Patrick Caulfield

Vases of Flowers


Not on display

Patrick Caulfield 1936–2005
Household paint on hardboard
Support: 1219 × 1219 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Tate Gallery Publications Department and the Trustees of the Tate Gallery Trust Fund 1976

Display caption

Vase of Flowers is characteristic of Caulfield’s paintings of the early 1960s.  Flat images of objects are paired with angular geometric shapes, isolated against vivid areas of flat colour.

The painting shows Caulfield’s use of gloss paint on board and his hard, linear technique.  His preference for cheap and readily available house paint, applied to a flat surface, recalls the anonymous technique of the sign painter, dispensing with visible brushstrokes and unnecessary detail.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The work is painted on a sheet of hardboard, manufactured by Royal Board of Sweden. The artist nailed the 3mm thick hardboard onto a framework of four wooden battens which provide some structural support. The front, smooth face was sanded and the corners were protected with thin, short, metal strips that were bent and nailed into the battens. The support is intact but it has a tendency to torque during handling.

The front face of the hardboard and the outer edges of the battens were prepared with a layer of glossy, commercial priming. In an artist’s interview 1994, Caulfield responded to an interviewer’s question about the priming saying, “...but it was a gloss paint I think I used, it was called eggshell. I used to use different... I can’t remember their names, just any commercial brand, Crown, Dulux, etc.”

The paint media and some pigments were analysed in 1997. The binding medium was identified as an oil-modified, alkyd resin. The pigments in the light blue background were identified as titanium dioxide with small quantities of china clay and possibly gypsum fillers. The blue pigment was not detected but it is likely to be a pthalocyanine blue, possibly with a small amount of an azo yellow.

Underdrawing is faintly visible to the eye in some areas. When asked about preparation drawings in an artist’s interview 1998, Caulfield said, “I might have squared it up or I might have done a tracing, although I can’t remember tracing them at the time. I never projected anything. I drew on to the hardboard, just transfer it [the image] visually... fairly freely and make corrections until I got it just right.” Under infrared examination the extent of the underdrawing becomes apparent, showing freely sketched lines and some changes in the positions of flowers.

Opaque paints were layered onto the front face in solid lines and fields with no blending of colours on the surface. Generally, a colour field was laid in first, then the black outlines were painted on, then another layer of colour may be applied. From the artist’s interview 1998 Caulfield said, “It is likely I would have drawn the vase and then coloured them in... I would have touched it up, I never got them accurate at the first go.”

Some edges show a slight amount of wet-in-wet mixing, most likely unintentional. Masking tape was used to achieve the crisp edges of the black, straight lines surrounding the vases and flowers. There is some paint bleed onto the surrounding green-blue paint. The blue-green paint in between the double lines is not as glossy as the surrounding paint and has taken on the slightly roughened texture of the masking tape adhesive surface.

The paint is generally very smooth, flat and glossy. However, there are number of inclusions across the surface. The surface is broken with numerous tiny, sharp bumps, and small nail heads around the outer front edge also break the flat plane of the surface. The paint thickness varies slightly across the surface according to the number of paint layers in a particular field or line.

Paint was applied with a brush. In some areas the application is somewhat uneven. For example, the background was applied largely in broad strokes, vertical and horizontal, first in a yellow-green colour, then covered in a blue-green colour. A small patch of the yellow-green paint remains exposed between the red flower and green stem in the right floral element. The blue-green paint was applied after the flowers and vases were painted. The paint had some flow when it was applied but not enough to settle out the brushstrokes completely. Thus, the area around the flowers and vases is slightly uneven, showing shorter brush strokes following the contours of the shapes, in contrast to the broad, even, strokes of the rest of the background. The contours are not precisely followed, occasionally exposing the yellow-green paint below. The paint has also built up slightly more thickly, resulted in some wrinkling. The painting is not varnished.

Paint is flaking away from the edges and surfaces of the nails, around the perimeter of the front face. There are a series of losses along the front bottom edge which include losses to the paint and ground layers and gouges in the wood. The corners are scuffed with small losses and scratches through the paint. The other edges have small paint and ground losses, some scratches and scrapes. Apart from these damages, the paint is good condition.

Patricia Smithen
September 2001

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Household paint on hardboard, 48×48 (122×122)
Purchased from the Waddington Galleries with funds provided by the Tate Gallery Publications Department, the Trustees of the Tate Gallery Trust Fund and the Grant-in-Aid 1976
Coll: Private Collection
Exh: Young Contemporaries, F.B.A. Galleries, February 1963 (119) as ‘Flowers’; Royal College of Art Diploma Show 1963; Waddington Galleries stand, Basle Art Fair, Swiss Industries Fair Hall, Basle, June 1975 (rep.), as ‘Still Life, 1963’

The following account, with those of T02032 and T02033, is based on the artist's replies to questions on 22 March 1977, and has been approved by him.

Although he cannot remember precisely, he thinks, from the early date at which Young Contemporaries was held in 1963, that he must have completed this painting in 1962. Along with ‘Black and White Flower Piece’ 1963(?) (repr. Christopher Finch, Patrick Caulfield 1971, p.17), with which it was exhibited at Young Contemporaries, it was the first of Caulfield's works concerning flowers to be executed on a single flat support since, as a very young student, he had painted conventional still lifes in the mid 1950's. Before ‘Vases of Flowers’ he had, however, made a construction in which a cardboard cut-out of flowers was mounted on a real trellis of painted wood. In ‘Vases of Flowers’, as in other works mentioned, Caulfield was deliberately placing contrasting conventions or degrees of naturalism in direct confrontation. The formalised areas were meant to give the lie to the naturalism of the flowers. Thus the flowers were painted from a careful drawing of real chrysanthemums, the colours of which were approximately retained in the painting, but the vases in which they are shown are formalizations unrelated to the ones in which Caulfield placed them to paint them in his Battersea flat. The rest of the painting is entirely non-naturalistic, the formal devices (even the enclosure of double black lines, which was not intended to represent a table top) being quite arbitrary, and probably a little influenced by Juan Gris. The same wish to confront contrasting types of representation still operates in Caulfield's flower paintings. For example in ‘Entrance’ 1975 (repr. in colour in catalogue of Caulfield's exhibition, Waddington Galleries, November– December 1975), the flowers, which seem almost photographically vivid, are derived from seed catalogues and superimposed arbitrarily on stylized paintings of leaves which do not relate to them botanically.

Caulfield chose the subject of flowers to paint in 1962 partly because it was an age-old subject and thus more of a challenge to him then than it would be now.

The presentation of the vases ‘dumbly’ and ‘artlessly’ side by side and against a flat ground giving no sense of space, was deliberately banal. For Caulfield at that time figurative painting required a very banal composition and a strong element of formalization in order to accentuate the objectiveness of the painting as opposed to its illusionistic properties, or to concerns such as naturalistic perspective.

Because commercial gloss paint tends to run, the entire picture was painted flat except for the black lines. This was also the case with T02032 ‘Still Life with Dagger’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

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