Patrick Caulfield

Still Life with Dagger


Household paint on hardboard
Support: 1215 x 1216 x 40 mm
Purchased 1976

Display caption

Several of Caulfield’s paintings of 1963–4 make direct reference to compositional devices found in the carefully constructed still lifes of the Cubist painter Juan Gris. As Caulfield said ‘What I like about Juan Gris’s work is not that he’s dealing with different view points, it’s the way he does it. It’s very strong, formally, and decorative’.

During this period Caulfield started to introduce exotic objects into his paintings. The art critic Marco Livingstone has described them as combining ‘decorative opulence with technical austerity’. The dagger and sheath here were drawn from life in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Gallery label, September 2004

Technique and condition

Patrick Caulfield was interviewed by Tom Learner and Jo Crook in November 1998 as research for a chapter in their book The impact of Modern Paints, published by the Tate Gallery in 2000. Several insights were gained into his techniques in the early sixties. They may or may not apply directly to this painting, but observation of the work would tend to confirm much of what he recounted.

Caulfield had particular reasons for selecting hardboard as a support. He said, 'I used to paint on hardboard because it was cheap and I thought an anonymous surface, the nearest equivalent to a wall... I used to nail these bits of hardboard to wooden battens, that's one of the crudest elements of the work I did at the time'. The nails are visible in the front of Still Life with Dagger and are an integral part of the work, as they now lie beneath the paint film. The inner frame battens are held on by these nails.

The hardboard was prepared by sanding. 'I did sand it, not very thoroughly, it was roughly sanded, then I primed it. I would have washed it or brushed it off.' Although the painting looks glossy and flat from certain angles, in raking light there is evidence of the scoring of the surface of the hardboard, before the priming was applied. There are numerous complex scratch patterns visible in raking light. There are traces of debris within the paint layer and these could be the residue of this preparation procedure. There are broad brushmarks visible in the surface which seem to emanate from the priming. Caulfield said, 'I prepared the surface of the board as you might a door, with commercial undercoat'.

The design is very clear cut and precise. He had several techniques for transferring the image to the primed surface. 'I might have squared [the image] up or I might have done a tracing. I never projected anything. I drew onto the hardboard and just transferred it visually [and] fairly freely, making corrections until I got it'. Although there are traces of drawing, Caulfield took great pains to cover it up, 'I wouldn't have wanted them to have been very evident, or evident at all'.

Apparently the painting process took place with the hardboard flat to prevent the fluid gloss paint running and dripping. His choice of alkyd housepaint was " aesthetic decision, not anything to do with the technique. I wanted a very impersonal surface, I didn't want any obvious brushstroke work that was visible. It was more like a sign-painter's technique... Basically I would have been after a uniform effect. I wasn't into under-painting. For me that was a Post-Impressionist hangover'. The fact that it was painted flat would explain some of the strange pooling effects which appear in the jug for example.

According to TL and JC Caulfield's order of painting was similar for all his early works. 'I would have drawn the whole thing in black lines and then filled them in with colour, but then I would have to go over it again and touch it up. I was continually touching them up, I never got them accurate at the first go'. Brush marks are evident in raking light and seem to follow the shapes mapped out in red supporting the idea of his filling in the black lines and touching up afterwards. The glossy surface of the alkyd paint is not coated with any form of varnish and is generally quite susceptible to abrasions and scratches.

Rica Jones and Annette King
June 1999

Catalogue entry

Not inscribed
Household paint on hardboard, 47 7/8×48 (121.5×122)
Purchased from the Waddington Galleries with funds provided by the Tate Gallery Publications Department, the Trustees of the Tate Gallery Trust Fund and the Grant-in-Aid 1976
Coll: Private Collection
Exh: Royal College of Art Diploma Show 1963; Work by some past students of Chelsea and Polytechnic Schools of Art, Gallery of Chelsea School of Art, March–April 1965(7); Recent Still Life, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, February–April 1966 (15, repr.)

When Caulfield painted this picture he had for some time been interested in the work of Juan Gris, of whom he painted a portrait in 1963 (rep. Christopher Finch, Patrick Caulfield, 1971, p.23). In a letter to Christopher Finch in 1969, quoted in Finch, op.cit, p.59, Caulfield wrote ‘I think that a good example of ... painting about cubism... is the painting called Still Life with Dagger. This contains a device which Juan Gris used of having an area which bent around the top left of [sic. this should read ‘or’] right-hand corner of the picture representing the sky or the outside of the window areas of the composition. Also it contains an Islamic dagger in jade colour, a jug, a necklace, and an abstracted palm shape. In fact it seems to contain a lot of elements I have used in my painting.’

The influence of Gris is seen especially in the design of the rim of the jug and in the way in which indoor and outdoor space are elided ambiguously. The ‘table top’ element was not intended to be pinned down to that reading in particular. The seeming naturalism of the (imaginary) necklace by contrast with the treatment of jug and space is a further example of the confrontation of idioms seen in ‘Vases of Flowers’.

In 1963 many of Caulfield's contemporaries were painting images from popular or admass culture. He wished by contrast to treat subjects that were remote and impossible in a contemporary context, even alien or exotic. This was one intention underlying his choice of a Delacroix subject to paint in ‘Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi’ 1963 (repr., reversed, in Finch, op.cit, p.27). It also underlay his choice of Islamic artefacts in ‘Still Life with Necklace’ 1964 (repr, Finch, op.cit, p.24) and in the very closely connected present painting. In both works, the Islamic objects were mostly painted from detailed drawings which Caulfield made of the actual items on public view in display cases at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum. In ‘Still Life with Dagger’, the hilt was developed from Caulfield's drawing of a dagger in the Victoria and Albert Museum (which adjoined the painting school of the Royal College of Art). The Department of Metalwork at the Museum write that the dagger ‘is Indian (Mughal) and dates from the eighteenth century. The museum number is I.S. 100–1955. The dimensions are 5×4×1 in. Only the hilt survives.’ The hilt is ‘of mottled jade inlaid with gold and set with precious stones.’ Caulfield thinks that he might have used another scabbard as the source for the scabbard shown in this painting, or he might have invented this detail.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978