N.H. Stubbing (Tony Stubbing)
Druid Light 1959

Artwork details

Druid Light
Date 1959
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 1562 x 1943 x 25 mm
Acquisition Bequeathed by Ana Ricarda-Stubbing 2001
Not on display


In 1949 Stubbing was one of a number of artists, including Mathias Goertiz (born 1915), Eduardo Saura (1930-88) and Joan Miró (1893-1983), who attended a meeting held in the deep recesses of the Caves of Altamira in Northern Spain. Surrounded by colourful pictures of bison, wild boar and deer painted by the Magdalenian people between 16,000 and 19,000 BC, the group met to discuss the direction of contemporary art in the aftermath of World War II (1939-45). Although the ‘School of Altamira’ was short-lived, the experience was to profoundly influence the direction of Stubbing’s work. His wife, Yvonne Stubbing, recounted his experience:

When he first entered the cave he found a hand outlined on the wall near the Bull paintings ... a signature perhaps? It was like an outlined stencil ... the first stencil! Done with pigments squeezed through a pig bladder Tony suggested. He put his hand over the hand and it fitted perfectly ... fingers exactly the same length ... width, palm the same shape ... perhaps it was from that moment he started identifying with prehistorical man!
(quoted in Rituals, p.7)

Five years after his first sight of these prehistoric paintings, Stubbing gave up painting with his brush and began to create pictures composed of hundreds of hand prints. He would either lay his hand flat on the canvas or drag his fingers across the surface. These methods are evident in Druid Light, the accumulation of marks creating a rhythmic and vibrant surface.

Druid Light is one of a number of paintings Stubbing produced at this time which are linked to ceremonial and ritualistic practices. These paintings, which he referred to as ‘Rituals’ or ‘Ceremonies’, were consistently painted on a large canvas around a central focus. Yvonne Stubbing wrote that he was ‘interested in the Druids early in the 1950s as well as the cavemen; everything had to do with the beginning of civilization ... He was a very religious man ... painting to him was a devotional act’ (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, p.498). This painting also reveals Stubbing’s interest in the ancient Egyptian philosophy of Hermeticism. The illusion of light radiating from the centre of the painting can be imagined to be coming from what the followers of this cult believed to be ‘God’s All-Seeing Eye’. The pair of touching hands above this symbol are also connected with this mystical philosophy.

In 1968, nine years after completing this painting, Stubbing had to give up painting with his hands as he suffered from an allergic reaction to the paints. By this time, however, he had secured an international reputation. He had also begun to receive support from Alfred Barr (1902-81) and Herbert Read (1893-1968), the latter wrote of Stubbing’s hand prints ‘the work of art must be, not a projection of or from an existing state of feeling, but rather an extension of consciousness itself, the creation of an object that awakens new feelings, that adds a facet, however minute, to the slow crystallization of experience into beauty’ (N. H. (Tony) Stubbing Retrospective, p.9).

Further reading:
Rituals: N. H. (Tony) Stubbing, exhibition catalogue, England & Co., London 1990
The Tate Gallery: 1986-1988 Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1996, pp.494-8
N. H. (Tony) Stubbing Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, England & Co., London 2000, reproduced p.1 in colour

Heather Birchall

July 2002