Edward Middleditch

Crowd, Earls Court

1954

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In Tate Britain
Artist
Edward Middleditch 1923–1987
Medium
Oil paint on board
Dimensions
Support: 1830 x 1200 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2012
Reference
T13659

Summary

Crowd, Earls Court 1954 depicts a view towards a corner junction of a London street. A pavement occupies the main section of the foreground, receding dramatically into the middle distance and background, where a crowd of people stretches across the breadth of the painting. This crowd appears to be walking across the street junction from right to left. Although the crowd is the focus of the painting (a point emphasised by the shaft of light that it appears to be walking towards), it appears as an amorphous mass, with each person dressed in an overcoat and with no one figure exhibiting any individual distinguishing features. The balance of pictorial incident is to be found in the rendering of the wet pavement: puddles of rainwater mark the surface of the stone slabs, as well as a drain cover or coal hole near the centre of the painting, glistening in the light in sharp contrast to the mass of grey figures. Although the crowd is the subject of the painting’s title, its purpose is left undefined and ambiguous, and although the mood of the painting is suggestive of a political protest march this is left unstated.

Edward Middleditch was part of a quartet of artists – with John Bratby (1928–1992), Derrick Greaves (born 1927) and Jack Smith (1928–2011) – that identified as the Kitchen Sink painters, who showed at Helen Lessore’s Beaux Arts Gallery in London in the mid-1950s and in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1956. The epithet was derived from an article written by the art critic David Sylvester in 1954 (‘The Kitchen Sink’, Encounter, December 1954, pp.61–4). Middleditch’s first solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery had been earlier that year in March. However, of the nine paintings exhibited only two can be directly identified with Kitchen Sink realism: Pigeons in Trafalgar Square 1954 (Leicestershire Collection for Schools and Colleges, Leicester) and Crowd, Earls Court. The character of the other paintings – such as paintings of the flow of water over weirs in Sheffield, of Middleditch’s wife asleep and shrouded in a mountain of bedclothes, of a tree in blossom or of Wharncliffe Crags near Sheffield – was described by Helen Lessore in 1956 as ‘gentle and lyrical’. Middleditch, she wrote, is:

suddenly moved by a scene which reveals itself to him personally, like a flash of poetry amid surrounding prose – a perception perhaps akin to Wordsworth’s, of the magic of a tree in blossom, a water-fall, a rock, … a sleeper where the moonlight-coloured wall and slipping bed-clothes have the quality of being her dream.
(Helen Lessore, ‘The Beaux Arts Gallery and Some Young British Artists’, Studio, vol.154, no.775, October 1956, p.111.)

In this respect, Middleditch’s aim was to render moments of epiphany, whether the view of his wife asleep or the movement of a crowd in a dank overcast street towards a shaft of light.

Although the desolation and quiet melancholy of Crowd, Earls Court chimed with the image of Kitchen Sink realism, the art critic John Berger recognised that the quartet’s ‘motives are not directly social or political’, arguing that they ‘paint without protest but with great sympathy for the few precious possessions of the dispossessed’ (Berger, unpublished letter from Bryan Robertson, quoted in Hyman 2001, p.124). In this respect Crowd, Earls Court reflects the mood of austerity Britain and the tension and broad-ranging malaise of the cold war without resorting to specific reference. Confirming this assessment, David Sylvester reviewed Middleditch’s first solo exhibition, singling out the large paintings such as Crowd, Earls Court and praising them for their ‘boldly dramatic decorative effect with an agreeably contemporary flavour of post-war, post-Yalta, disillusionment’ (‘Round the London Galleries’, Listener, 8 April 1954, vol.51, no.1310, p.618). In an article in Ark that grouped together Middleditch, Greaves and Smith, the painter John Minton paired a reproduction of Crowd, Earls Court with his short text that makes this identification even more abundantly clear:

No painter wears his heart on his sleeve, and no painter explains himself except by his painting … Are you a social realist, Mr M? … Doom being in, and Hope being out, the search amongst the cosmic dustbins is on, the atomic theme is unravelled: the existentialist railway station to which there is no more arrival and from which there is no more departure. Only a limbo for those who took the wrong train, and the uniformed ticket collector who announces, ‘Moi, je suis Le Destin …’ Is it valid? Does it relate? Is it socially significant? The critics cry … Here is no straight portrayal, but life through a squint glass, mirrored in dusky ambiguity or charged with the sunlight of midday executions.
(Minton 1955, pp.12, 14.)

Following its inclusion in Middleditch’s solo show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in March–April 1954, Crowd, Earls Court was selected for the Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting at the Carnegie Institute in 1955, where it hung alongside work by the other three Beaux Arts artists.

Further reading
John Minton, ‘Three Young Contemporaries’, Ark, vol.13, 1955, p.12.
Edward Middleditch, exhibition catalogue, Southbank Centre, London 1987.
James Hyman, The Battle for Realism: Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War, 1945–1960, London 2001.

Andrew Wilson
March 2012

Display caption

Middleditch was one of a group known as the kitchen sink artists, who were at the forefront of the social realist art movement in the 1950s. They concentrated on everyday details of ordinary lives without overt political comment. Here, a crowd is the focus of the painting and is depicted as only one part of the dramatic yet mundane scene. Middleditch’s use of dull colours and stark contrasts creates a sense of ambiguity and melancholy, reflecting the postwar austerity of the time.

Gallery label, September 2016

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