Sir William Coldstream

Orange Tree I


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 914 × 711 mm
frame: 1017 × 814 × 50 mm
Purchased 1991

Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 917 x 712 mm (36 1/8 x 28 1/16 in)
Inscribed by the artist on top canvas return in pencil ‘W COLDSREAM [sic.] ORANGE TREE 1975’
Purchased from Mrs Ann Stokes Angus 1991

Acquired from the artist by Mrs Ann Stokes Angus

William Coldstream, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Londn, Oct.-Nov. 1976, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh, Nov.-Dec. (7, as ‘Orange Tree’)

Paddy Kitchen, ‘Putting Things in the Right Place’, Times, 15 Oct. 1976
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, p.334, p.335, fig.217
Peter T.J. Rumley, ‘Sir William Coldstream: Catalogue Raisonné 1926-83 and Artistic Career 1908-45’, unpublished D.Phil thesis, University of Sussex, 1986, pp.83-4, pl.129

Also reproduced:
Mark Glazebrook, ‘Talking to Coldstream’, London Magazine, vol.16, no.1, April/May 1976, p.93

Orange Tree I is one of a number of William Coldstream’s works that are demonstrably set in the home of the writer and painter Adrian Stokes. Following Stokes’s death, his widow Ann gave Coldstream - an old friend and near neighbour - the use of his old studio in their house at 20 Church Row, Hampstead in May 1973. At the same time that this work was painted there, the artist worked on Reclining Nude (Tate T02079) in his studio at the Slade and on the first of the series of views from the Department of the Environment in Marsham Street known as Westminster I-X .[1]

According to the artist’s diary, he started Orange Tree I on 30 October 1974. Peter Rumley’s assertion that he finished it on 12 November would appear to be mistaken,[2] as the last recorded session was on 5 December, by which time he had spent twenty-five and a half hours on it.[3] As there are no entries for the first eight months of 1975, it is uncertain when he ceased work. That his previous still life - Still Life with Daisies I, 1974 (private collection)[4] - had required approximately seventy-five sessions of between one and two hours each,[5] would suggest that Orange Tree I would have required a considerable amount of work after 5 December.

This understated image of a miniature orange tree was one of several still lifes of potted plants executed by the artist in the mid-1970s. It is the first of a series of three pictures; the same plant is shown closer-to in Orange Tree II, 1978 (private collection) and from a different angle in Orange Tree III, 1978 (private collection);[6] in both it is seen to be more developed. The panelling of the wall confirms that Orange Tree I was painted in the upstairs sitting room of 20 Church Row where Seated Nude, 1951-2 (Tate T03074), which is partially visible beyond the table, then hung. The manner of these still lifes, along with the views of Westminster, might be thought to be more tightly controlled and finished than Coldstream’s earlier work. Like the nudes, they particularly have the quality of studies and the recurrent choice of such a prosaic subject may reflect the artist’s desire to carry out technical and pictorial researches without the distraction of intrusive motifs.

Despite its degree of resolution Orange Tree I includes areas of bare ground and much of the drawing - all of which was done in paint rather than pencil - remains visible. The brushmarking is generally evident, the paint is typically thin and in places has been scraped back. The work is notable for the density of the measuring marks around the elements of the plant. These are predominantly red where they seem intended to fix the position of the orange fruit and royal blue or yellow for the leaves; others are incised in the paint. Red marks also appear in the painting on the wall; some of these are representations of such marks in the original nude and others serve to locate it in the current composition. These apparently functional devices had proliferated and become increasingly dominant in Coldstream’s work from the 1950s to the 1970s. That they may be seen to serve as much of a decorative function as a technical one is borne out by the adjustments that were made to the panelling of the wall in the background. The vertical element towards the left hand side was moved further left and remains unfinished or unresolved below the level of the dado. The curvature of the table top and the flower pot also required adjustment. The precise rendering of the plant is contrasted with the vagueness of the table legs and the ambiguous relationship of wall and floor that results from the inconsistency between the red area in the bottom left hand corner and the green to the right.

The inclusion of a fragment of an earlier work introduces an autobiographical element and serves to validate a claimed authenticity. Since his return to painting in 1937 Coldstream’s art had been predicated on a negotiation of realism and modernism. His insistence upon the objective representation of normal vision resisted the political demands of social realism of the 1930s while the measuring marks, which act as signifiers of this empirical approach, have been seen as ‘a stylistic investment in Modern art’.[7] The apparently random framing of the composition, which the ‘picture within a picture’ highlights, is a device borrowed from Degas to establish the work’s realism.

Just as the paintings made at the Slade, such as Reclining Nude, include the professional paraphernalia of the artist’s studio, so Coldstream often included details of the interior of 20 Church Row in the canvases he painted there. He discussed this aspect of Seated Nude, 1973-3 (private collection),[8] which was painted in the same room as the Orange Tree series, with the critic David Sylvester. He explained that he had not moved the radiogram behind the model as he wanted to see what he could make from a predetermined situation. Though the painting is clearly composed and employs a host of stylistic and technical devices, he insisted on his reliance upon expediency, thinking, ‘that’s the situation. I’ll see what I can do with it’, and accepted Sylvester’s suggestion that his interest lay in the ‘challenge of dealing with what is there’.[9] Though the measuring marks actually serve a pictorial as well as technical function, their presence and the apparent banality of the motif serve to demonstrate the claim that Coldstream was purely interested in the process of painting as a reproduction of an objective visual reality.

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] Westminster I-X, reproduced in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-1987, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, pp.96, 99, 100, 104, nos.50, 52, 59, 74.
[2] 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.83-4.

[3] Coldstream’s appointment diary, 1974, Tate Archive TGA 8922.3.3.
[4] Reproduced in Gowing and Sylvester 1990, p.96.
[5] Coldstream’s appointment diary, 1974, Tate Archive TGA 8922.3.3.

[6] Reproduced in Rumley 1986, pl.146 and p.101 respectively.

[7] Neil Sharp, ‘Modernism and Art Education in Britain 1945-70’, unpublished MA dissertation, University of Sussex, 1992, p.22.

[8] Reproduced in Gowing and Sylvester 1990, p.95.
[9] William Coldstream, ‘Painting Given Subjects: Interview with David Sylvester’, Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, April 1977, p.271.


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