Catalogue entry

Victor Pasmore 1908-1998

The Quiet River: The Thames at Chiswick 1943-4

T00197

Oil on canvas 760 x 1017 (30 x 40)

Inscribed in red oil paint ‘VP’ b.r.

Chantrey Purchase from Lady Herbert through the Leicester Galleries, London 1958

Provenance:
Purchased from the artist through the London Group by Sir Alan and Lady Herbert 1944

Exhibited:
London Group Sixth Wartime Exhibition, London, Oct.-Nov. 1944 (10)
Royal Academy, London 1959 (111)
London Group 1914-64: Jubilee Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, July-Aug. 1964 (89, repr.)
Victor Pasmore: Retrospective Exhibition 1925-65, Tate Gallery, London, May-June 1965 (36, col. repr. pl.1)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (63, repr. p.80)
Decade 40s: Painting, Sculpture and Drawing in Britain 1940-49, Arts Council tour, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Nov. 1972, Southampton City Art Gallery, Dec.-Jan. 1973, Carlisle Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery, Jan.-Feb., DLI Museum and Arts Centre, Durham, Feb.-March, Manchester City Art Gallery, March-April, Bradford City Art Gallery, April-May, Aberdeen Museum and Art Gallery, May-June 1973 (5)
Victor Pasmore, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., Nov. 1988-Jan. 1989, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., Feb.-April 1989 (6, repr. in col. p.29)
Within These Shores: A Selection of Works from the Chantrey Bequest 1883-1985, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, June-Sept. 1989 (36, repr. in col. p.44)

Literature:
Robin Ironside, ‘Victor Pasmore’, Horizon, vol. 11, no.63, March 1945, p.168, repr. between pp.162 and 163
Tate Gallery Report 1958-9, London 1959, pp.21-2
Alan Bowness, ‘The Paintings and Constructions of Victor Pasmore’, Burlington Magazine, vol.102, no.686, May 1960, p.201
Dennis Farr, ‘British Artists and the Continent 1880-1950’, Michael Peppiatt (ed), Modern Art in Britain, Cambridge Opinion, no.37, Jan. 1964, p.8, repr. p.6
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.511-12
John Rothenstein, British Art Since 1900, London 1962, p.25
‘Pasmore’s Road to Abstract Art’, Illustrated London News, 15 May 1965, p.28, repr. p.29
John Spurling, ‘Mother Nature’, New Statesman, 23 Sept. 1977, p.422
Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonée of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-1979, 1980, pp.11, 291, no.67, repr. p.63 (col.)
Frances Spalding, ‘Victor Pasmore at the Walker Art Gallery’, Burlington Magazine, vol.122, no.925, April 1980, p.281
John Russell Taylor, ‘London Inherits Regional Enjoyment of Pasmore’, Times, 16 Sept. 1980, p.11
Oswell Blakeston, ‘Victor Pasmore’, Arts Review, vol.32, no.21, 24 Oct. 1980, p.482
David Piper, Artists’ London, London 1982, p.152, repr. in col. pp.136-7
Adrian Lewis, ‘British Avant Garde Painting 1945-56, part III’, Artscribe, no.36, Aug. 1982, p.16, repr. p.15
Ian Jeffrey, The British Landscape 1920-50, London 1984, pl.113
Victor Pasmore 1950-1967, exh. cat., Musée des beaux-arts et de la dentelle de Calais 1985, p.10
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, pp.289, 292, repr. p.291
‘Obituaries: Victor Pasmore’, Times, 26 January 1998, p.23

Also reproduced:
Clive Bell, Victor Pasmore, Harmondsworth 1945, pl.18
Royal Academy Illustrated, London 1959, p.67
Norman Reid, The Tate Gallery, London 1969, p.153 (in col.)

The Pasmores had lived for only a few months at 2 Riverside in Upper Mall on the north bank of the Thames in Hammersmith, west London when they moved 300 yards to the west to 16 Hammersmith Terrace on the southern side of Chiswick Mall, the continuation of Upper Mall, where Hammersmith and Chiswick meet. The terrace had long been associated with artists and their neighbours included Raymond Coxon and Edna Ginesi, Julian Trevelyan and the writer Sir Alan Herbert, who bought The Quiet River shortly after its completion. In Hammersmith Terrace Pasmore embarked upon a sustained body of works that took the river as their subject. The first of these, Chiswick Reach, 1943 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)[1] was based upon, but not a literal depiction of, the view from his house across neighbouring gardens and the island of Chiswick Eyot, to the south west.

The subsequent river paintings have been divided into two groups by Bowness: one looking westward along the river from Upper Mall towards Chiswick and another, begun later, based on the view of the neighbouring gardens from an upstairs window of 16 Hammersmith Terrace. The Quiet River was the first of the earlier series, while The Gardens of Hammersmith No. 2 (Tate Gallery T07033) was the last resolved work of the second. In addition to The Quiet River, the first series consists of Sun Shining through Mist: The Thames at Chiswick, 1946-7 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)[2] and The Evening Star, 1945-7 (private collection).[3] All three depict the same stretch of river as if seen from ground level through diffused light and rendered in subtle gradations of tone and colour. The title of the first two indicates that the paintings are based on the prospect of Chiswick from Hammersmith.


The view towards Chiswick Eyot is approximately that seen from around the junctions with Upper Mall of Ravenscourt Road and the more westerly Weltje Road. Though Pasmore interpreted the scene with characteristic inventiveness, certain features are identifiable in The Quiet River. The tree marks the Surrey bank of the Thames and seems to protrude due to the curve of the river at that point. The dark form roughly half way up the right hand side is a projecting curved roof, part of the Bemax Vitamin factory which then stood on the river’s edge but has since been demolished and replaced by flats. The small chimney beyond it is likely to be part of Chiswick Brewery, while Chiswick church is hidden by the island. The three large posts were for barges to tie up to and appear in groups along this stretch of river, usually in association with floating loading stages. It is possible that those in the painting are part of such a stage at Alanta Wharf, west of Weltje Road. Square warning signs, such as that near the centre of the composition, also dotted the shoreline and, though in decline, carts like that on the left were still used in the 1940s to carry goods to and from the barges.

The two fine vertical lines slightly to the right and above the hump of the island might derive from the twin masts of The Stork a training ship that was tied up close to the end of Weltje Road until the 1950s. If so, Pasmore has obscured the main bulk of the ship in order to reduce its presence. This is one of several distortions or aspects of the painting that appear to be primarily compositional devices. Neither maps nor photographs of the river front around that time indicate the breakwater that runs horizontally across the picture. That this was introduced for purely pictorial reasons is also suggested by its absence from a small oil study for this work.[4] Similarly, unlike its painted representation, Upper Mall runs along the riverbank about eight feet above the level of the mud banks from which it is separated by a retaining wall. At street level the wall is approximately four feet high, though in the 1940s there may still have been sections which had a lower edge similar to that suggested in the painting. At no point did the road run down to the water, as may be thought to be the case in The Quiet River, and it is likely that Pasmore either viewed the river across the road at an angle or, as seems more likely, reorientated the line of the road for the sake of his composition. In two places near Ravenscourt Road the riverside road bulges outwards and the road’s cutting across the foreground of the picture may derive from one of them. Such a position would have afforded a view along the river that included buildings on the same bank, such as the Bemax factory. Other spatial adjustments were made: at low tide Chiswick Eyot is joined to the northern bank of the Thames by mud flats; the painting’s juxtaposition of reflective water between the island and the shore and the cart on the mud towards the middle of the river would be, therefore, paradoxical.


Such is the degree of distortion that it is hard to be certain that the viewpoint drawn upon for the other two works of the ‘series’, Sun Shining through Mist: The Thames at Chiswick, 1946-7 and The Evening Star, 1945-7, is the same as in The Quiet River. The presence of railings in the later two paintings might suggest that they originate from another position, but the composition and individual elements suggest otherwise. There is no evidence of there ever having been such railings at this point along the river, so it seems likely that Pasmore added them for the rhythm of verticals and orhthogonals that they offered.

The first series of river paintings, along with the paintings of Hammersmith Gardens and the parallel series of views of Chiswick Park and of The Cam from Magdelene Bridge, Cambridge have been seen to demonstrate the progressively abstract nature of Pasmore’s work between 1943 and 1948.[5] In 1965 Ronald Alley stated that the artist saw The Quiet River as ‘important in his development as it was his first picture leading back towards abstraction’.[6] The formality of the composition is emphasised by the rectilinear pattern of the horizon and parallel breakwater and the verticals of posts and signs. In addition, the artist arranged these forms using geometrical aids: the horizon, for example, divides the painting into two halves and the horizontal of the breakwater and the edge of the signpost towards the centre make two sides of a square in the top left hand corner. In its combination of horizontal zones and diagonal forms the composition echoes that of The Wave (private collection),[7] a work of similar dimensions which Pasmore completed in the same year. William Townsend described how Pasmore’s compositions generally began with ‘the slightest indications of the main masses [in which] the accents of figures, beautifully drawn, are already spaced ready for the whole thing to be built around them’.[8] The evident movement of the square signpost about four inches to the left of its first location demonstrates that the composition was plotted independently of the original object. This aspect is apparent in the oil study for The Quiet River which concentrates on the formal relationship between the vertical posts and the angle of the edge of the road. In the two later paintings of this series the railings introduced another geometrical element and a number of others lost their figurative function, becoming simply square and triangular abstract shapes.


The generally dry and lean paint of The Quiet River was applied in a number of layers with a brush. Though there was much use of scumbling techniques, the picture surface has, in large part, a smooth, creamy texture. It appears that Pasmore suppressed the brushmarks by flattening and scraping with a knife, though it has also been suggested that at that time he ‘pressed wet newspaper on his wet pictures to obtain the “vague” look’.[9] Changes in colouring and handling along the bottom, top and right hand edges suggest that alterations were made after the canvas had already been fixed into a slightly smaller frame than at present. Pasmore confirmed this in an interview with a Tate Gallery conservator on 2 March 1994, adding that The Quiet River originally ‘had a large second-hand gold frame’.


In the 1940s the River Thames at Hammersmith and Chiswick was still a largely industrial area. Nevertheless, it was also an established picturesque site and a photograph of Chiswick Eyot at sunset, which was echoed by this work, was published in Country Life in 1942. Pasmore’s choice of subject reflects his emergent interest in landscape and nature and his contemporary study of nineteenth-century artists. He told William Johnstone, principal of Camberwell School of Art, that Hammersmith offered him all the subjects he desired: ‘there is the finest landscape in the world here at my doorstep. In the park there are forests, and lakes, which even Scotland cannot boast, and when the mist hangs on the river, behold the most beautiful reaches of the Nile’.[10] In painting the Thames, Pasmore continued the tradition of Turner (who had lived nearby) and Whistler, especially in his depiction of specific times of day and climatic conditions. The diffusion of forms, gentle gradation of colours, the sense of natural light and the silhouetted figures are all features of both these predecessors. The evocative title, which Pasmore had used earlier for the painting now known as The River Picnic (private collection),[11] is equally Whistlerian.


After his ‘retirement’ from the army in 1942, Pasmore made a number of prolonged visits to the Hampshire home of his friend Bryan Guinness. There he made use of Guinness’s library, in particular the writings of the Post-Impressionists, including the letters of van Gogh and Cézanne and Whistler’s Ten O’Clock Lecture. Whistler’s influence is evident in Pasmore’s developing interest in the idea of the work of art as an autonomous object and his comparison of painting to music. The Quiet River illustrates his adoption of Whistler’s view of nature as a source, not to be copied but from which the artist should select in the composition of pictorial harmony: ‘Nature’, wrote Whistler, ‘contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful - as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony’.[12]


While the hazy romanticism of The Quiet River is reminiscent of Whistler and Turner, the geometric composition of a riverside scene is also suggestive of Seurat’s work, for example Le Pont de Courbevoie which Pasmore would have seen in the Courtauld Collection. Indeed, the archaic character of Pasmore’s silhouetted figures - the man in the horse-drawn cart and the cyclist with the pork-pie hat - are especially evocative of Seurat’s depictions of working-class urban leisure. Pasmore’s use of geometric compositional aids is consistent with Seurat’s practice and the horizontality of all three compositions in the Chiswick series reflects Seurat’s belief that horizontal compositional lines are one of the means of achieving a quality of calm.

The contrast between the air of serenity which Pasmore achieved through his reworking of nineteenth-century theories and the wartime context of The Quiet River has been remarked upon. Alastair Grieve suggested that the river paintings reflect the austerity of the period whilst also showing ‘wartime Londoners confronting nature’s deep, almost defiant, calm’.[13] As such they are in striking contrast to the established iconography of ruination epitomised in Sutherland’s Devastation series.


Chris Stephens
Feb. 1998


[1] Alan Bowness and Luigi Lambertini, Victor Pasmore, with a Catalogue Raisonée of the Paintings, Constructions and Graphics 1926-1979, 1980, p.59, as The Thames at Chiswick
[2] Repr. ibid., p.67
[3] Repr. ibid., p.68
[4] Sold Sotheby’s 9 June 1970, lot 150A, repr.
[5] Bowness and Lambertini 1980, p.11
[6] Ronald Alley, Victor Pasmore, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1965, [p.24]
[7] Repr. Bowness and Lambertini 1980, p.56
[8] Andrew Forge (ed.), The Townsend Journals, London 1976, p.73
[9] Recalled by Jennifer Kelly in Geoff Hassell, Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts: Its Students and Teachers 1943-60, London 1995, p.207
[10] William Johnstone, Points in Time: An Autobiography, London 1980, pp.204-5
[11] Repr. Bowness and Lambertini 1980, p.45
[12] ‘Mr Whistler’s “Ten O’Clock”’, 1888, in James McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London 1994, p.142
[13] Alastair Grieve, Victor Pasmore, exh. cat., Arts Council, London 1980, p.35