Sir William Coldstream

Casualty Reception Station, Capua


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 730 × 927 mm
frame: 880 × 1067 × 84 mm
Presented by the British Council 1969

Display caption

As a co-founder of the Euston Road School, Coldstream favoured a practice of painting based on acute observation. In 1943 he was appointed as an Official War Artist. After working in North Africa he requested permission to paint in Italy and arrived in Capua, Italy in May 1944. This picture of the Reception Station was completed five months later, after about seventy-five sittings in front of the subject. Coldstream positioned himself on the roof of a half-finished block of flats in front of the view, so that he would not be seen or disturbed. He later suggested that he had been more interested in depicting the architecture in sunlight than recording a military scene.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 730 x 933 mm (28 3/4 x 36 ¾ in)
Presented by the British Council 1969

Painted for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee and presented to the British Council 1947

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1945 (changing display, no catalogue)
Exhibition of National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (467)
Contemporary British Art, British Council North American tour 1946-7, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo,?Nov./Dec. 1946-, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Mass., Cleveland Museum of Art, Art Gallery of Toronto, City Art Museum of St Louis, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, Aug. 1947 (9, repr. p.,45)
Euston Road School and Others, Wakefield City Art Gallery, May-June 1948, Harrogate, Sheffield, Brighton (26)
Euston Road School, Arts Council tour, York City Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct. 1948, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Oct.-Nov., Coleg Harlech, Nov.-Dec., Manchester City Art Gallery, Dec. 1948-Jan. 1949, Doncaster Art Gallery and Museum, Jan., Lewis Textile Museum, Blackburn, Feb. 1949 (14)
Contemporary Painting from Great Britain, the United States and France with Sculpture from the United States, Art Gallery of Toronto, Nov.-Dec. 1949 (5, repr.)
Contemporary British Paintings, New Zealand tour 1950-1, including Christchurch Centennial, Dunedin Art Gallery (no number, repr.), ?and Hong Kong
International Exhibition of Paintings, Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Feb. 1952 (no number, repr.)
Western European Paintings, tour of Denmark 1953-4, Odense, 6-13 Sept. 1953, Vejle, 20 Sept., Horsens, 27 Sept., Silkeborg, 4 Oct., Randers, 11 Oct., Aalborg, 18 Oct., Hjorring, 25 Oct., Frederikshavn, 1 Nov., Skagen, 8 Nov., Hobro, 15 Nov., Viborg, 22 Nov., Skive, 6 Dec., Holstebro, 13 Dec., Aarhus, 25 Dec.-1 Jan. 1954, Varde, 10 Jan., Esbjerg, 17 Jan., Haderslev 24 Jan., Aabenraa, 31 Jan., Holbaek, 7 Feb., Rosklide, 14 Feb., Maribo, 21 Feb., Nykobing F, 28 Feb., Copenhagen, 8-19 April (109)
Contemporary British Painting, BC tour of Central Africa 1957-8 (4)
William Coldstream, Arts Council tour, South London Art Gallery, April-May 1962, Leeds University, June, Bristol City Art Gallery, July, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, Aug., Southampton Art Gallery, Sept., Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct. 1962 (36, pl.19)
British Painting 1900-62, British Council tour of Eastern Europe, Budapest, Prague, Bucharest (2)
British Artists of the Second World War, Arts Council tour 1965, Arts Council Gallery, Cambridge, Feb.-March 1965, Museum and Art Gallery and Fermoy Art Gallery, King’s Lynn, March-April, Huddersfield Art Gallery, April-May, Keighley Art Gallery and Museum, May-June, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, June-July, Stafford Art Gallery, July, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Aug., Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, Sept., Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, Oct., Minories, Colchester, Oct.-Nov. (21)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (18)
The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-1987, Tate Gallery, London, Oct. 1990-Jan. 1991 and South Bank tour: Newport Art Gallery and Museum, Jan.-March 1991, Castle Museum, Norwich, April-May, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, May-June (26, repr. in col. p.58)
Two-Way Traffic: British and Italian Art 1880-1980, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, July-Sept. 1996 (37, repr. in col. between pp. 20 and 21)

Hugh Graham, ‘Pictorial Justice’, Spectator, 11 May 1962, p.623
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1968-9, London 1969, p.9
Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists: British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London 1983, p.241
Alan Ross, Colours of War: War Art 1939-45, London 1983, p.160, repr. p.161
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, pp.241, 242-5, repr. p.242, fig.140
Peter T.J. Rumley, ‘Sir William Coldstream: Catalogue Raisonné 1926-83 and Artistic Career 1908-45’, unpublished D.Phil thesis, University of Sussex, 1986, pp.45-7, 248-9,
Lawrence Gowing , ‘Remembering Coldstream’ in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-1987, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.17-19

Claude Rogers, ‘William Coldstream: Painter’, Studio, vol.163, no.829, May 1962, p.170
William Coldstream, ‘Painting Given Subjects: Interview with David Sylvester’, Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, April 1977, p.262, pl.55
William Townsend, The Townsend Journals: An Artist’s Record of his Times 1928-51, ed. Andrew Forge, London 1976, p.60
Giles Auty, ‘Dry Response’, Spectator, 17 Nov. 1990, p.49 (col.)

On 16 March 1944 William Coldstream wrote to Sir Kenneth Clark, chair of the War Artists Advisory Committee, that after six and a half months in Cairo he would like to visit Italy. In contrast to Egypt, which had been peaceful for some considerable time, Italy was then the scene of ferocious fighting as the German army attempted to stop the Allies’ northward advance. He explained his interest: ‘I would particularly like to try painting comparatively recently devastated areas on the spot ... It is true that there are very fine landscapes related to the war in ME [the Middle East] - but they have not the urgency’.[1] On the 29 March Clark responded, writing that he hoped Coldstream’s Commanding Officer would let him make the trip ‘as a landscape of a ruined town would be most interesting’.[2] Permission was granted on 10 April and the artist travelled to Capua via Taranto, Bari and Naples to arrive on 8 May 1944.

Though the town, which is 20 miles north of Naples, had fallen to the Allies in the previous October, Coldstream must have been very aware of the war’s continued proximity. Capua had sustained considerable damage, including the destruction of much of the cathedral. The surrounding area had been the scene of terrible fighting throughout the winter and spring as, despite the opening of a second front further north at Anzio in January, the German army stymied the Allied advance. Since February, Monte Cassino, about twenty miles north-east of Capua, had been the focus of the Allies’ offensive and the destruction of its historic abbey by American bombers on 15 February had been the subject of controversy. After two months of bombing, a major attack was launched upon the town, just after Coldstream’s arrival in the area, on 11 May. Though the German Line was broken a week later, fighting continued in the area and casualties were heavy. Nevertheless, with advances made from Anzio too, the Americans were able to march into Rome less than a month later on 4 June. Even though Coldstream visited Cassino on 27 June, little sign of these brutal events is evident in Casualty Reception Station, Capua.

A view of the town from an elevated position, Casualty Reception Station was the first painting Coldstream worked on in Capua. On 10 May 1944 he recorded that he had ‘found [a] roof to paint from’ and began work two days later.[3] He wrote to John Rake: ‘I have been a week in this place & have started a 37 x 28 canvas - a landscape - view of the town. I have a very good place to work out of doors on a roof where I am fairly undisturbed. The subject is very fine - & the light fairly constant for the morning hours. I’ve only had three periods on it so I don’t know how it will go ... I am struggling with the eternal problem of finding a balance between a calculated method of work & one where one can relax willed discipline more’.[4] Two weeks later he had two paintings underway: in addition to this one he had also begun ‘a 23 x 19 of a ruined Cathedral’.[5]

The nature of the place and conditions forced Coldstream to adopt unfamiliar methods. He complained to Rake:

For a month I have been struggling with a 36 x 28 of a very difficult subject. Difficult because its all distant & all in sunlight. Consequently the tones are all very close together & constant minute adjustments have to be made. I am having to abandon transparent painting in many passages - I feel the demand for the resistance which a fuller tone gives and in painting objects in sunlight one must use a good deal of flake white to raise the tones high enough.[6]

Lawrence Gowing has observed that ‘you must have known and been taught by him to know how painful this would have been’.[7]

Typically, despite working on Casualty Reception Station for two hours almost every morning, Coldstream’s progress was terribly slow and he seems to have become progressively disappointed with the results. By July he saw that ‘the war [had] long receded from’ the painting, ‘but the main facts remain & as I have already spent so long on it I feel I must try & make something of it. It is a plain & by no means spectacular scene’.[8] He said he saw it as ‘much of an exercise’, explaining, ‘I rushed into [it] taking it on immediately I arrived - being frightened of delaying. Had I waited a week or so there are other subjects I might have chosen for a 36 x 28’.[9] Similarly, at the end of that month he asserted: ‘my large landscape may have some slight value as an exercise - but only as such has it interested me. I am determined to finish it & so go on’.[10] He had been hampered by circumstances, as on 6 June he noted that ‘they were taking down tents of the casualty reception centre which forms most of the foreground in my painting’.[11] He worked intensely all that day and the next morning until midday, when all but two of the tents had been removed.[12]

Though he told Clark that the painting was ‘nearly ready to send back’ on 10 August,[13] it was still not complete in early September. On the sixth he recorded, ‘To finish ... I must tomorrow work on painting in two ambulances in the large picture then on the background. It is dull and constipated. The subject ill chosen and the treatment mostly tired and stale. It has some qualities in its tonality’.[14] Progress was further hindered by the changing seasons as rain and persistent strong winds prevented Coldstream from working for much of September. He tried to finish the picture at home but could not work away from the motif: ‘started to paint in an ambulance in the foreground. But I felt such repugnance to work and so little connection with what I did that I stopped’. This was probably the vehicle in the bottom left hand corner. He went on, ‘I decided that tomorrow ... I will get two soldiers to stand and paint from them. These two figures and two more figures of soldiers lifting a stretcher into the ambulances should [...] to make it possible to leave the painting and send it off’.[15] The following day he wrote, ‘worked on roof (got two soldiers to stand for me for an hour) all morning’ and a week later, working in his room, he added the three tanks in the middle distance.[16] That seems to have been the final addition to the painting as he wrote to Rake that day, ‘the large landscape I am sorry to say has been unsuccessful but I must send it in’.[17] The work was received by the War Artists Advisory Committee in January 1945.[18] Coldstream apologised to Clark for his slow working methods and recorded his horror ‘at the thought of having spent five months on this picture’.[19]

The work is remarkable for its subtle tonality and restrained composition. Other than slight touches of red and green to the dome, it is largely made up of soft ochres, oranges and pinks, so that the green of the grass dominates. The effect is that of bright sunlight. Dominated by Domenico Fontana’s cupola of the Chiesa della Annunciata, Capua is portrayed as a matrix of rectilinear forms slightly redolent of the towns in the work of Giovanni Bellini. A series of verticals - the colonnade below the dome and various lamp-posts - add to the sense of order. Though measuring marks of brown paint are visible, there is no sign of pencil drawing. Indeed, there is little outline at all as the buildings are generally defined by abutting plains of colour. Some areas reveal the artist’s compositional difficulties; in particular, the crown on top of the dome appears to have been effaced and repainted. In common with his other works, Coldstream’s measuring method seems to have flattened the picture space. The spatial relationship between the dome of the cathedral and the square tower in front of it is rather ambiguous, for example.

It seems likely that the melancholy ruination that would be the theme of many of Coldstream’s paintings of the next few years - such as Cripplegate, 1946-8 (Arts Council collection)[20] - was settled upon after he began Casualty Reception Station. Despite his original stated intention, the work gives little sense of the damage to the town; blast damage on the left hand corner of the building on the right is the only suggestion of the destruction that is recorded more graphically in the exactly contemporary Capua Cathedral from the Bishop’s Palace, 1944 (Government Art Collection).[21] He also worked on a small painting of ‘Italians digging out bomb victims’ based on drawings of a scene he had witnessed and described to John Rake.[22] In contrast, the gentle tones and ordered composition of Casualty Reception Station exaggerate a sense of calm which is hardly undermined by the presence of the Red Cross tents and ambulances in the foreground. These, and the row of small tanks, are the only indication of the war. Even the ambulances themselves form a sober line the purpose of which seems to be as much compositional as illustrative. In early July 1944 the artist described the scene as ‘a long band of town running across the middle of the canvas - houses and some churches - a rectangle of worn grass in the foreground - mountains in the distance’.[23] The tenor of the painting supports the suggestion that Coldstream was ‘fascinated by the contrast between the stillness of the shattered town and the battle he knew to be raging’.[24]

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] William Coldstream, letter to Kenneth Clark, 16 March 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8912.1.3.756.
[2] Sir Kenneth Clark, letter to Coldstream, 29 March 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8922.4.224.

[3] Coldstream journal, 10 and 12 May 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.4.
[4] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, 14 May 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.47.
[5] Letter to Rake, postmarked 29 May 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.48.

[6] Letter to Rake, 9 June 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.205.

[7] Lawrence Gowing, ‘Remembering Coldstream’ in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.17-19.

[8] Letter to Rake, 7 July 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.49.
[9] Letter to Rake, 15 July 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.50.
[10] Letter to Rake, 28 July 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.53.
[11] Coldstream journal, 6 June 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.4.
[12] Ibid., 7 June 1944.

[13] Letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, 10 August 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8912.1.3.758.
[14] Coldstream journal, 6 September 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.4.
[15] Ibid., 14 October 1944.
[16] Ibid., 15 and 21 October 1944.
[17] Letter to Rake, 21 October 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.56.
[18] Minutes of the 173rd WAAC meeting, 17 January 1945, Imperial War Museum, London.
[19] Coldstream journal, 14 October 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.4.

[20] Reproduced in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-1987, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.88.
[21] Reproduced in Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, p.243, fig.141.
[22] Ibid., p.244.
[23] Letter to Rake, 7 July 1944, Tate Archive TGA 787.49.
[24] Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists: British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London 1983, p.241.

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