Steven Campbell

The Dangerous Early and Late Life of Lytton Strachey


Not on display

Steven Campbell 1954–2007
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2618 × 2745 mm
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986

Display caption

This painting depicts Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), a biographer and essayist who was a central figure in the Bloomsbury literary circle. It contains three portraits of Strachey at different ages, including a very young portrait as a cabbage. The pansy patterned wallpaper is intended to signal Strachey’s gay identity, a reference which repeats the offensive stereotype of gay men lacking traditionally ‘masculine’ traits. The arrowheads combined with a strand of beard form two profiles against the target. One is of Queen Elizabeth I, the other Queen Victoria. Strachey published books in the early 1900s criticising both monarchs. The painting's title alludes to the situation Strachey would have found himself in had either book been published during the lifetime of its subject. 

Gallery label, August 2021

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Catalogue entry

Steven Campbell born 1954

T04137 The Dangerous Early and Late Life of Lytton Strachey 1985

Oil on canvas 2618 x 2745 (103 x 108)
Not inscribed
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1986
Prov: Purchased by the Patrons of New Art from Barbara Toll Fine Arts, New York 1985
Exh: Steven Campbell, Middendorf Gallery, Washington DC, Oct.-Nov. 1985 (no cat. but numbered 10); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945 - 1985, Tate Gallery, Feb.-April 1986 (not in cat.)
Lit: Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.94 repr. (col.); Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1985-6, 1986, p.15 repr.; James Collins, ‘Interview with Steven Campbell', Flash Art, no.132, Feb.-March 1987, pp.77-9, repr. (col.); Tony Godfrey, ‘Steven Campbell: The Dangerous Early and Late Life of Lytton Strachey', Burlington Magazine, vol.129, April 1987, pp.248-50, repr. (col.)

T04137 depicts Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), the biographer and essayist, who was a central figure in the circle of artists and writers living and working in Bloomsbury in the first and second decades of this century.

In a letter to the Tate Gallery dated 26 April 1986 the artist wrote:

The setting is what obviously appears to be a shooting gallery of sorts where the targets are the mature Lytton and the boyish Lytton and the very very young Lytton as a cabbage.
On the target entwined among the arrows is a portrait of Queen Victoria made up of the hairs of Lytton's beard while the arrow heads make a portrait of Queen Elizabeth the First - the 2 Queens Lytton is most associated with.
The younger Lytton's cricket cap if seen from above would also resemble a target, while the Indian rope trick refers to Lytton's biography of General Gordon.
The term ‘Dangerous Life' comes from the situation Lytton would have been in had these biographies been published during either of these two women's lifetime. The pansy wallpaper obviously refers to Lytton's particular desires and inspired a more recent painting ‘The Death of Pansy Potter' [repr. Godfrey 1987, p.250].
The whole episode in this painting and the idea of working with Queen Victoria comes from a large work on paper called ‘The Re-illustration of Queen Victoria's Highland Diary' [repr. Godfrey 1987, p.250 as ‘The Re-illustrated Highland Diary of Queen Victoria' 1985]. The little images on the wall at the back each have a letter beside them [collectively] spelling dangerous, as gleaned from popular sources. The curious shape below the younger Lytton was a stately carriage owned by Queen Victoria (a small version) with Victoria's head peeking out originally but now obscured.

Strachey's best known book is Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. It consists of four biographical essays, among them ‘The End of General Gordon'. The book deals with the hypocrisies of the Victorian age and in ‘The End of General Gordon' Strachey attacks imperialism and power politics. Campbell explains that he has used the rope to refer to this biography of the British general Charles George Gordon (1833-1885) who became well-known for his exploits in China and ill-fated defence of Khartoum. Campbell felt that Strachey's life would have been in danger if his books about Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I had been published during the two queens' lifetimes because of their polemical nature. Queen Victoria, published in 1921, is a less critical, somewhat irreverent biography. Strachey's last biography, Elizabeth and Essex, published in 1928, suggests that Queen Elizabeth I had a liaison with the Earl of Essex.

The targets to which the artist refers are located on the boy's cap and in the elder Lytton's arms. Godfrey argues that the target imagery in the Tate's painting refers both to Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns who, according to Godfrey, use ‘the target as an epitome of painterly "flatness"'. The centre of the boy's cap, the area to which the arrow is aimed, constitutes the vanishing point for the left and bottom of the work. The centre of the large target is the vanishing point for the top and right side. This is more apparent when the painting is rotated 90 degrees clockwise to its original position (see below). Godfrey writes: ‘This may be seen as a calculated ploy, at once linking the two human targets and teasing, by their differing spatial alignments' (p.250). Both figures are carrying their targets; that of the older Lytton is clasped in his hands, while the boy's target is worn as a cap on his head. However, both figures are also attached, or about to become attached to their targets, the older Lytton's beard is pinned by darts to his, while the boy has an arrow aimed towards the centre of his cap.

Campbell has depicted large male figures in his work since c.1982. He refers to them as ‘chunky' and, in conversation with James Collins, he stated, ‘My chunky men originally came from the chunky men of Picasso [for example ‘The Reading of the Letter' 1921, Musée Picasso, Paris, repr. William Rubin (ed.), Pablo Picasso. A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, p.234]. And they started off not being chunky at all, just ordinary-size men - they just became chunkier (p.78)'. There are nearly always two figures in each painting, generally gesturing in some way. The artist stated in the same interview that gesture creates movement in a painting. Campbell participated in performance art while a student at Glasgow School of Art and the emphasis on gesture in his paintings could derive from or be related to this experience. In T04137 two figures (or possibly three including the cabbage) have been used to refer to separate moments in time, a device which appears frequently in Italian trecento art as well as relating to drama and performance. The transformation in T04137 concerns the foetal cabbage, which turns first into the boy, and then into the bearded young man. Godfrey relates Campbell's interest in performance to the notion of time based narrative in his painting although he sees another source for this in children's comics:

The notion of a progress, often moral in inflection, through both space and time is as common there as it is in Campbell's work. In other paintings, such a progress, which never actually gets anywhere, is visually more obviously sequential, as in the side panels of ‘The Re-illustrated Highland Diary of Queen Victoria' ... or the sixteen side panels of ‘Discovering Insects in a Herbaceous Border'. A key source for this is in children's comics with their narrative sequences spread across the page, and absurdly anachronistic stereotypes. Campbell is a keen collector of old comics such as Chatterbox. Another important source is performance art where procession, transformation of rôle and an emphasis on gesture are commonly found (p.248).

Metamorphosis is present in the pansies on the wall which appear to have human faces. The pansies' transformation into humans is further explored in the later painting ‘Exhibiting the Evidence of Three Fleas, the Death of Pansy Potter' 1986, in which one figure is half-man, half-flower. The cap and target images also reappear in this work, although on a much smaller scale. These pansies, and also possibly the ducks (‘duckiness') refer to Strachey's homosexual inclinations.

This painting is not Campbell's first to deal with a literary figure. He is an avid reader and has made paintings referring to the French social historian Michel Foucault (born 1926), the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) and the British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who was renowned for his theory of evolution. Other paintings have drawn inspiration from the novels of P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975). The artist's paintings also contain art historical references.

Generally the figures in Campbell's paintings appear in an external environment and T04137 is unusual in showing an interior scene, a shooting gallery. However, the cabbages at the bottom right and the pansies on the left wall introduce a natural element, as do the predominant brown and green tones. The outdoor figures are frequently hikers, exploring the outside world. Godfrey has argued that Foucault, Darwin and Strachey could also be thought of as explorers, seeking in an intellectual sense.

Campbell told Collins that many of his images come from second-hand books: ‘Every piece of information in the painting comes from a second-hand book-shop' (p.79). Although this could refer in a more general sense to writers' ideas and paintings about writers. Godfrey has pointed out that the panels between the two figures, with their letters collectively spelling ‘dangerous life', resemble nineteenth century German children's alphabet books.

T04137 originally consisted only of the larger bearded figure and the right side at that time formed the bottom edge of the work. Strachey would then have been kneeling across the wooden beams with the cabbages in the bottom left corner and the shooting range of ducks in the bottom right corner. Campbell later glued on a second section of canvas, turned the painting anticlockwise through ninety degrees and added the second figure of Strachey as a boy. This reorientation partly explains the unusual perspective in T04137. According to Godfrey, the artist's formal improvisation

remains one of Campbell's strengths, and partly accounts for the vigour of his painting. Realisation of the original orientation of the picture allows us to see to what extent some bizarre rite is shown, in which Strachey at once carries the target and is pinned to it, is at once subject and object, at once actor and acted upon. In all this one can detect an echo of performance. One of the more intriguing tasks awaiting the future historian will be to determine the exact influence of performance art on painting in the 1980s, and in that investigation Campbell will be seen as an important figure (p.250).

Like most of Campbell's other works, T04137 was titled after completion. Campbell stated: ‘The painting starts off as one thing and if that doesn't work I try something else until a memory of all these things is in it but none of them is particularly true except the one I've picked to title the work' (Stuart Morgan, Steven Campbell, exh. cat., Riverside Studios, 1984, p.8).

The Tate Gallery owns a portrait of Strachey (T00118) by Henry Lamb (1883-1960). It was painted in 1914 and shows an elongated figure, seated in front of a window. According to Godfrey, Campbell based his painting of the elder Lytton on Lamb's portrait, while ‘the beard is based on a photograph in a records book of a man with reputedly the longest known beard and who was supposed to have kept a cat in it' (p.248). However, Lamb's Strachey has a longer face and dark hair, while Campbell's Strachey bears a resemblance to many of his other figures.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.118-20

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