Spencer GoreThe Fig Tree c.1912

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Artwork details

Artist
Spencer Gore (1878‑1914)
Title
The Fig Tree
Date c.1912
MediumOil paint on canvas
Dimensionssupport: 635 x 760 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Bequeathed by J.W. Freshfield 1955
Reference
T00028
Not on display

Catalogue entry

Gore often painted the view looking out of the windows of his lodgings, including several different compositions of this fig tree in various seasons of the year. The painting is dominated by the diagonal shadow cast from the building onto the garden, which meets the garden walls running across the picture at opposing angles. The figure in the foreground might be Gore’s wife, Mollie.
Spencer Gore 1878–1914
The Fig Tree
c.1912
Oil paint on canvas
635 x 760 mm
Inscribed studio stamp ‘S.F. GORE’ bottom right
Bequeathed by J.W. Freshfield 1955
T00028

Entry

Spencer Gore 'Study for a Mural Decoration for 'The Cave of the Golden Calf'' 1912
Fig.1
Spencer Gore
Study for a Mural Decoration for 'The Cave of the Golden Calf' 1912
Following Gore’s marriage to Mary Johanna Kerr, known as ‘Mollie’, in 1912, the couple moved into a first-floor flat at 2 Houghton Place NW1, near his previous lodgings in Mornington Crescent (see Tate N03839). It appears to have been a period of great contentment for him, and during 1912 his output was prolific. It was in this year that his style started to change markedly, a process that culminated in the highly stylised paintings of Letchworth Garden City and his decorative scheme for the Cave of the Golden Calf nightclub (fig.1). While living at Houghton Place, Gore made a number of paintings from the windows of the house, both front and back, and these include several views of the rear garden. The large fig tree which grew in the next garden is sometimes shown in full leaf, as in the Tate picture, and sometimes in the bareness of winter, as in From a Window at 2 Houghton Place 1913 (private collection).1 It is possible that Gore was consciously engaged in the process of painting a series, in the manner of Claude Monet’s depictions of London, or at least that he chose to return to the same subject to depict it during different seasons even if in different compositions. The views he painted from the front of the house also follow this pattern, including two paintings showing the view up Houghton Place towards Harrington Square, which have exactly the same composition but one of which was painted in high summer and the other in winter.2 The figure standing in the garden lends human presence, and is perhaps Gore’s wife.
Other paintings of the Gores’ garden include Down the Garden, 2 Houghton Place 1912 (private collection)3 and Spring in North London 1912 (private collection).4 In The Fig Tree, as with his other paintings of trees and foliage, Gore concentrated on the textures, patterns and colours. The impressionist technique of applying short dabs of colour has been replaced here with a broader painting style, but one which follows the impressionist belief in coloured shadows. As with many other works, Gore here constructs a composition that relies on the tension of diagonal lines, the garden walls running across the picture, one of them cutting off the bottom corner, but unified by the spreading forms of the vegetation. Gore paid particular attention to the harmony of all his pictures’ colour schemes. He wrote to his pupil, John Doman Turner, explaining:
All colour is relative and influenced by its surroundings. If you have a red house in a green field against a blue sky, in whatever scale you paint them a tint or the fullest colour you can get, each has some effect on the other. The removal of one would create a new relation between the other two. It may be very subtle or very marked, as in a sunset sky and green fields: if you blot out the sky the colour of the grass is entirely different, and the best thing to trust to for these relations is your eye. The only positive colour would be one of the principal colours of the spectrum isolated, a pure colour, and you might say a colour in a painting was too positive when it approached too near a pure colour for its place in the picture. But a picture might be entirely painted in pure colours.5
Gore’s advice to Doman Turner, to trust his eye for colour harmony rather than to theory, shows a practical and flexible attitude to painting. In another letter to his pupil, Gore wrote dismissively of neo-impressionism:
Neo-Impressionist was the name given to the people who tried to reduce the system of divided colour to a science. Every colour divided up into its purest forms put on in dots of equal size. The two chief exponents were Signac and Seurat, Seurat died Signac is still alive, Lucien Pissarro learnt to paint in this manner. It was not a great success because it made a painting very mechanical and took a long time to do. Oil paint also is not light but mud. Think for yourself.6
Gore first exhibited The Fig Tree at the exhibition he and Harold Gilman held at the Carfax Gallery in January 1913. The asking price was 30 guineas, one of the most expensive of his pictures in the show; The Beanfield (Tate T01859), for instance, was only priced 12 guineas because of its smaller size. The pictures that had higher prices in the exhibition were all either garden or music-hall scenes. Gore held business-like views about the relative value of his pictures. In 1909 he had written to Doman Turner:
The price of any painting would depend on the demand there was for it. An artist might be able to sell one kind of painting easily and another scarcely anybody would look at. The price of one would go up and the other down, or perhaps he would not try and sell it at all. If I priced one at £10.10 and another at £12.12 it would only be because one would be the sort of thing people were more likely to buy and not because I thought it a better painting. People don’t buy things because they are good paintings, but because there is something pretty or attractive about them, or because it is what they are accustomed to expect from the painter. Very many portraits of men by Gainsborough are far better than the women, but one goes for hundreds and the other for thousands. The price is the last thing to judge by.7
This might suggest, therefore, that the more numerous subjects of gardens, parks and music halls that Gore made were partly painted because there was a stronger market for them, a consideration in his choice of subject matter from which it was impossible to escape.
Gilman painted a view from Gore’s window of the tree on other side of the garden in The Tree, from 2 Houghton Place 1912 (private collection).8

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Reproduced in Spencer Frederick Gore 1878–1914, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1983 (28).
2
Both reproduced ibid. (29, 30).
3
Reproduced ibid. (18).
4
Reproduced ibid. (19).
5
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 7 October 1909, private collection, no.21.
6
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 11 June 1910, private collection, no.26.
7
Spencer Gore, letter to John Doman Turner, 22 February 1909, private collection, no.10.
8
Reproduced in Modern British and Irish Paintings, Watercolours and Sculpture, Christie’s, London, 11 March 1994 (54).

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