Catalogue entry

The Friends 1968


Oil on canvas

1524 x 2030 (60 x 80)

Inscribed 'Carel Weight' b.l.
Inscribed on back of stretcher 'The Friends No.1'

Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1968

Chantrey purchase from the artist 1968

Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, May-Aug. 1968 (402)
Carel Weight, Emeritus, Royal College of Art, London, June-July 1973 (23, repr.)
Carel Weight RA: A Retrospective Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, Jan.-Feb. 1982 and Arts Council tour: York City Art Gallery, Feb.-April, Rochdale Art Gallery, April-May, Newlyn Art Gallery, Penzance, May-June, New Metropole Arts Centre, Folkestone, July-Aug. (61, repr. in col.)
The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art, Tate Gallery, London, July-Sept. 1984 (142, repr. p.71)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions, 1968-69, London 1968, p.28
Mervyn Levy, Carel Weight, London 1986, p.61 pl.52
R.V. Weight, Carel Weight: A Haunted Imagination, London 1994, p.84, repr. in col. p.85

Responding to the Tate Gallery's acquisition of The Friends, Carel Weight confirmed that it had been painted in the early part of 1968 and gave an account of its inception:

The germ of the idea of the picture came from a visit to the flat of two lesbians, who lived in a rather dreary part of South London. The general atmosphere affected me; the feeling of loneliness of these two in rather squalid surroundings, rather fascinated me. The figures in my picture are in no way realistic portraits of these two people. They are entirely figments of my imagination. On the other hand, I have used the setting which is a realistic transcription of my own sitting room and the view of the little suburban houses through the window are also actually there. (letter to the Tate Gallery, 17 Jan. 1969)
The dramatisation of a real experience is Weight's general practice, but here it is achieved in a slightly unusual way. His concentration on the heads of his fictional couple invites comparisons with his psychological portraits, such as the contemporary Thoughts of the Girls, 1967 (Saatchi Collection; repr. R.V. Weight, Carel Weight: A Haunted Imagination, London 1994, p.82). There is an evident difference between the crisp handling of his portraits and the looser and more emotive handling of these imaginary faces. The feeling of loneliness and ostracism, which the painter has stressed, led R.V. Weight to comment (1994, p. 84): 'The woman nearer the observer, with her face in profile, seems stricken, the result of the partner's resolve, or changed attitude. The other supports her head on her shoulder, and looks out across the room, her expression determined yet compassionate.' The truncation of their image by the lower edge of the canvas heightens the viewer's sense of this intense relationship.

Dimly lit by the elaborate orange lamp at the top, the room is unusually dark in contrast to the daylight outside. Only the possibly Baroque religious sculpture is well lit, adding an ecclesiastical atmosphere. Weight identified the sculpture as Italian or Austrian, but added that it did not have any particular significance for the couple's relationship (conversation with the author, 8 Dec. 1995). The books and black candles on the shelves below are almost lost against the dark green and plum wall, which is roughly scumbled and scraped with a knife or brush handle to convey the 'rather squalid surroundings'. The spatial scheme is at least partly a function of working in his own sitting room. Weight told Cathy Courtney ('Artists' Lives', National Life Story Collection, British Library National Sound Archive, 1991, Tate Gallery Archive, tape F1902, side B) that the composition had been 'gradually worked up from scribbles', but that the size of the room meant that he had been 'cramped against a wall' in order to get the scale right. The view of the street is also essential. The curving perspective of the red brick houses with blue slate roofs, seen particularly in the curvature of the bay window at the right, allows them to fill two-thirds of the windows. The dark interior, like the embrace itself, is protective against this outside world.

When asked about the 'No.1' inscribed on the reverse (conversation with the author, 26 March 1996), the artist thought that there may have been a variation of the composition, but that the painting in the Tate was the definitive version.

Matthew Gale
March 1996