Oil on hardboard
1226 x 2438 (48 x 96)
Inscribed in lilac oil paint 'Carel Weight 1955-56' b.r.
Inscribed label on back in blue ball-point pen 'The Dogs | Carel Weight, Flat 2 31 Portinscale Road Putney SW15 ?210'
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1956
Chantrey Purchase from the artist
Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, May-Aug. 1956 (446)
Carel Weight, Ruskin Spear, Russell Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth, July-Sept. 1962 (29)
Carel Weight, Emeritus, Royal College of Art, London, June-July 1973 (9)
Tate Gallery Annual Report, 1956-57, London 1957, p.22
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.763
R.V. Weight, Carel Weight: A Haunted Imagination, London 1994, p.14, repr. p.11
The Dogs is remarkable as a demonstration of Carel Weight's virtuosity in the rendering of the Turneresque sky. Occupying more than half of the composition, the sunset was achieved in glazed layers of luminous oil paint with which some water-soluble colours were combined. The sun was worked in heavy orange and purplish pink impasto; it was originally higher but was scraped off and moved down by nearly its own height. Although there are a number of abrasions, and Weight requested that it should be varnished to counteract the 'sinking' of the colours, the painting is in good condition (Tate Gallery conservation files).
Below the dramatic sky, a large crowd emerges at the end of an afternoon race meeting. There are more than sixty individual figures in addition to the queue trailing back into the stadium. They are orderly and rather muted in mood. The overwhelming majority are on foot, but the contrasting vehicles woven amongst them are indicative of a broad social spectrum. The painter told Cathy Courtney ('Artists' Lives', National Life Story Collection, British Library National Sound Archive, 1991, Tate Gallery Archive, ibid. Tape F2550 side B), that the taxi below the telegraph pole was one of those decommissioned and sold to meet the post-war shortage of cars. It belonged to his friend Ruskin Spear, and the number plate 'BYK 719' has been painted in. Its old-fashioned design contrasts with the open-topped sports car to the right (bearing the number plate 'KPC 332'), just as the bicycles below the streetlight are outstripped by the motorbikes at the left.
The atmosphere of the painting is further enhanced by the careful detail of the signs and advertising. The red Stadium Cafe to the left has green 'WILLS WOODBINES' strips in the tops of the windows, while beyond the partially obscured gate to the car park marked '9D CAR' is an advertisement for 'DUVAL AUTOS | COACHWORKS | VANDYKE CARS | ACCIDENT | REPAIRS | SPECIALISTS'. Far to the right the vehicles emerge by another car park sign. Weight had long been interested in the place of advertising in street life as seen in the shop windows of The Amazing Aeronaut, or Sun, Steam and Speed, 1933 (private collection, repr. R.V. Weight, Carel Weight: A Haunted Imagination, London 1994, p.23). Although the signs and some of the cars in The Dogs are colourful they are seen in the gloaming; how this effect was achieved is evident in the sign for 'WANDSWORTH | GARAGE LTD | CAR 9D PARK' on the Caf? roof, where the painter has added a wash to tone down the red. The large trees to the left have been painted in black but laid over with flashes of green in order to bring out the forms against the bright sky. The diverse solutions required for these complex light conditions are also seen in the lights of the vehicles which have been rendered in broken strokes of paint. The strong headlights of the cars make yellow cones, while the bicycle lamps cast a weaker and more diffuse light, for which Weight used loose flecks of blue. The effect captures the lights' penetration through the twilight and the fumes, while allowing the details behind to remain visible.
In the interview with Courtney (interview 1991, ibid.), Weight recalled that the dog track was on a bomb site in Wandsworth, adding that it has since been developed. Richard Shaw, Local History Librarian for the area, has confirmed (letter to the author, 27 March 1996, Tate Gallery cataloguing files) that the painting shows 'the entrance to the Wandsworth Greyhound Stadium in Buckhold Road'; the latter, seen in the foreground, lies just to the south of Wandsworth High Street. Between the Stadium Cafe on Buckhold Road and the old Middle Mill, seen at the centre, flowed the mill sluice from the Wandle River over which were situated Wandsworth Garages. The stadium itself was at the far end of open ground, and it seems that the artist condensed the view to bring it closer. As the artist recalled, the site has been redeveloped (as the Arndale Centre, built in the 1960s), but the stadium was opened in 1933 and was, therefore, not established as a result of bombing.
Soon after the acquisition of the painting, Weight wrote to the Tate Gallery (20 Aug. 1956) giving details about its conception and some indication of its ambition:
I painted it during the period November 1955-January 1956 from drawings and photographs I had gathered just before. The scene is outside the dog racing stadium at Wandsworth. The actual conception of the people coming out of the Stadium is entirely imaginative as I have never witnessed the scene nor in fact have I ever been there at that time of day. I thought of my picture as a modern counterpart of Frith's Derby Day, a work for which I have the greatest admiration.Begun exactly one hundred years earlier, William Powell Frith's The Derby Day, 1856-8 (Tate Gallery N00615) is close in proportion and size (1016 x 2235 mm) and comparable in composition to The Dogs. It is notable that a revisionist retrospective exhibition of the Victorian painter had been held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1951, although The Derby Day was not shown. The differences between the two works are instructive. In Frith's painting the sky occupies slightly less than half of the composition, allowing more room than Weight would for the crowd who fill the foreground. The Victorian painter had deliberately gathered contrasting 'social types'. When asked whether he regarded the painting as a comparable social record, Weight saw greater homogeneity, remarking that his people 'were worn down after the war, they were not smart' (conversation with the author, 8 Dec. 1995); compared to Frith's detailed depiction of the smart crowd, he considered his painting 'more a mood'.
In 1991, Weight added some details to his first memories of the circumstances of its inception. To Courtney, he commented: 'Dog racing was quite a thing in the 1950s, I wasn't very interested but I would go with a chap called John Skeaping' (interview 1991, ibid.); the latter was then Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College. In contrast to the account given shortly after the completion of The Dogs, Weight added that he 'went down on several nights to watch the people coming out', and that he had 'watched all the types coming out at twilight'. Given his first-hand experience of the races with Spear and Skeaping, this seems plausible, although it was Weight's practice to invent his figures in the course of the construction of a composition. In the later discussion, Weight was more critical of Frith's work. Declaring a preference for his The Railway Station, 1863 (also known as Paddington Station, Leicester Art Gallery), he criticised The Derby Day because 'the people look posed as though a scene in a play'. Certainly, his own painting is more concerned with the mood of the people than the cut of their clothes. This is epitomised by the difference between Frith's choice of the middle of the race day and Weight's choice of the period after the event and concerned, therefore, with the moment of its passage into memory and the return of each individual to their more mundane life.