Leslie Hurry

Grace Sholto Douglas

1940

Medium
Oil paint on cardboard on panel
Dimensions
Support: 962 x 840 mm
frame: 1175 x 1053 x 103 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1989
Reference
T05573

Summary

Grace Sholto Douglas 1940 is a large painting by the British artist and set designer Leslie Hurry, which depicts a woman positioned semi-seated with her left arm resting on a stone architectural feature. It is unclear whether this feature forms the arm of a throne-like seat, but it is mirrored to the woman’s right by a similar flattened stone block that may form the seat’s second arm. In the foreground is an elongated pyramid-shaped stone obelisk, the shape and colour of which is echoed by two similar forms in the distant background. Gothic buttresses, windows, stairs and partially formed figures also occupy the dream-like space behind the woman. Here, the figure of a king, dressed in red and yellow, appears to be crowning a nude female figure, while what may be a female demon stretches and whirls behind them. The colour scheme is bold and rich, with reds, golds and blues dominating and vibrating against the muted colour of the stonework. The woman is clothed in a vivid scarlet red and has a hairstyle that was fashionable in the late 1930s, and she looks away from the viewer to her right. Behind her swirls a miasma of gold, the fluidity and colour of which is echoed by the diaphanous, barely visible fabric she holds loosely in her right hand.

Although it is unclear where Grace Sholto Douglas was painted, it is known that Hurry first met the sitter during a concert in the National Gallery, London, in 1940. The image has been executed in oil paint on paper board, with the paint being applied in diluted layers over an ink underdrawing. Hurry often made his two-dimensional works in mixed media and Tate holds three others by him in its collection, all on paper and executed in a range of materials, including This Extraordinary Year 1995 (Tate T11748), which was made in oil paint, crayon and ink.

After their initial meeting in 1940, Grace Sholto Douglas became both friend and patron of the artist, and although the precise meaning of this portrait is ambiguous, Hurry’s admiration for his subject is evident. The elderly Douglas was suffering from terminal cancer when this portrait was painted, and she died in 1942, just two years after it was finished. She is posed as if enthroned in a strange environment which seems part stage-set, part dreamscape, and her expression suggests that she is lost in personal reverie. Her queen-like status is enhanced by the presence of the regal-looking figures in the left background. The brightness of her scarlet dress and lipstick contrasts vividly with the paleness of her complexion. Her hands have been elongated and her elegant, sinewy fingers are both a similar colour and follow a comparable pattern to the elegantly carved stone feature on which she leans. In its attempt to represent the frailty of human life and also portray the inner workings of the sitter’s mind, the portrait bears comparison with Hurry’s slightly later Self-Portrait 1944 (Tate T05849). Here, Hurry presents himself as a romantic figure, gesturing with a similarly elongated hand towards a pair of naked, entwined figures who occupy a dream space akin to that in his Grace Sholto Douglas composition.

As a result of Hurry’s interest in automatic drawing and dream-like scenes, the artist is most commonly linked with both surrealism and neo-romanticism. In an exhibition at the Barbican Art Centre in 1987 entitled A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935–55, Hurry’s work was shown alongside that of a number of neo-romantic artists such as John Minton, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Michael Ayrton and David Jones. According to the British Council exhibition archive’s description of the show, these artists worked between the 1930s and the 1950s to produce ‘a new kind of Romantic art. While it looked back to a nineteenth-century tradition of “visionary” art – to William Blake and to certain styles of landscape painting – it also drew upon the continental Modernist art of Picasso, Miro, Rouault and Masson’ (‘Overview: A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935–55’, British Council Exhibitions, http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/exhibition/a-paradise-lost-the-neo-romantic-imagination-in-britain-1935-55-1987/page/1, accessed 17 May 2015). However, the theatricality of the setting and composition of Grace Sholto Douglas found its fullest expression in the work that Hurry carried out for the theatre, ballet and opera from 1942 onwards. He designed for many productions during the remainder of his career and in 1960 became an associate designer for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Further reading
Jack Lindsay, Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry, London 1950.
David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935–55, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987.
Raymond Ingram, The Stage Design of Leslie Hurry, Cambridge 1990.

Jo Kear
May 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

Mrs Douglas, the sitter, was a friend and patron of the artist for a brief period during the war before her death in 1942. The strangeness of this portrait is unexplained but it presents the sitter as if a queen, and yet curiously haunted. The setting is an imaginary portrayal of the sitter's mind as Hurry understood it. In the background a king seems to be crowning a naked woman, with a female devil flying overhead. The sitter's scarlet dress leads up a sinuous diagonal to her pallid face and red lips. This exaggerated colour intensifies this image of human fragility.

Gallery label, August 2004

Technique and condition

The artist chose a 4mm thickness five-ply paper board of grey colour for his support, most probably 'Essex' board which was used by several artists at that period, both as a support and as a protective backboard for canvas paintings. The board appears to have no opaque ground layer covering its face and priming of the board may have consisted of no more than a token sealing layer of a medium such as size.

An ink underdrawing is visible and late paint layers are in general of fludily applied thinned paint. Much of the paint is of a transparent or translucent nature but subsequent absorption of the medium by the board (despite the artist's use of a paint which was relatively rich in medium) can be expected to have left the paint surface unevenly matt and difficult to 'read'.

The painting surface had been saturated with layers of varnish before the painting was acquired by the Tate. The paint film was thought to be in relatively good condition at the time of Tate accession but the thick, uneven varnish applications had suffered some minor abrasions, in part due to there being no separating slip between the frame's glass and the painting. The board support had been adhered to a 25mm thickness panel of late twentieth century foamboard, presumably to correct a deficiency in plane which it appeared to be doing satisfactorily.

The frame in which the painting was accessioned is similar to those on many paintings from the early 1940s and in all probability is the original frame.

Peter Booth
1994