William Chappell

Young Man Playing a Guitar

1926

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Not on display
Artist
William Chappell 1907–1994
Medium
Oil paint on papier mâché
Dimensions
Support: 285 x 215 x 18 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented anonymously in memory of Sir Terence Rattigan 1983
Reference
T03654

Display caption

A distinguished ballet dancer and designer, William Chappell was a close friend of Burra's from their first meeting at Chelsea Polytechnic in 1921. Here, he said, he depicted how he 'imagined all young men should look in the 20's corpse like and faintly decadent'. He suggested, more generally:

it is very typical of my outlook at the time, and my group of friends. We went from being extremely arty into becoming worshippers of elegance and 'chic'.

The work is Chappell's only known painting and is painted on a papier-mâché tea tray

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

William Chappell 1907-1994

T03654 Young Man Playing a Guitar 1926

Oil on papier mâché tray

285 x 215 x 18 (11 1/4 x 81 1/2 x 3/4)

Inscribed in brown oil paint 'chappell. 1926' b.r.
Back bears pencil outline of a profile upside down, bottom centre, and 'e', a rectangle and 'Y', b.r.; tray stamped '6202 1/2' upper left, and monogrammed by manufacturer 'ASE', upper right

Presented anonymously in memory of Terence Rattigan 1983

Provenance:
Given by the artist to Michael Salaman (?1920s), by whom returned to the artist, given to Sir Terence Rattigan (late 1960s) by whom given to the donor

Literature:
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, pp.121-2, repr.

Surprised by the gift of this painting to the Tate Gallery, William Chappell wrote: 'It amuses me very much that this childhood painting has ended up in your collection',1 later adding that it and another 'have never been exhibited - they would hardly be worth that!'2 As he acknowledged in the letter quoted at length in an earlier catalogue entry,3 the man is clearly playing a ukelele, and Chappell referred to the recordings of the popular jazz performer Ukelele Ike; however, he suggested Young Man Playing a Guitar 'if you are going to dignify it by a title'.4

The fay young man wears the fashions of the time, contrasting his red and white spotted tie against a lime green pullover and dark suit. His eyes are heavily lidded, his complexion rather sallow and his lips red. In response to a series of questions, Chappell told the Tate that he was 'an imagined figure as I imagined all young men should look in the 20's corpse like and faintly (?) decadent'.5 He added more generally: 'it is very typical of my outlook at the time, and my group of friends. We went from being extremely arty into becoming worshippers of elegance and "chic".' In this way Chappell gently suggested the immersion of his circle of friends - which included Edward Burra, Barbara Ker-Seymer and Clover Pritchard, all of whom he had met at Chelsea Polytechnic - in the wild and fashionably homosexual social life revealed in his edition of Burra's correspondence.6

Despite the retrospective assertion that the figure was imagined, an illustrated letter which Chappell wrote to Burra around the time of the painting may suggest that it was a self-portrait. He told Burra: 'I have the most chic new suit with dreffully [sic] wide trousers all the errand boys make embittered remarks for miles and miles around - It is greeny grey very pretty'.7 The accompanying drawing shows him in a double-breasted suit with wide trousers and bearing, significantly, the same fall of curls over his forehead as the man in the painting. The letter is undated, but the availability of 'a marvellous edition of Jean Cocteau's drawings' may refer to the self-portraits of Le Mystère de Jean L'Oiseleur: Monologues (Paris, 1925), or to the writer's 25 Dessins d'un dormeur (Paris, 1929). Coincidentally, 'Susie Salaman & her brother' are also mentioned in the letter; in the 1986, Chappell specified that he made the painting as a birthday present for Michael Salaman.8 This circumstantial evidence may suggest that Chappell portrayed, or imagined, himself as the Young Man Playing a Guitar for the purpose of this gift. The unusual use of a small papier mâché tray as the support for the painting was not explained by the artist, although his allusion to another painted tray9 shows that it was not an isolated choice. The reverse has a sketch of the head and neck of a similar youth in profile. The front appears to have been painted directly over the manufacturer's finish; the yellow ochre of the floor may have served as a preliminary layer as it is visible through the figure's suit. The concentration upon the upper body of the figure and the accompanying table, suggests that the background - the perspective of which conflicts with the frontality of the chair - was completed last. 'Everyone lived in bare studios and apartments faintly like the room depicted', the artist recalled,10 but this is alleviated by the pot of flowers reflected in the polished table. Their artificially blue and yellow colouring reinforces the 'faintly decadent' atmosphere.

Matthew Gale
October 1997

1 Chappell, letter to Tate Gallery, 18 Sept. 1983, Tate Gallery catalogue files
2 Chappell, letter to Tate Gallery, 24 April 1986, Tate Gallery catalogue files
3 Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, pp.121-2
4 Letter, 18 Sept. 1983
5 Ibid.
6 William Chappell (ed.), Well Dearie - the Letters of Edward Burra, London 1985
7 Chappell, letter to Burra, undated 'Saturday', TGA 939.2.4
8 Letter, 24 April 1986
9 Ibid.
10 Letter, 18 Sept. 1983


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