Sir William Coldstream

Reclining Nude


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1016 × 1270 mm
frame: 1095 × 1355 × 70 mm
Purchased 1976

Display caption

Coldstream wanted to develop an objective manner of painting, transcribing onto canvas precisely what he saw before him. This supposed objectivity was most clearly shown by his technique of measuring the distances between different points on the body and marking them on the canvas with red paint. But these marks may also function as active parts of the image. For example, the clusters around the model’s nipples seem to inject an erotic undertone.Coldstream’s desire for precision and objectivity meant that he rarely decided a painting was finished, but simply stopped when he reached a deadline.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 1016 x 1270 mm (40 x 50 in)
Purchased from the artist via Anthony d’Offay (Knapping Fund) 1976

William Coldstream, Anthony d’Offay, London, Oct.-Nov. 1976, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh, Nov.-Dec. (8, as ‘1973-6’)
Eight Figurative Painters, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., Oct. 1981-Jan. 1982, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Ca., Jan.-March 1982 (29, repr. p.68)
The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art, Tate Gallery, London, July-Sept. 1984 (33, repr. in col. p.20)
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 (54, repr. in col. p.70)
The Painted Nude: From Etty to Auerbach, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Dec. 1992, Norwich Castle Museum, May-Sept. 1993 (20)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979, pp.38-41, repr.
Peter T.J. Rumley, ‘Sir William Coldstream: Catalogue Raisonné 1926-83 and Artistic Career 1908-45’, unpublished D.Phil thesis, University of Sussex, 1986, pp.84-7, pl.130

William Coldstream, ‘Painting Given Subjects: Interview with David Sylvester’, Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, April 1977, p.268, pl.62
‘The Prose of Painting’, Artist’s and Illustrator’s Magazine, no.50, Nov. 1990

In Reclining Nude, 1974-6, the last work that William Coldstream painted in his Slade School studio, one might see both the continuities and the changes between his early and late work. While the looseness of much of the brushwork is in sharp contrast to the taut regularity of the marking in, for example, the faces of Winifred Burger and Inez Spender (Tate T00339 and N05883 respectively), the lack of finish which was already evident in those early portraits reaches a climax with this nude. The small measuring marks that were hardly visible in the pre-war works become here a dominant motif of the painting.

Since the commission for Seated Nude, 1952-3 (Tate T03074) Coldstream had executed numerous renditions of the nude. He attributed this to the accessibility of models afforded by his position as professor at the Slade.[1] In its association with art school teaching and its consequent development as, in Kenneth Clark’s terms, ‘an end in itself and ... a source of independent plastic construction’,[2] the motif of the nude also offered an ideal vehicle for Coldstream’s attempt to develop an objective mode of painting. It was this aspect that had made the nude, and the life room study especially, one of the staple themes for Euston Road and Slade school artists. The apparent anonymity and detachment of the motif accommodated Coldstream’s stated desire to concentrate on the technical processes of painting. This professional imperative is signified in the painting by the canvas leaning against the back wall that clearly identifies the setting as the artist’s studio and so undermines any potential narrative interpretations.

The sitter for this work was a photographer, Sarah Quill, and an earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry has reproduced her account of its production.[3] The first session was on 30 August 1974, at which time Coldstream made preliminary drawings, and work on the painting finally ceased on 9 January 1976. During this extended period Coldstream retired from the Slade but his successor, Lawrence Gowing, allowed him to continue working on Reclining Nude, 1974-6 in the professor’s studio. Though Quill recalled having two hour sessions every Tuesday, the artist’s diaries show that they were less regular than that: there were often several in a single week and they varied in length.[4] For much of the time Coldstream kept a running total of the number of hours spent on the painting and by the end he appears to have devoted, in all, 121 1/2 hours to it.

In keeping with his established practice, the cessation of work was determined by a deadline (Christmas 1975, though he over-ran) rather than the painting reaching a particular point of resolution. In 1962 Coldstream had confirmed that he generally considered his pictures to be unfinished: ‘I’m not quite sure what finished means, but certainly finished means something carried a good deal further than most of my pictures’.[5] Norbert Lynton has associated this lack of resolution with his conception of painting as an attempt at the accurate rendition of visual reality:

Many of them look as though, tiring of his struggle to substantiate reality’s image on the canvas, Coldstream has given up in despair and left us with an unfinished, insubstantial shadow. What in fact happens is that he, like Cézanne before him, struggles to reconcile the demands of his peculiarly acute experience of the object with the demands of the canvas ... These are not reconcilable and, rather than compromise, Coldstream leaves them unreconciled.[6]

It is not insignificant that in 1965 an interview between Coldstream and Rodrigo Moynihan appeared alongside a translation by Sonia Brownell of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s seminal essay, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’.[7] Lynton’s supposition echoes Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of Cézanne in terms of existential uncertainty and his perpetual struggle for an unattainable perfection.

A lack of finish is, perhaps, more dominant in Reclining Nude, 1974-6 than in any other of Coldstream’s paintings. While the model’s body and, especially, her face are covered in a mass of small red (and a few blue) dashes, it nonetheless remains unresolved. The face is obscured by this matrix of measuring marks and adjustments to the line of the legs are still readily apparent. Quill recalled that, despite recording her precise position with stitching on the sheet on which she sat, something went wrong in Coldstream’s measuring of the composition and in August 1975 he announced, ‘“I’ve lost some inches somewhere, and will have to dock you together again like a space ship”’.[8] The painting’s hesitancies and the heavy reworking around the feet may result from that alteration. The background is very loosely and thinly painted and the pillows and sheet on which Quill rests and the space beneath include large areas of bare ground. What paint was applied to these lower areas was so heavily diluted that long drips have run down to the bottom edge.

Coldstream had employed a rigorous measuring method since his return to painting in 1937. The small vertical and horizontal marks, with which he marked the relative size and position of different elements, began to perform a denotative role in such wartime portraits as that of Havildar Ajmer Singh (Tate N05687). They became increasingly dominant in his subsequent work and could be said to reach a climax in Reclining Nude, 1974-6. The artist described the practice to Sylvester as ‘the old idea: you look at what you’re painting and you hold your pencil or brush out in the ... picture plane ... your arm straight out and the brush up vertically and you mark off with one eye shut’.[9] He acknowledged the various flaws in the system: the discrepancy between the flat picture plane and the three-dimensional world and the difference between viewing the world with one eye and the painting with two. However, Coldstream was not ‘in the least discontented with this nucleus of unreason in his style’,[10] and he, himself, described his measuring processes as ‘simply rituals and methods of somehow getting one going’.[11]

He employed this process as a means of producing a picture that was an objective representation of a set of predetermined visual data. He said that his work was an attempt to ‘get a thing in ... the right place’.[12] However, such claims to objectivity have been criticised from different perspectives. Peter Fuller considered what he described as ‘the reductio ad absurdum of English empirical painting’ in Marxist terms, arguing that, in contrast to Coldstream’s belief that such ‘prosaic empiricism in painting approaches a sort of transhistorical truthfulness ... in fact, he has produced images which could only have been painted by a member of the British bourgeoisie at ... a moment of profound conservatism’.[13]

Like the dominance of the commissioned portrait and the nude in his oeuvre, Coldstream’s technique may be related to the idea of professionalism that had been one of the key beliefs of the Euston Road school. Fuller gave this interpretation a biographical basis, suggesting that the artist sought out situations where professional skills may be validated to assuage his frustrated desire to be a doctor.[14] As Sylvester pointed out, the doctor and the painter share a common position: ‘A doctor has permission to scrutinize other people as he finds necessary, and the painter from the model is likewise a member of a privileged class for whom it is not rude to stare’.[15] In 1949, Coldstream, whose father was a general practitioner, recorded in his journal: ‘I feel still the doubts as to my suitability to being a professional painter ... I ought to have become a doctor’.[16]

Coldstream insisted that the increased visibility of the red marks was unintentional - ‘like having one’s shirt hanging out’.[17] However, the fact that they lie on top of the painting of the figure demonstrates how they took on another role. As in the earlier portrait of The Rt Revd George Bell, 1954 (Tate T00074), red (and here royal blue) was used to strengthen the outlines of the body and the pillow. The origin of the marks is not always clear as some, such as the dot within a circle above the sitter’s left hand, are literal descriptions of markings made on the back wall to ensure the maintenance of the same pose.[18] The artist suggested a formal function for the marks in likening their effect to music.[19]

The intrusion of the supposedly empirical measuring marks into the level of signification undermines the artist’s claims to objectivity. Quoting Sylvester’s observation that ‘very often in the nudes the breasts seem to have been painted on more’, Neil Sharp has argued that the concentration of marks around the nipples reveals a latent eroticism in the paintings.[20] Such an idea of latency is also suggested by Lawrence Gowing’s recollection that Coldstream ‘used to explain that he hated the internal stuff of emotional expressiveness; if he relaxed his vigilance it would come flooding out contaminating him’.[21]

Similarly, but more sinisterly, Sylvester has speculated that ‘the opaque red line traversing the luminous flesh of a nude could be the unlikely trace of a razor slash’.[22] One might contrast this with his description of Coldstream’s obsessive measuring as,

symptomatic of a concern that a respectful distance must be maintained between himself and things outside, a need to know precisely where they stand in relation to him, so that he can be sure of their apartness from him. And this apartness is perhaps the theme of his art, this unremitting insistence on the otherness of other beings and things.[23]

One can detect the influence of Adrian Stokes’s use of Kleinian theory in Sylvester’s juxtaposition of the concept of art as both an act of self-definition and of violence. Reclining Nude, 1974-6 would appear to serve as an effective illustration for his description of Coldstream’s measuring marks as ‘ostensibly functional, charmingly decorative, sinister in their suggestion of an impulse to damage the body while in the act of serving in its formation’.[24]

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] William Coldstream, ‘Painting Given Subjects: Interview with David Sylvester’, Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, April 1977, p.270.
[2] Kenneth Clark, The Nude, London 1956, 2nd ed. 1960, p.335.

[3] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979, pp.38-41.
[4] William Coldstream’s diaries, 1974 and 1975, Tate Archive TGA 8922.2.5 and TGA 8922.2.6.

[5] David Sylvester, ‘An Unpublished Interview, 1962’ in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.24.

[6] Norbert Lynton, ‘London Letter: Coldstream’, Art International, vol.6, no.7, 25 September 1962, p.45.

[7] Art and Literature, no.4, spring 1965.

[8] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979, p.40.

[9] Sylvester 1990, p.28.
[10] Lawrence Gowing, ‘Remembering Coldstream’, in Gowing and Sylvester 1990, p.20.
[11] Sylvester 1990, p.28.

[12] Ibid., p.27.
[13] Peter Fuller, ‘William Coldstream’, Studio International, vol.193, no.985, Jan.-Feb. 1977, p.61.

[14] Ibid., p.62.
[15] David Sylvester, William Coldstream, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay, London 1976, p.10.
[16] Coldstream journal, 24 August 1946, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.5.

[17] Coldstream 1977, p.269.
[18] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979.
[19] Gowing 1990, p.21.

[20] Neil Sharp, ‘Modernism and Art Education in Britain 1945-70’, unpublished MA dissertation, University of Sussex 1992, p.22.
[21] Lawrence Gowing, ‘Coldstream’, London Review of Books, vol.9, no.6, 19 March 1987.

[22] Sylvester 1976, p.8.

[23] David Sylvester, ‘Grey Eminence’, New Statesman and Nation, 27 April 1962, p.609.

[24] Ibid., p.8.

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