rectangular planes that make up the quarry face. In the foreground is a swathe of green grass. The sky in the top right-hand corner is blue.
It is not known exactly when Brill first visited the quarry. In a letter to the compiler dated 26 August 1988, Mrs Deirdre Brill, the artist's widow, recalled that she and her husband spent a holiday at Cross Keys Worth, Dorset in about 1948. They stayed with the sculptor Peter Startup (1921–76), a close friend with whom Brill had studied at the Hammersmith School of Art. She remembered that Startup was working on a carving in one of the quarries there. However, the earliest known carving by Startup, who began his career as a painter, is dated c. 1950–1 (the work in question is a large reclining figure in granite, now in a private collection). It is therefore possible that Brill's first trip occurred in the early 1950s. Mrs Brill recalled that they returned to the area on another occasion: ‘we stayed in Swanage and Fred would go over to Worth Matravers to draw’. This second trip may have been made in 1955, the date given to ‘Winspit, Worth Matravers’, a painting exhibited with T04857 in the 1958 Galerie de Seine exhibition which was Brill's first one-man show. In a card to the compiler dated 14 December 1988, however, Mrs Brill wrote that they visited Swanage in 1956. The gallery's label on the back of T04857 indicates that the Tate Gallery's picture was executed in June 1956.
Brill did not paint in front of the subject but made drawings from which he painted in his studio in his house at 8 Danvers Street, Chelsea. (Brill taught at the Chelsea School of Art from 1951 to 1979, and was Principal from 1965.) While it has not proved possible to find a drawing that exactly matches the scene represented in T04857, there are a number of clearly related drawings, some marked up with notes about what colours to use, in the collection of the artist's widow.
T04857 was one of a small group of paintings of this subject. ‘Purbeck Quarry Face’ (undated, formerly in the collection of the owner of the Galerie de Seine, Anna de Goguel) shows a similar scene of a faceted quarry face with two entrances. Another is ‘Quarry at Worth Matravers’, c.1952 (repr. The Forgotten Fifties, exh. cat., Sheffield City Art Gallery 1984, no.10). Two years later Brill was to focus on the rock faces of Gordale Scar and cliff scenes in Yorkshire (for example, ‘Gordale Scar’, 1958 and ‘Cliff Steps, Whitby’, 1958, listed in Galerie de Seine exh. cat., 1958, nos.12, 19).
The rectangular planes in this work, together with the artist's use of a palette knife to create areas of high impasto, distantly recall the technique of contemporary ‘tachiste’ painters working in Paris in the 1950s. In London Nicolas de Stael was amongst the best known of these painters following his exhibitions at the Matthiesen Gallery in 1952 and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956. A reviewer of Brill's show at the Galerie de Seine, however, implied that although the artist had absorbed some lessons from continental painting, his use of rectangular planes in his rock scenes stemmed primarily from his concern to convey the reality of the quarry faces (John Berger, ‘Brill and De Francia’, New Statesman, 21 June 1958, p.804):
Brill's master is Courbet, particularly in his attitude to his subject matter; his actual method of painting depends of lessons learnt from English topographical landscapes, Cézanne and Cubism ... The maturity of his work lies in its understanding of weight and mass. Each protuberance or fissure in one of his rock faces reveals the pressures which have caused or preserved it. He looks at nature as a carpenter might look at another man's table. It is his practical insight which prevents him being literal and it is his professionalism that saves him from formalism - which is, in essence, always amateurish. When Brill puts a red mark against a yellow one to show where a plane of stone has turned through 60 degrees, he would be as ashamed, if this mark did not do its job properly, as a carpenter whose dove-tailing worked loose. He has, in fact, the manual imagination and sensibility of a true painter.
Brill did not generally sign his work. In her letter to the compiler Mrs Brill wrote, ‘I am certain the signature [on T04857] is not Fred's’. He would sometimes sign if asked to do so, but ‘he would not have abbreviated his name’. ‘I have seen him reluctantly signing F.B. on a water colour but never never Fred. Brill’. She also felt that the handwriting was quite dissimilar. However, T04857 appears to have been signed, in red paint, when bought by John Gere in 1958. In a letter to the compiler dated 2 January 1990 Gere wrote: ‘What you say about the signature surprises me. It was certainly there when I bought the picture, and the picture has never been out of my possession until we gave it to the Tate 4 years ago. Brill must have seen the signature on the picture at the Seine Gallery 1958 show; so if it had been added by another hand, this was presumably done with his approval.’ ‘Purbeck Quarry Face’ is also signed in red paint but, possibly, in a different hand.
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996