Catalogue entry

T03115 TRIANGULAR 1970–1


Not inscribed

Polyurethane on cotton canvas, 80 × 150 × 9 1/2 (203 × 381 × 24)
Presented by Professor Colin St John Wilson 1980

This is one of two quarter-scale models made in preparation for a large mural which was not eventually executed. The full-scale work was commissioned by the architect Professor Colin St John Wilson for the restaurant which formed part of his original scheme for a five storey extension to the west wing of the British Museum, unveiled in 1970. The scheme was produced in response to a report, prepared in 1969, assessing the long and short-term needs of the Museum; (a study initiated following the cancellation in 1967 by the then Secretary of State for Education and Science of a much more ambitious development project which was to have provided numerous facilities for the British Museum, and a new building for the British Library).

Colin St John Wilson, who, with Sir Leslie Martin, had been asked to undertake the original project, now produced a plan aimed at satisfying some of the Museum's more immediate needs, including offices, two galleries and new restaurants for public and staff. However, although the scheme was officially endorsed in 1971 and it was envisaged that building would start in 1972, the Property Services Agency subsequently announced that funds were not available to cover the full cost of the scheme and plans were put into abeyance. In 1973 the architects were asked for a modified version of the original design and the new extension was eventually opened in 1980. Unfortunately, because of the reduced scale of the extension, plans to incorporate a mural by Richard Smith had to be abandoned.

The restaurant, as built, is on two levels with the staff restaurant located on the upper floor which affords a balcony view over the public eating area. The 1970 design, which would have housed the mural, was, however, more ambitious in scope and would have produced two balcony floors over the public restaurant - the lower balcony catering for school parties and the upper balcony for the staff restaurant; the whole was to be accommodated within a glass-roofed conservatory structure whose walls were to be decked with trellises and planting and with museum exhibits.

According to Professor Wilson the format of the mural was very directly and sensitively evolved from the architectural context in two ways. Firstly the lateral module at the head equated to the ribbed structure of the ceiling; secondly the horizontal divisions recalled the subdivision of the restaurant into three floors in height. Smith prepared a number of designs on card. When inserted into the architects' model ‘Triangular’ asserted itself instantly as the right choice.

According to Smith, his idea was to fill one wall with his painting, so that, looked at from the staff or children's levels in the restaurant, it would resemble a theatre curtain as viewed from the gallery. Having prepared a scale model, he made ‘Triangular’ and an alternative version, also painted red but with no surface modulation. This version remains with him.

'Triangular’ is painted on cotton canvas stretched on ten wood stretchers which have been bolted together. The basic paint layers were sprayed on and then additions were made using a brush. The shape of the painting related to a structural theme recurrent in Smith's work since around 1967, where the corner of a rectangular stretcher was folded forward. This format which began with a series of so called ‘Envelope’ paintings using the triangular flap of an envelope as the motif, is exemplified in his serial painting ‘Clairol Wall’ 1967 (repr.in the catalogue for the Tate's exhibition, Richard Smith, Seven Exhibitions 1961–75, August–September 1975, fig.31). In a recorded conversation with Anne Seymour, used to introduce the catalogue for his exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1970, the artist said ‘... there has been a change from corners folded through more than ninety degrees, like... “Clairol Wall”, to those where the fold is just a corner of the canvas tipped forward slightly, where one is really back to the rectangular stretcher again. It's complicated to make that kind of structure in wood and canvas where it's the simplest thing to do with paper.’

T03115 hung in the offices of Colin St John Wilson & Partners until it was presented to the Tate by Professor Wilson in 1980. The compiler is grateful to Professor Wilson for the information he has provided for this entry.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984