Meredith Frampton 1894 -1984
T03981 Nude with Flying Swans1919
Tempera on panel 180 x 241 (7 1/8 x 9 1/2)
Inscribed ‘19 MF 19' (initials in monogram) t.r.
Presented by the Executors of Mrs Hilda Frampton, the artist's widow 1985
When T03981 was presented to the Tate Gallery it had no title; a title descriptive of the content of the picture was adopted. In 1981, when Richard Morphet was preparing the Meredith Frampton exhibition for the Tate Gallery, he asked to see all the paintings still in the artist's collection at his home near Warminster, Wiltshire. Although T03981 was hanging there, along with works by a number of other artists, Frampton did not draw attention to it and its existence as an early work went unrecognised. Its subject matter was not discussed.
When the work was acquired by the Tate Gallery, letters were sent to relatives and friends of Mr and Mrs Frampton to enquire whether they had any knowledge of the title or subject of T03981. All replied in the negative. While the number of particular details in this painting might suggest a pre-existing subject, possibly in legend or literature, none has been identified. In the foreground a nude young woman is pursued by two swans, one white and one black. Her long golden hair is entwined around the neck of the white swan. For the painting to illustrate the story of the myth of Leda and the swan, only one swan, a white one, would need to be present. Edmund Spenser's poem ‘The Shepherd's Calendar', written in 1579, does contain the lines
... I saw two swans of goodly hue
Come softly swimming down along the lee;
Two fairer birds I yet did never see:
The snow which doth the top of Pindus strew,
Did never whiter show,
Nor Jove himself when he a swan, would he
For Love of Leda, whiter did appear.
Although this section of the poem links two white swans seen in nature with the myth of Leda, it cannot be used as an explanation of the painting.
Three small figures, set in a meadow in the middle ground, at the lower right of the composition, seem to be reacting to the foreground situation with astonishment. The figure to the left is dressed as a clergyman, while the male and female figures to his left wear nineteenth century clothes, the man looking like a personification of a John Bull character. As if to complement the mood of these three figures, the bell in the tower of the little church is ringing.
The landscape background to T03981 is quite unusual in the main body of Frampton's oeuvre. However, two early works of similar date, ‘The Old Mill' and ‘Landscape with Willows' (both reproduced in colour on p.167 of Sotheby's sale catalogue for 13 November 1985, which also included the contents of Meredith Frampton's studio) employ landscape as the main subject material. The landscape background of T03981 appears to depict an Austrian or Swiss mountain view. A river or lake winds between steep and bare cliff-faces. Such a setting calls to mind the myth of the Lorelei, a female siren who lured boatmen to their death by her enticing beauty. The Lorelei is the name of a steep rock on the right bank of the river Rhine, near St. Goar, in The Federal Republic of Germany and because of its echo, this place became the traditional haunt of the Lorelei siren. Heine and other German Romantic poets wrote on the subject of the Lorelei, but although the female figure in T03981 could be a representation of the siren of the Rhine bank, there is no literature to support her enticement of swans rather than boatmen.
Frampton did have a knowledge of Alpine Europe, accompanying his parents on sketching holidays as a boy. Switzerland was a country that the Frampton family visited on occasion; the existence of a postcard among Meredith Frampton's papers records that he and his parents stayed at the Grand Hotel des Alpes, Champex in July 1922, Champex being a small mountain village set high above the Rhone valley. It may be that the landscape background in T03981 does not depict a particular view but is instead an amalgam of details reassembled from sketches, or created from the imagination. The landscape background to the portrait of Mrs Douglas Illingworth, painted in 1921 (repr. Meredith Frampton, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1982, p.35) which consists of bare mountain sides punctuated by a sheet of water similar to that found in T03981, was described by the artist to Richard Morphet as ‘imaginary'.
T03981 is executed in tempera; Frampton told Richard Morphet that, early in his career, he tried working in tempera but gave it up. As an imaginative figure composition T03981 is not unique in Frampton's work, since he executed another work in this genre while still a student at the Royal Academy Schools. This earlier work, entitled ‘A Harvest Procession', was reproduced in Builder, vol.108, 1 January 1915, p.2, where the caption described it as a ‘Design for the Decoration of a portion of a Public Building'. There are some stylistic similarities between it and T03981. The composition of ‘A Harvest Procession' comprises a frieze of figures set in the foreground of the picture, processing from right to left, depicted in three-quarter profile. The landscape background is empty and spare, with tall mountain ranges and a cluster of architectural buildings, which have an ecclesiatical or castle-like nature. A willowy tree with fruit-laden branches can be found in both compositions.
Among Meredith Frampton's papers now in the Tate Gallery Archive is a book published in Munich in 1913 entitled Farbige Kunstblätter der Münchner Jugend. The artist told Richard Morphet that this was very influential for him when he was beginning his professional career. It would be invidious to single out any illustration or artist to draw an affinity with T03981, but it is worth noting that the illustrations of the recent work of young German artists contained in this book show a very high proportion of compositions which contain swans, young naked maidens with long hair, Alpine scenery with mountains and lakes, and churches with onion domes, thus most of the major components of the subject material of T03981. Mrs Frampton's niece, Jill Dickins, has provided information on how and where T03981 hung at the artist's home. Frampton had a theory that paintings should be hung from one central nail positioned about six to sixteen inches above the top of the frame, and this method of hanging left the nail and the cord visible. He then used gold braid or coloured ribbons that were positioned over the nail and the cord and which made a feature of the method of hanging. As the frame of T03981 was painted black, Frampton chose a ribbon of the same colour to match it. Other paintings in his house were hung with ribbons in this way. His mother, Lady Frampton, was a compulsive buyer of ribbons, so there was a large quantity of material for him to choose from. He was also very adept at tying bows, so his ribbons always looked very elegant. T03981 hung in the drawing room of the artist's home, to the right of the fireplace. It was paired with a framed postcard reproduction of a chalk drawing of a figure study, possibly the work of Raphael, which had been squared up before framing. The postcard reproduction hung above T03981.
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.147-8