Sir William Coldstream

Havildar Ajmer Singh


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Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 791 × 565 × 22 mm
frame: 947 × 720 × 84 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

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Coldstream was co-founder of the Euston Road School, associated with a figurative, realist style of painting. In 1943 he became the War Office’s Official Portrait Painter in the Middle East, continuing the traditional use of military portraits to assert the integrity of the armed forces. The sitter is Ajmer Singh, a Havildar (Sergeant in the British Indian army) in the 2nd/11th Sikh Regiment who was later injured in Italy. Though the portrait was left unfinished when Singh was moved on from the camp where Coldstream was stationed, it nevertheless presents an image of imperial solidarity, supporting propaganda of the allied forces.

Gallery label, September 2016

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 787 x 565 mm (31 x 22 ¼ in)
Inscribed by the artist on back of canvas in purple ink ‘HAVILDAR AJMER SINGH | 2/11 SIKH | William Coldstream | c/o ADPR | G.H.Q. | M.E.F.’
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1944-5 (changing display, no cat.)
National War Pictures, Glasgow City Art Galleries, May-June 1945 (no catalogue traced)
National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (434)
Euston Road School and Others, Wakefield City Art Gallery, May-June 1948, Harrogate, Sheffield, Brighton (25, pl.6)
British Painting 1700-1960, British Council tour to USSR 1960, Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Hermitage Museum, Leningrad (119)
William Coldstream, South London Art Gallery, April-May 1962 (33, pl.16)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (17)
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 (23)

David Sylvester, ‘Grey Eminence’, New Statesman and Nation, 27 April 1962, p.608
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.115
Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists: British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London 1983, p.241, repr. between pp.262 and 263 (col.)
Alan Ross, Colours of War: War Art 1939-45, London 1983, p.160
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, pp.234-5, repr. p.235, fig.134 and pl.X (col.)
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.42-3, 246, pl.59

William Johnstone, Creative Art in Britain, London 1950, p.212, pl.178
Mark Glazebrook, ‘Talking to Coldstream’, London Magazine, vol.16, no.1, April/May 1976, p.91
Brian Sewell, ‘His Master’s Voice’, Tatler, 7 Oct. 1990, unpag.

Coldstream had been in the army for almost three years when he was offered a job as the War Office’s Official Portrait Painter, Middle East in April 1943. He had previously undertaken to paint an anti-aircraft battery for the War Artists Advisory Committee but the commission was never fulfilled. After executing a portrait of General von Thoma, a German Prisoner of War, he sailed to Algiers in July 1943. From there he had to travel by lorry, train and ship to Cairo, arriving on 24 August. The inscription on the back of the canvas gives the artist’s postal address at General Head Quarters, Middle East Forces (M.E.F.). Soon after his arrival he suggested painting members of the Indian army who were stationed nearby and was invited to join them at ‘6 kilo Camp’, about twelve miles from the city centre not far from the Pyramids.[1]

The inscription identifies the sitter as Ajmer Singh, a Havildar in the 2nd/11th Sikh Regiment; he was later severely wounded in Italy. Coldstream told the Tate Gallery that he began the portrait on 31 August 1943, a day after he had begun another of Subedar Jaggat Singh (Imperial War Museum, London).[2] He wrote to John Rake about the two works in hand: one, he said, was of a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer aged forty-three, the other a twenty-eight year old sergeant (Havildar) instructor. ‘The first wears a khaki turban and the second a bright saffron yellow one’;[3] the turban of Subedar Jaggat Singh ended up white. Of the five thousand potential subjects in the camp, Coldstream seems to have set out to paint sitters of different rank and ethnic group. The two other portraits are of a Havildar from a Ghurka regiment and a Pathan Rifleman from the 2/6 Rajput Rifles (Havildar Kulbir Thapa and Rifleman Mangal Singh, both 1943-4, Imperial War Museum, London).[4]

The tradition of using military portraits as propaganda continued in the Second World War despite a desire for works that were in keeping with recent artistic developments. The depiction of senior officers and typical troops was seen to maintain the respectable reputation of the forces. It is possible that the representation of different Indian sects, like the painting of different races within the Commonwealth, was particularly intended to present an image of imperial solidarity. This would have been especially urgent in the context of the threat of Japanese invasion of India and the unrest on the sub-continent that continued despite Britain’s promise of independence after the war.

In Egypt Coldstream established a working routine of painting one soldier from 8.30 to 10.30 in the morning and the other from 11 until 1 p.m.[5] He found his subjects good sitters and told Rake that ‘they sit very still and talk to me in a mixture of Urdu and English’.[6] He appears to have become interested in their culture: he visited a Sikh temple in Cairo, remarked to both Rake and Sir Kenneth Clark on the fact that Sikhs do not cut their hair or beard and recorded in his journal that in Tunisia they had dislodged dug-in Italians by letting ‘their hair and beards down and rush[ing] in. Italians surrendered saying “... they are going to eat us”’.[7] While Bruce Laughton’s attempts to discern reflections of cultural or psychological characteristics in the physiognomies of the different Indian troops may seem overly speculative,[8] there are indications that similar ideas influenced such pre-war works by Coldstream as Man with a Beard (Tate N05108).

The artist’s last session with Ajmer Singh appears to have been on 18 October.[9] He had certainly stopped working on the portrait by the 23rd, though he was far from happy with it: ‘I have left the 31 x 22 of a Sikh - it is not complete & not successful - but I shall send it back. It is a head - just over life size of a Sikh aged 28 wearing a yellow turban. Today he left here so I can’t go on with it - which may be a good thing’.[10] His later recollection that the portrait was completed around Christmas of that year would appear to be mistaken.[11] Though he continued working on Subedar Jaggat Singh until December, Coldstream thought the Tate’s picture better: ‘I am not displeased with one of my paintings - a 31 x 22 of a Sikh. The larger one which I have worked so long on is very dry and I fear evasion’.[12]

Like most of Coldstream’s portraits, the painting reveals the way it was expediently curtailed. The soldier’s shirt is hardly delineated at all, with little definition of the collar or the arms. It seems to have been painted in two loosely applied thin layers: the second stops far short of the bottom and even the first leaves areas of bare ground. The casual handling of the ambiguous brown background, which was painted with fairly broad, apparently rapid brush strokes, is most evident where the dark colour has been applied over the yellow of the turban. As in such earlier works as Inez Spender, 1937-8 (Tate N05883), the regular pattern of small, diagonally hatched brushmarks on the face serve to obscure the sitter’s features, blurring the lines of the eyes most especially. There are measuring marks evident in places, and red ones especially concentrate around the eyes, nostrils and mouth where they serve to provide definition and warmth as much as positioning the elements in the composition. These, and the strength of the yellow of the turban, give a rich colouring to the otherwise characteristically muted palette. The greater prominence afforded to these apparently functional marks was a new departure for Coldstream and they would become increasingly apparent as his work developed after the war. The painting reflects the conditions in which it was made: extensive bubbling of the paint was a result of the rapid evaporation of thinner in the extreme heat of the corrugated-iron store that Coldstream used as a studio in the desert.[13] A white crystalline deposit was removed from the surface in 1990.

The two Sikh portraits were despatched to Britain at the end of December and did not arrive until March 1944 when they were met with praise from Sir Kenneth Clark, chair of the War Artists Advisory Committee. ‘The two Indians have arrived and I admire them very much’, he wrote, ‘Compared to our other portraits they look like Velazquez ... you seem to be painting better than you have ever done’.[14] They were similarly admired by others, with Victor Pasmore assuring Coldstream that his portraits looked ‘very well ... particularly the two turbaned sikhs which are surely among your best things’.[15]

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] William Coldstream’s journal, 1943-4, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.4

[2] Repr. Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, p.234, fig.133
[3] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, 11 Sept. 1943, Tate Archive TGA 787.202
[4] Repr. Laughton 1986, p.238, fig.136 and p.237, fig.135

[5] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, 11 Sept. 1943, Tate Gallery Archive 787.202
[6] Ibid.
[7] Coldstream’s journal, 29 Aug. 1943, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.4
[8] Laughton 1986, pp.237-8

[9] Coldstream’s journal, 18 Oct. 1943, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.4
[10] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, 23 Oct. 1943, Tate Archive TGA 787.203
[11] Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.115
[12] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, 5 Dec. 1943 Tate Gallery Archive 787.39

[13] Tate conservation files; Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists: British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London 1983, p.241

[14] Kenneth Clark letter to Coldstream, 29 March 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8922.4.224
[15] Victor Pasmore letter to Coldstream, 16 Dec. 1944, Tate Archive TGA 8922.4.471

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