Edgar Hubert 1906-1985
Oil on canvas
760 x 633 (30 x 25)
Inscribed on back on top stretcher in thick pencil 'E Hubert' t.r. and in different pencils '1935 | -6' centre; fragment of label on back of canvas, centre inscribed in ink '[...]gar Hubert'
Presented by Anna Maher, Susan Serafy and Jane Hubert, the artist's nieces, 1992
From the artist by descent
British Art and the Modern Movement, Welsh Committee of the Arts Council, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Oct.-Nov. 1962 (62)
Edgar Hubert's role in the 'Objective Abstraction' phenomenon of 1933-6, itself a marginal chapter in the histories of modern British art, has largely been forgotten.1
This omission appears to have begun early on as, despite being amongst the first and principal practitioners of the style, he was included in few, if any, of the 'Objective Abstraction' displays. Painting, 1935-6 is one of about half a dozen works from that period which survive in the artist's estate.
Rodrigo Moynihan recalled that 'pure objective abstraction appeared in ... early 1933',2 though William Townsend's journals suggest that it emerged later in the year. Referring to them, Townsend was able to tell the Tate Gallery that 'the style originated with Geoffrey Tibble in the latter half of 1933. It was immediately taken up by Rodrigo Moynihan ... and at the same time or shortly after by Edgar Hubert'.3 Under Tibble's influence, Graham Bell also produced works in the same manner. Townsend set out the exhibitions in which Objective Abstractions were shown and sought to establish a historical account of their changing forms.4
The loss of the relevant works by Geoffrey Tibble, Graham Bell and some of Moynihan's and Hubert's makes this account especially valuable. It identifies three phases of 'Objective Abstraction', with the second of which one would associate Painting, 1935-6.
Townsend recorded that in the autumn of 1933 Tibble and Moynihan's painting, though derived from external objects, was developing an increasingly abstract appearance. In late September, he still recognised in the latter's latest work an overt reference to a visual source while Tibble's had 'passed beyond that stage'. On 31 October he noted that Hubert had shown him 'a large abstract painting size 4' x 3' which he intended to submit to the London Group'.5 That exhibition, in November 1933, was the first occasion on which objective abstractions were shown. 'Moynihan', wrote Townsend, 'showed two works and one painting from each was accepted from Hubert and Tibble'.6 However, poor hanging prompted Tibble to withdraw his Painting; annotated notes on the Tate Gallery's copy of the catalogue confirm its absence. Townsend's record notwithstanding, no contribution from Hubert is listed in the catalogue.
Despite his close and early association with the movement, Edgar Hubert was not shown in the exhibition of Objective Abstractions
at the Zwemmer Gallery in March 1934. The catalogue reproductions reveal that by that time Graham Bell was working in a manner close to that of Moynihan and Tibble, Thomas Carr's contribution was still recognisably a still life, and the works by Ceri Richards, Victor Pasmore and Ivon Hitchens, which were added to the group by the gallery's director Robert Wellington, were also clearly representational. The Objective Abstractions in this display shared certain common characteristics, they were painted with long broad brush strokes loosely organised in what may be described as a centripetal arrangement.7
The centrally focused compositions thus had a sense of both movement and depth. The style, which had been anticipated in Tibble's earlier representational works, such as Still Life, 1929 (Tate Gallery T00946), was clearly expressionistic. Subsequently, Townsend wrote, Bell abandoned this style while Tibble and Moynihan developed it by obscuring the brushwork through a lengthy process of overpainting 'in the attempt to destroy the last vestiges of any images, arising during the works, which might bear a reference to anything outside the picture'.8 The resultant works, by Townsend's account, took up to a year to complete. The date inscribed on the stretcher of Hubert's Painting, 1935-6 appears to have been changed at some point from '1935' to '1935-'36'; this may reflect the fact that it was worked on over a similarly prolonged period.
Though Hubert's submission was rejected, recent works by Tibble and Moynihan were shown, with some reluctance, at the London Group in November 1935. They were scorned in the press, with the exception of a favourable review from Frank Rutter in the Sunday Times.9
During 1936 Tibble and Moynihan's work began to show signs of representation. Tibble accepted that viewers might identify objects in the paint, reflecting, it seems, his interest in current theories of the role of the unconscious in painting and his desire for the works to be associated with Surrealism. Townsend's observation that Tibble considered himself 'a real Surrealist, that he alone is working out their spoken gospel in paint', seems to be confirmed by plans (ultimately unfulfilled) for André Breton to visit his studio in June 1936.10
This identification was echoed by A.C. Sewter in the catalogue of the exhibition Tibble held at his flat in the following October. In the Objective Abstractions, he wrote,
the conscious and unconscious, the personal and impersonal, the intended and unintended are copresent ... Within the apparently smooth exterior, in a state of occasionally threatening agitation, lie suggestions and hints of the strange symbols which are the language of the unconscious. Cosmic and chaotic forces pitched against one another, distorted beings, transfixed or severed limbs, a shoe, a hat, a piano, a tree.11
Though the inscribed label on the reverse of Painting
may suggest that Hubert sent this work out at an early date, there is no evidence of him having shown in any of the exhibitions through which objective abstraction was presented. When, in 1939, Townsend saw one of his 'cloudy abstracts' at the AIA, it was the first time that he could recall one of these on exhibition. He observed that Hubert was reclusive and shy and, in 1936, that his time was 'almost wholly devoted to introspection'.12 Nevertheless, Claude Rogers saw Hubert's omission from the Objective Abstractions
exhibition as 'a mystery ... Not only was Hubert one of the most involved, but when all the others had fallen away he alone continued to paint abstract pictures'.13 Hubert was away for the opening of the Zwemmer Gallery exhibition on 20 March 1934 due to his brother's illness and this may explain his omission from the show.14
All of Tibble's Objective Abstractions appear to have been lost, but those few commentators who made note agreed that he, Hubert and Moynihan worked in similar styles at the same period. Of the three phases into which Townsend divided Tibble and Moynihan's Objective Abstractions, the first was of the works made up of loosely organised brushmarks which were shown at the Zwemmer Gallery exhibition in 1934. The second group of works, of 1935-6, consisted of those paintings in which a more painstaking approach resulted in a very thick paint layer and a more diffused, all-over finish. Of this second group the only surviving examples are by Moynihan, two of which are in the Tate's collection (T00172; T01770). In 1936, the third phase, Tibble's brushwork once again became 'slighter, more quickly painted'.15
There do not appear to be any examples of Hubert's work during the first phase, c.1933-4. As its dates suggest, Painting, 1935-6 seems to belong to the second phase, though its modulations of tone and colour may be thought more subtle than the contemporary works of Moynihan. It is made up, predominantly, of pinks and greys, a narrow range of tone and colour that echo an anonymous review of Tibble's 1936 private exhibition, which said he worked 'in a muted colour range of red-pink, blue-white and grey'.16 The canvas of Painting, 1935-6 was commercially prepared with a white ground and the paint was generally built up to a thick impasto. The degree of control in the artist's technique is indicated by the precision of the painting's edges, which are generally thin in contrast to the thickness of the paint towards the middle. In most of the work the paint was worked into a highly textured, pitted surface; over this some broad strokes, mostly black and white, were lightly applied so that they caught only the raised sections of paint. Touches of strong colour - in particular burnt umber and red - accentuate the painting's flatness; small areas of red are also visible beneath other colours.
Old tack holes suggest that the canvas has been restretched at some point and unpainted strips along the edges are consistent with that. The paint shows extensive horizontal cracking, especially near the bottom where one crack stretches the full width of the canvas and another is 21 inches long. These are likely to have resulted from the canvas being rolled, which suggests that the inscribed date on the stretcher should be viewed with some caution. Its adjustment may reflect the fact that Hubert reworked the 1935 painting in the following year, or he may have stretched the canvas on a stretcher already dated '1935' at a later date, perhaps for its 1962 exhibition. The filling and retouching of two long cracks near the bottom is also likely to relate to this later exhibition.
According to Townsend, by the end of 1936 political concerns accentuated by the Spanish Civil War prompted Moynihan and Tibble to revert to a more representational manner. Hubert, however, continued to develop his abstract idiom. His paintings of 1936-8 were similar to such works as Painting, 1935-6 but with the addition of regular, rapid flicks of black across the surface. A development of the smaller, scarcer marks of Painting, 1935-6, these served to further flatten the works, which are horizontal in format, and to give them a greater sense of structure. It is possible that Townsend was referring to such works in February 1938 when he wrote that Hubert was, 'still painting abstract pictures ... non-geometrical abstraction in black white and grey, cloudy groupings of vague streaks and knots of dark paint, or loose clusters of starry shapes each a few painfully calculated flicks'.17 Three small paintings in his estate show that Hubert also worked with a stronger palette. Dated 1937, they are made up of small, mostly vertical brushtrokes of different shades of green, blue, purple, pink and orange.
Objective Abstraction arose out of a belief that the point of departure for contemporary painting should be Impressionism and, specifically, the late work of Monet and Cézanne. The group of ex-Slade students was particularly influenced by Monet's depictions of Rouen Cathedral, the texture and subtle tonality of which presaged the quality of such works as Painting, 1935-6. They believed that, in the 'extreme state' to which painting had been pushed by such works, its material had become autonomous. With the Impressionists, Moynihan said, 'the object lost all its specifications and the painter his choice in giving it implications, emotional or formal'.18 In a rejection of expressionism, the aim was an objective art in which the painting was determined by 'the visual aspect ... as opposed to the conceptual or idealistic'.19 'It is', Moynihan went on, 'the critical, objective approach - the artist is directed not to the perfection of a preconceived form, but by the appearance of his painting, which in his case becomes the object'.20 This led him, Tibble and Hubert to develop a form of painting in which they saw the paint itself as both the starting point and the object of the work. As Moynihan told David Sylvester, 'the elimination of the object ... came out of the use of the paint ... the thickness of the paint seemed to squeeze out the object'.21 Townsend's journals state that Hubert had abandoned an earlier interest in the aesthetics of Leo Tolstoy by May 1934.22
However, the Russian's theory that art was necessarily ethical and should be accessible to all may have informed his belief in art's objectivity.
The emphasis on the paint itself and, apparently, on the flatness of the final painting in the works of the middle phase, such as Painting, 1935-6, had other sources in addition to Monet. In particular, the late paintings of Turner, then rather out of fashion, were much admired by that group. David Gascoyne showed his appreciation of the artists' intentions in his review of the 1934 Objective Abstractions
exhibition. Describing the work as a fusion of Kandinsky and Monet, he saw it as an extension of Impressionism which, he said, was 'being developed along a line of non-formal, i.e. non-geometrical, abstraction, an abstraction built purely from colour and light'.23
The rejection of a conceptual approach and the insistence on the work's organic development set the Objective Abstractionists at odds with the work of Ben Nicholson and his circle, which was seen as the dominant form of abstract art in Britain at that time. However, small watercolours on the backs of later paintings by Hubert may suggest that his Objective Abstractions were preconceived. These consist of fields of small, rapid brushmarks in varying tones of grey, making them comparable to an untitled grey oil, dated 1936-7, in the artist's estate.24
They are not dated themselves, and the works on the other side are from 1941-2, but it is possible that they were some sort of studies for the larger works on canvas.
Retrospective critiques have seen the privileging of the material, the freedom of the brushwork and the all-over flatness of the Objective Abstractions as a precursor of Abstract Expressionism. In particular, the works bear a superficial similarity to what Lawrence Alloway, following Elaine de Kooning, called Abstract Impressionism, which encompassed the work of such artists as Sam Francis and Jean-Paul Riopelle and owed a similar debt to late Monet.25
Addressing an American audience in 1957, David Sylvester suggested that the Objective Abstraction painters 'were not so very far from the cults and prejudices of the action painters'26 and Alan Bowness wrote later that their work 'was a remarkable anticipation of post-war Abstract Expressionism'.27 Such claims have been refuted by Charles Harrison, who set Objective Abstraction outside his historically determined account of modernism in England, quoting Moynihan's own assessment of the movement to support his proposal that it was unfruitful: 'effectively a dead end. With no strong historical roots, it had nowhere to go'.28 However, his assertion that the works were neither '"objective" in any strong sense or indeed "abstract"',29 indicates that his assessment was based solely upon the 'first phase'. Such a retrospective context cast Objective Abstraction in a new light which was reflected in 1958 in A.C. Sewter's introduction to Geoffrey Tibble's posthumous retrospective30
and the Tate Gallery's acquisition of Moynihan's Objective Abstraction, 1935-6. Hubert's return to an all-over, painterly abstract style at the end of the 1950s which echoed both his own paintings of the 1930s and the more recent, albeit far larger, ones of Pollock may suggest that he perceived common ground between his early work and post-war developments.
This entry has been completed with the assistance of Tony and Anna Maher and Susan Serafy
2 Rodrigo Moynihan, interview with David Sylvester, 12 May 1962, published in Rodrigo Moynihan: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London 1978, p.16
3 William Townsend, letter to Tate Gallery with attached notes, 18 April 1958, Tate Gallery catalogue files
5 William Townsend journals, University College London archive
6 Townsend, letter 18 April 1958
7 Repr. in Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, p.101
8 Townsend, letter 18 April 1958
9 Presscutting, [?17 Nov. 1935]
10 23 June 1936, Andrew Forge, ed., The Townsend Journals, 1978, p.37
11 Geoffrey Tibble, exh. cat., 13 Fitzroy Street, 1936
12 William Townsend journals, University College London archive
13 Claude Rogers, memoirs, quoted in Laughton 1986, p.97
14 Forge 1978, p.30
15 Townsend, letter 6 March 1936
16 Time and Tide, quoted in Laughton 1986, p.105
17 Quoted in Laughton 1986, p.98
18 Rodrigo Moynihan, exh. cat., RA 1978, p.8
22 Townsend journals, 17 May 1934, University College London archive
23 David Gascoyne, New English Weekly, 29 March 1934, quoted in Rodrigo Moynihan, exh. cat., RA 1978, p.6
24 Photograph Tate Gallery acquisitions files
25 Lawrence Alloway, Abstract Impressionism, exh. cat., Nottingham University Art Gallery 1958
26 David Sylvester, 'London', Arts, vol.31, no.6, March 1957, p.15
27 Alan Bowness, British Art and the Modern Movement 1930-40, exh. cat., Arts Council 1962
28 Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism, London 1981, p.337
29 Ibid., p.335
30 A.C. Sewter, Paintings and Drawings by Geoffrey Tibble 1909-5, exh. cat., Manchester City Art Gallery 1958