Illustrated companion

As a student at the Slade School of Art in 1926 William Coldstream discovered C?zanne, and was profoundly affected by the Frenchman's obsessional system of painting from nature: 'I became interested in real appearances ... every attempt at realistic painting, however crude was for me a discovery'. However, by the early 1930s, influenced by current avant-garde theory, Coldstream found an increasing conflict between his need to paint what he saw and the pressure to abstract. He found too that in the prevailing conditions of economic slump it was hard to sell any art, and the market for anything that looked at all abstract was virtually non-existent. He gave up painting and worked for the G.P.O. Film Unit, at that time producing highly realistic documentaries directed by John Grierson. When he returned to painting in 1937, it was with a fully thought-out idea of 'straight' painting, done directly from the model, a transcription of what is seen.

This concept satisfied his personal artistic needs and he hoped that it would more generally benefit art and artists by appealing to a wider public than the avant-garde: 'It seemed to me important that the broken communication between the artist and the public should be built up again and this most probably implied a movement towards realism.' He then joined Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore, who had started a teaching studio in Fitzroy Street, and together they founded the Euston Road School of Art. The school itself was short-lived but its style and philosophy remained influential for the next two decades. The work of its adherents is known as 'Euston Road School'. Coldstream was appointed Slade Professor at the Slade School of Art in 1949 and remained an influential teacher until his death.

Coldstream's method was based on a system of measuring using sightings taken with the brush handle in order to obtain a precisely correct relationship of the parts of the model. The small coloured dots, lines and occasional crosses visible on the figure in the painting are measuring points. 'Once I start painting' Coldstream has said, 'I am occupied mainly with putting things in the right place.' The sitter was a Slade School of Art model and the painting required, Coldstream recalled, at least thirty sittings, each of about two hours. The easel was set up about eight to nine feet from the model who was seated against a screen and repositioned accurately for each sitting by reference to small coloured markers on it. The artist permitted himself the use of only one brush for the painting, a size nine Winsor and Newton sable.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.186