Reginald Brill



Not on display

Reginald Brill 1902–1974
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1708 × 2139 × 25 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1998

Display caption

Though social realist art is not necessarily aligned with Socialism, some of it shows sympathy with left-wing causes. Rest is one example. It comes from a group of ‘Martyrdom of Man’ paintings by Brill. These large pictures address the condition of man in the twentieth century and tend to concentrate on the working class.

The composition of this painting parallels religious art of the Italian Renaissance, such as the sleeping soldiers in Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (see image to the left of this caption). This implied spiritual elevation of the worker, like the painting’s monumental scale, sanctifies and memorialises the men as modern martyrs.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of commercially-primed linen canvas, which has a simple but rather open weave. It is stretched over a softwood expandable stretcher, thought to be the original, with tacks of varying head size and interval at the edges. The tacks are not original, but the original set of tack holes is visible around each edge. The priming is an oil primer, slightly off white in colour and applied to provide a thin and uniform layer, through which the canvas weave texture remains very apparent.

Prior to paint application, the artist executed a significant amount of preliminary drawing in graphite pencil, including a complete grid of squaring up lines and both diagonals. This grid pattern is still clearly visible through many areas of paint (mainly the faces, hands and figures), where the final paint thickness is very thin. Strengthening of the established composition was then achieved with a transparent green paint, which can be seen around most of the forms. The paint layers were then applied in a variety of thicknesses and degree of layering, ranging from very thin single layers (where the pencil grid is still visible), to areas where many layers have been built up, particularly in the background paint. The paint is all oil paint and generally appears very lean and stiff in consistency. It is possible that excess oil medium was extracted out of each colour prior to application. The artist mainly used a wet-on-dry technique (i.e. there would have been many sittings), although there was the occasional use of wet-in-wet. In addition, the brushmarking was occasionally modified with a blade and there are also some instances of the paint being scraping back to reveal the canvas texture of the priming. The painting has a very low overall gloss and is certainly not varnished. It is signed 'Reginald Brill' in the lower right corner, just above the green rectangle.

The painting is in a reasonable condition, although in a rather delicate state. The adhesion between paint, ground and canvas seems rather poor and if the painting were to be subjected to any vibration or physical knocks, then further paint loss is likely. The protection to the painting was considerably improved by the construction and fitting of a new and much sturdier frame soon after it was acquired in 1999. Providing the appropriate level of care is maintained, it should be possible to prevent any further damage from occurring

Tom Learner
August 2000

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