Catalogue entry

T03591 Once upon a Time There was Oil III, panel 1 1981–2

Oil, wax, scrim and paper on canvas 102 7/8 × 171 5/8 (2600 × 4360)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Nigel Greenwood Inc. Ltd., (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: Terry Setch, Nigel Greenwood Inc. Ltd., September–October 1982 (8); Paintings by Terry Setch, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, October–December 1982 (not numbered); New Art at the Tate Gallery, Tate Gallery, September–October 1983 (not numbered)
Lit: John McEwen, ‘Fruits of battle’, Spectator, 25 September 1982, pp.25–6; Sanda Miller, ‘Les paysages de cire de Terry Setch’, Art Press, no.64, November 1982, pp.12–13, repr.p.12; Derek Southall, ‘Terry Setch at the Arnolfini’, Artscribe, no.38, December 1982, pp.47–8, repr. p.47; Adrian Searle, ‘On the beach’, Artscribe, no.41, June 1983, pp.26–30, repr. p.28; Sarah Kent, ‘Between two territories: a way forward in British painting’, Flash Art, no.113, Summer 1983, pp.40–6; Martin Holman, ‘Terry Setch’, London Magazine, December 1984/January 1985, pp.109–13, repr. p.111

Terry Setch went to South Wales in 1964 to lecture at Cardiff College of Art. In 1969 he went to Penarth, in South Wales and began to take the beach there as a subject for his work. In the early 1970s Setch made painted installations taking canvases down to the beach and using industrial and domestic waste from the seashore; later he painted large pictures in his studio, beginning with the ‘Car Wreck’ series in 1978–9.

‘Once upon a Time There was Oil III, panel 1’ depicts a person carrying a sheep on a beach littered with debris. Terry Setch painted this work in his studio in Bute Street, Cardiff, though he frequently visited the beach to make studies. Studies for T03591 are included in a sketchbook owned by the artist. The work is painted on unstretched cotton canvas and during painting it was bolted through the eyelets on to a large metal frame.

In an interview with Adrian Searle (loc.cit.) the artist said:

The work comes from direct experience: seeing extraordinary things on the beach-clothing, cars, which start out often looking fairly new and in a few weeks they're transformed.

It's a quest of discovery, seeing the separateness of these objects, then moving them, piling them up, shifting and changing them. Lighting fires...the painting is a metaphor for all this.


Setch's work is about losing and discovery; images disappear and reappear on the canvas just as the objects on the beach are in the process of being lost to the human world and returning to nature.Setch told the cataloguer that the paintings are not in themselves political statements but that social and political issues may be raised by them. Although the ‘Once’ in the title of T03591 appears to refer to the past, the painting itself is about present and future predicaments.

The Tate's painting is one of Setch's earliest large paintings to include a human figure. The first to do so was ‘Once upon a Time There was Oil’ 1981 (Nigel Greenwood). The inclusion of figures enabled him to view the landscape through them. In his more recent work, groups of figures appear frequently.

A smaller related picture, ‘Once upon a Time There was Oil III, panel 11’ (Nigel Greenwood), measuring 100 × 101 ins., was painted at the same time. This work is illustrated in colour in Flash Art (loc.cit.), p.44.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986