Sir William Coldstream

Inez Spender


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 770 × 1018 mm
frame: 945 × 1208 × 120 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1949

Display caption

Between 1936 and 1939, Coldstream made a series of portraits of his friends. This image of the first wife of the poet Stephen Spender has been called 'a masterpiece of analytical realism' and necessitated about forty sittings. Spender commissioned this image during the couple's impetuous and short-lived marriage. Her clothes and her unusually short hair mark her out as part of an intellectual circle. In 1939 Inez left Spender for the poet Charles Madge.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 770 x 1018 mm (30 5/16 x 40 1/16 in)
Inscribed by the artist on top canvas return in ink ‘William Coldstream | Mrs Stephen Spender’
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1949

Commissioned from the artist by Stephen Spender 1937 and purchased from him by the Contemporary Art Society 1947

Paintings by Graham Bell, Thomas Carr ... Geoffrey Tibble, Rosenberg and Helft, London, Sept.-Oct. 1938 (4, as Mrs Stephen Spender)
1939 Exhibition: Work by Members of the Artists’ International Association Exhibited as a Demonstration of the Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Feb.-March 1939 (35)
Contemporary British Art, British Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939 (22, repr.)
Contemporary British Art from the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, BC tour of Canada and USA, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Dec. 1939, Toronto Art Gallery, Jan. 1940, Montreal Art Association, Feb., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, May-Sept, Chicago Arts Club; stored Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until Dec. 1941 (22)
Contemporary British Art, St Louis, Jan. 1942, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Museum of Art, Toledo, Oct. 1942, Indianapolis, Mont Clare Museum, New Jersey, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, March 1944 (14, repr. p.45)
Contemporary British Art, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ?Art Museum, London, Ontario, Montreal Art Museum [by April 1945] and other venues (no catalogue traced)
A Selection of Paintings and Drawings Acquired by the Contemporary Art Society, Arts Council, London, March 1948 (6, as Portrait, 36 x 28 1/2 inches)
British Paintings 1925-50: Second Anthology, Arts Council, New Burlington Galleries, London, June 1951 (15, as Portrait)
William Coldstream, South London Art Gallery, April-May 1962 (18)
Arte Britânica no Século XX, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon 1962 (44)
20th Century British Art, British Council tour of Portugal 1962, Sociedad Nacional de Belas Artes, Lisbon, Feb.-March, Coimbra University, March, Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis (Palacio dos Carrancas), Oporto, April 1962 (no catalogue traced)
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 (14)

Albert Garrett, ‘The New Realism in English Art’, Studio, vol.147, no.735, 1954, p.163, repr.
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.115
William Townsend, The Townsend Journals: An Artist’s Record of his Times 1928-51, ed. Andrew Forge, London 1976, p.44, repr. p.43
Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, London and Bloomington, Indiana 1981, rev. ed. London and New Haven 1994, p.340
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, pp. 119, 122-3, 139, repr. p.124, fig.73
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.24-5, pl.33
Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Measuring the World’, Independent Magazine, 13 Oct. 1990, p.59, repr. (col.)
Hugh David, Stephen Spender: A Portrait with Background, London 1992, pp.209-10, repr. between pp.148 and 149

R.S. Lambert (ed.), Art in England, Harmondsworth 1938, between pp.96 & 97, pl.22 (as Mrs Spender)
Thomas McGreevy, ‘William Coldstream: Draughtsman in Paint’, Studio, vol.119, no.564, March 1940, p.95
Stephen Spender, ‘English Artists vs English Painting’, Artnews, vol.52, no.7, pt.1, Nov. 1953, p.17
Brian Sewell, ‘His Master’s Voice’, Tatler, 7 Oct. 1990, unpag.

Coldstream’s portrait of Stephen Spender’s first wife has been described as a ‘masterpiece of analytical Realism ... one of the few timeless pictures in English painting which can be quoted as visual Realism’.[1] It is the most complex and arguably the most refined of a series of portraits that he made of his friends between 1936 and 1939. His recommitment to painting after two years working for the GPO Film Unit was heralded by a portrait of Anastasia Anrep in 1936, which was followed by paintings of W.H. Auden’s mother, Auden himself, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender and Sonia Brownell. Mrs Inez Spender came top in a popular poll conducted by the AIA at its 1939 Exhibition.[2]

According to the artist, this portrait ‘was commissioned by Stephen Spender and begun at the end of 1937’.[3] Spender’s biographer wrote that the commission was an indication of how pleased the writer was with his own portrait which had been completed earlier in the year.[4] The precise date of the picture is unclear. On 19 August 1937 Spender wrote to Coldstream that he would have to postpone the commission as he did not have enough money at that time, though he sent a cheque as part payment in any case. Six days later he wrote again, Coldstream having refused the cheque, saying that ‘it should certainly be possible for Inez to have sittings this autumn’.[5] Apparently, Spender was nervous of Coldstream’s escalating prices and so an arrangement was reached whereby payments would be made when he could afford them.[6] Coldstream told the Tate that the portrait was executed in the studio at 23 Fitzroy Street that he shared with Graham Bell from October 1937. He recalled that the work entailed about forty sittings and was finally completed in March or April 1938.[7] William Townsend’s journals specify that on 18 March Coldstream showed him the portrait ‘which he had just finished’.[8]

Marie Agnes (always known as Inez) Pearn entered Coldstream’s circle when she met Stephen Spender at a Spanish Aid Committee meeting in November 1936 at the age of twenty-three. Her clothes and unusually short hair, apparent in Coldstream’s portrait, marked her as part of an intellectual circle. Coldstream has been said to have been fascinated by her but Spender proposed to her almost immediately and they were married within a month on 15 December. Apparently forthright and beautiful, Pearn was at Oxford studying Spanish poetry, a project she continued while Spender spent much of the first six months of 1937 in Spain. Their marriage was always considered ‘curious’ by his friends and, despite a happy period living in Suffolk, they separated in the summer of 1939 when Inez went to live with the poet Charles Madge, co-founder of Mass Observation. They married in 1942 and had two children. They lived in Birmingham from 1950 to 1970, when they moved to the south of France where she died in 1976. She published her first novel Spanish Portrait in 1945 and another four were to follow in the 1940s and 1950s.[9]

The high viewpoint in the portrait gave Coldstream perspectival problems as can be seen in the ambiguous positioning of the sitter’s thighs and knees. He wrote to Claude Rogers at the time about his difficulties: ‘nobody seems to realise that the dark patch behind her is the floor, they think it is some sort of crazy back to the sofa (that is those who realise it is a sofa)’.[10] As in the portrait of Winfred Burger (Tate T00339), the face is very finely painted with several thin layers applied in small, vertical brushstrokes which contrast with the broader, looser handling of the coat and the background. Typically, all definite outlines are obscured by small strokes of pale colour that blur the lines, most noticably around the eyes. Some passages appear unfinished, especially the hands which are essentially areas of solid colour with little formal definition. Coldstream explained later that he found it difficult to bring a painting to fruitful completion: ‘With most of the paintings I’ve done I think I feel I ought to have gone on with them ... I could go on a long way and I usually stop out of expediency because I feel I can’t make a person sit any longer or, you know, something like that ... it’s a sort of open-ended thing’.[11] However, following the example of Cézanne, an apparent lack of finish or resolution was a feature of several artists’ work, as is demonstrated by Victor Pasmore’s Roses in a Jar, 1947 (Tate T03120), for example.

In Inez Spender small brown and red measuring marks can be seen; most particularly, there is a series defining a line that runs through the sitter’s nose and elbow. These record Coldstream’s method of composing his picture by the careful plotting of the distances between the different elements. The way this method of measuring, using the handle of the brush held up to the subject and then to the canvas, was taught at the Euston Road School has been described by Christopher Pinsent.[12] Apparently devised to compensate for his lack of facility in drawing, this process became central to Coldstream’s method and was made increasingly evident in his paintings after the war. In referring to these marks as ‘purposeful, workmanlike and unabashed’, Pinsent has suggested that the method related to Coldstream and his associates’ equating of painting to other forms of work. As Lawrence Gowing has pointed out, this method of translating three dimensional spatial relationships on to a flat surface is basically flawed.[13] He says Coldstream recognised ‘this nucleus of unreason in his style’ but continued to develop it to the point that the marks dominate the image, as seen in such late works as Reclining Nude, 1974-6 (Tate T02079). Despite one critic’s description of ‘the form construction and relation of the parts to the whole’ in Inez Spender as ‘a tour de force’,[14] the result of the shortcomings of Coldstream’s technique are evident in its anatomical and spatial problems. The relationship between the head and the shoulders, for instance, is awkward and the figure’s pose somewhat rigid, the relationship between her shoulder and the sofa being rather ambiguous.

Inez Spender was selected for the Contemporary Art Society in 1947 by the artist Edward Le Bas, who was reminded of it when he saw it in Coldstream’s hall.[15] Nevertheless, an earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry recorded that it had been acquired by the CAS from Stephen Spender. It is unclear how it came to be hanging in the artist’s house, but the fact that it had been for sale at the Artists International Association in 1939 suggests that Spender was keen to part with it. It had spent much of the intervening period out of the country as it was included in the British Council’s exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 which was stranded by the outbreak of war and so remained in America until 1945/6. In 1955, Coldstream told the Tate Gallery that the portrait had been bought by the Contemporary Art Society as “A Portrait” and that it was his ‘intention that the picture should be known by this title rather than that of Mrs Spender’.[16] This more generic title reflects the fact that, though Coldstream was glad to paint commissioned portraits, he had a particular interest in heads in a more generalised sense, as is also demonstrated in his Man with a Beard (Tate N05108).

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] Albert Garrett, ‘The New Realism in English Art’, Studio, vol.147, no.735, June 1954, p.163.
[2] Robert Radford, Art for a Purpose: The Artists’ International Association 1933-1953, Winchester 1987, p.107.

[3] William Coldstream, letter to Tate Gallery, 8 March 1955, Tate catalogue files.
[4] Hugh David, Stephen Spender: A Portrait with Background, London 1992, p.209.
[5] Stephen Spender, letters to William Coldstream, 19 Aug. 1937, 25 Aug. 1937, Tate Archive TGA 8922.4.768 and 769.
[6] David 1992, p.210.
[7] Letter to Tate, 8 March 1955.
[8] William Townsend, The Townsend Journals: An Artist’s Record of his Times 1928-51, ed. Andrew Forge, London 1976, p.44.

[9] Stephen Spender, World Within World, London1977, pp.204-10, 257-61; David 1992, pp.188-217; information from Vicky Randall, daughter of Charles and Inez Madge.

[10] Quoted in Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, p.123.
[11] ‘William Coldstream: “Painting Given Subjects”’, interview with David Sylvester (1976), Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, April 1977, p.270.

[12] Quoted in Laughton 1986, p.157.
[13] Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.19-20.
[14] Albert Garrett, ‘The New Realism in English Art’, Studio, vol.147, no.735, 1954, p.163.

[15] Edward Le Bas, letter to Coldstream, nd [1947], Tate Archive TGA 8922.4.368.
[16] Letter, 8 March 1955.

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