Sir William Coldstream

Man with a Beard


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 610 × 406 mm
frame: 790 × 602 × 69 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1940

Display caption

Coldstream said that he ‘wanted to paint people’. During the 1930s he regularly painted portraits of people he encountered, from poets to businessmen. This objective portrayal of an old man dressed in working clothes is typical of Coldstream’s work when he was teaching at the Euston Road School.

The sitter, Mr Wall, regularly modelled for Coldstream and Victor Pasmore during 1939. The anonymity of the title, however, indicates Coldstream’s interest in the sitter as a type rather than as an identifiable likeness.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 610 x 406 mm (24 x 16 in)
Inscribed by the artist on canvas return in pencil ‘William Coldstream 8 Fitzroy St. W1 (Man with a Beard)’ and on top stretcher member ‘No 2’
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1940

Chantrey Purchase from the artist 1940

United Artists’ Exhibition in Aid of the Lord Mayor’s Red Cross and St John Fund and the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution, Royal Academy, London, Jan.-March 1940 (1220)
Tate Gallery’s Wartime Acquisitions: Second Exhibition, National Gallery, London, June-July 1945 (14)
Exhibition of the Chantrey Collection, Royal Academy winter exhibition, London, Jan.-March 1949 (249)
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 (29, as ‘1939-40’)

Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.114-15
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, pp.158, 203, repr. p.159, fig.90
Peter T.J. Rumley, ‘Sir William Coldstream: Catalogue Raisonné 1926-83 and Artistic Career 1908-45’, unpublished D.Phil thesis, University of Sussex, 1986, p.37, pl.48

Alastair Gordon, ‘Prophets and High Priests’, Artist, vol.102, no.5, issue 675, May 1987, p.34

The sitter for this portrait was a Mr Wall; the artist said that ‘he was not a professional model but was glad to come and sit for [Victor] Pasmore and myself from time to time during the autumn of 1939’.[1] The painting was made in Coldstream’s studio at 8 Fitzroy Street where Pasmore, whose portrait of Wall was destroyed, was a neighbour.

Despite this identification, the anonymity of the title indicates Coldstream’s interest in the sitter as a generic subject rather than as an identifiable likeness. A few years earlier he had suggested the distinction in his mind between portraits and more generalised paintings of heads. In 1936 he told his friend John Rake that he was going to paint W.H. Auden’s mother but that he was ‘not much interested in doing anything but faces at the moment ... As it is I have only one head I am pleased with’;[2] this was his portrait of Miss Anrep (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa).[3] He went on to discuss an idea which, even if partly ironic, indicated his interest in facial types and the relationship of physiognomy to character. He would like to stage, he said, an ‘exhibition of heads and people sometime. I should like to have elaborate titles & sort of who’s who notices - [...] - date of birth - hobbies - illnesses - sex record - underneath’.[4] This idea, and the inclusion in the subject’s sexual history most especially, reflects contemporary interest in psychoanalysis, an area of enquiry with which Coldstream’s associates, Adrian Stokes and W.H. Auden, were seriously engaged.

That there might have been a socio-political dimension to Coldstream’s interest in facial types is suggested by his hope that he would find subjects to paint during his 1938 visit to Bolton. Before the trip, he told Rake that he and Graham Bell were going to Bolton to paint landscapes, but he hoped ‘to do some drawings for a picture of whatever people I can find to draw ... we are going to stay with Tom Harrison, the Mass Observer! He knows lots of people in Bolton, I’m told, so that would be useful’.[5] For the two painters, as for Mass Observation, Bolton represented the quintessential northern industrial town and so Coldstream would, in all probability, have expected the people he planned to paint to have been from the urban working class. The degree to which such an encounter might have been seen as extraordinary and extreme may be deduced from George Orwell’s 1936 description of his stay amongst the working people in The Road to Wigan Pier. The man’s cap in Man with a Beard probably marks him as of the working class, in which case the contrast of his anonymity with the identification of Coldstream’s more usual sitters is especially marked.

The painting of Man with a Beard has been said to demonstrate particular authority,[6] and it does appear to be more resolved and less tentative than Coldstream’s other contemporary works. The rendering of the eyes in the shadow of the sitter’s cap is blurred and yet more clearly defined than in the portraits of Inez Spender or Winifred Burger (Tate T00339). The subtlety of the handling is extended to the man’s beard which has a blueish haze where it catches the light. The technique focuses attention on the face as the brushwork becomes broader and looser as the eye moves outwards from it. In the face and beard, Coldstream used his typical short, vertical brushwork but in the background the marks are larger and more rapidly applied. That the image was built up with several layers of thin glaze is especially evident in the man’s coat where one can see that the dark shadows were painted first and a pale purplish film was put over the whole area followed by a darker brown wash. The purple underglaze, the pink background and the predominance of pink and purple hues in the face establish the picture’s overall colouring. Along the lapel one can see that the image was loosely drawn in with paint first and a few measuring marks can be seen. The conjunction of these with the loosely applied glazes may suggest that Coldstream’s working method was not as firmly established as it would later become. The dark band down the right hand side helps to balance the composition.

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] William Coldstream, letter to Tate Gallery, 8 March 1955, Tate catalogue files.

[2] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, undated [3rd quarter 1936], Tate Archive TGA 787.18
[3] Repr. Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.76
[4] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, undated [3rd quarter 1936], Tate Archive TGA 787.18

[5] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, 6 April 1938, Tate Gallery Archive 787.23

[6] Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, p.158


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