Edward Middleditch

Flowers, Chairs and Bedsprings

1956

Medium
Oil paint on hardboard
Dimensions
Support: 1127 x 1750 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest 1991
Reference
T06460

Summary

Edward Middleditch painted this picture at his London studio while he was teaching at the Chelsea Polytechnic and at St Martin's School of Art, London. The painting was first exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, in February 1956 and then, later that year, at the XXVIII Venice Biennale in the Four Young Painters section of the British pavilion. The other painters in the exhibition were John Bratby (1928-92), Derrick Greaves (b.1926) and Jack Smith (b.1928). These artists, known as the Beaux Arts Quartet because they had all held their first solo exhibitions at Helen Lessore's Beaux Arts Gallery, were considered to be realist painters.

The critical reception of their work was often polarised along political lines. The leftwing critic John Berger found within their choice of mundane subject matter evidence of socialist ideals. Despite the forceful manner in which Berger expressed his interpretations, the extent to which the artists acknowledged specific political motives remains ambiguous. Other critics were reluctant to ascribe any particular political allegiance to their work. In his text for the Venice Biennale catalogue, the critic J.P.Hodin noted a 'middle-class aesthetic ideal' in Middleditch's paintings and praised his ability to find 'beauty in wild flowers, in roses and in trees, sleeping dogs, fighting cocks, and in the pattern of the sea breaking against the coast'(The British Pavilion, p10). While Hodin noted that such subject matter was in marked contrast to Bratby's or Greaves's brand of urban realism, he did not detect a political motivation in any of their work. Instead, he considered their revival of realism to be an exclusively artistic struggle 'to regain firm ground for the objectively visible world' (The British Pavilion, p.10) against the dominance of abstract art.

Part of the compositional strength of Flowers, Chairs and Bedsprings derives from the central cruciform motif. Whether the arrangement was intended to give the picture a religious significance is not known, but it does provide the image with a strong formal structure. Helen Lessore observed that, with the exception of humankind, 'Nature - with a capital N', was the subject of Middleditch's work, and that man-made objects were relegated to the background on the rare instances that they appeared at all. She considered Flowers, Chairs and Bedsprings to be a 'remarkable instance of this. A great armful of wild flowers has been dumped across a pair of small chairs placed, one upside down on the other, in front of some bed-springs leaning upright against a pink wall, in one of those odd-job rooms with which country houses are so well provided. And in a moment of unprejudiced vision he has been struck by this accidental arrangement in chance light and shadow, and has then translated the metal springs and probably peeling wall in to a texture of lively paint, twisted chains and faceted jewel-shapes, as rich and varied as a renaissance brocade or Genoese velvet, while the bleak little chairs become a sort of pedestal. But all this is the goldsmith's work to mount the jewel, the setting to throw into relief the living, sparkling glory of the flowers' (quoted in Edward Middleditch, p.6).

Further reading:
Edward Middleditch, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London1987, reproduced p.8, cat.no.22 (colour)
The British Pavilion: Exhibition of works by Ivon Hitchens, Lynn Chadwick, and John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch, Jack Smith. The XXVIII Biennale, Venice 1956, exhibition catalogue, British Council, Venice 1956, pp.10-11 and p.17.
The Forgotten Fifties, exhibition catalogue, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 1984
Margaret Garlake, New Art, New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London 1998, pp.132-4

Toby Treves
November 2000

Display caption

In the 1950s Middleditch belonged to group of artists known as the Kitchen Sink School because of their fondness for presenting ordinary, domestic interiors as potentially important. Their direct and vigorous portrayal of reality related to their experience of the optimism and the economic hardship of Britain after the Second World War.

In this picture of flowers set against a bed in the form of a cross, he combines the lyrical and the mundane, with rich autumnal hues. The painting comes from the collection of JB Priestley. It has historic interest, as it was exhibited in the British Pavilion at the 1956 Venice Biennale in order to present contemporary British art to an international audience.

Gallery label, September 2004

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