Sir William Coldstream

Seated Nude


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1067 × 707 mm
frame: 1125 × 767 × 73 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

Coldstream wanted to develop a method of painting which objectively recorded the perceived world. This led to a painstaking process of measurement, transcription and slight adjustments. The model for this work sat at least thirty times, for about two hours each.Coldstream rarely considered a work to be definitively finished. His tentative approach is made clear by the fact that his measuring marks remain visible across the surface of the painting, including the model’s skin. This element of doubt and hesitancy was related at the time to existentialist philosophy and had a parallel in the paintings of Alberto Giacometti.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 1067 x 707 mm (42 x 27 7/8 in)
Inscribed by the artist on top canvas return ‘William Coldstream | Painted for Adrian Stokes’
Purchased from Mrs Ann Stokes Angus (Grant-in-Aid) 1983

Commissioned by Adrian Stokes, 1952 and passed to his widow, later Mrs Ann Stokes Angus, 1972

Critic’s Choice: David Sylvester, Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, July 1958 (2, repr., as ‘Portrait of a Model)
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 (50, pl.23, as ‘1951-2’)
From Life: English Art and the Model Today, Camden Arts Centre, London, Jan. 1968 (31, repr. p.10, as Sitting Woman)
Eight Figurative Painters, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn., Oct. 1981-Jan. 1982, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Ca., Jan.-March 1982 (24, repr. P.63)
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 (36, repr. in col. p.62)

Alan Clutton-Brock, ‘Round the London Galleries’, Listener, vol.60, 10 July 1958, pp.60-1, repr.
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, pp.127-8, repr.
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, p.334, fig.216 and pl.XVI (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.61-2, pl.89
Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, New Haven and London 1998, p.188, repr. p.189, pl.84

Claude Rogers, ‘William Coldstream: Painter’, Studio, vol.163, no.829, May 1962, p.171, as Seated Nude Miss Hoyer (col.)
William Coldstream, ‘A Nonconformist: Interview with Rodrigo Moynihan’, Art and Literature, no.4, spring 1965, p.210
Richard Shone, The Century of Change: British Painting Since 1900, London 1977, pl.121
‘Retrospective de l’oeuvre de Sir William’, City Magazine International, Sept. 1990
James Malpas, Realism, 1997, p.25, pl.16 (col.)

That William Coldstream allowed two portrait commissions - those of Lord Jowitt and Bertrand Hallward - to lapse has been held up as evidence that his appointment as Slade professor in 1949 distracted him from his artistic production. Seated Nude, the first of a long series of nudes, was commissioned three years later by the writer and painter Adrian Stokes in an attempt to get him back to ‘serious painting’.[1] Stokes also arranged a commission for a portrait of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein but this was never completed.

An earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry, based on the artist’s recollection, followed the catalogue of his 1962 retrospective in dating Seated Nude to 1951-2.[2] In fact, Coldstream’s journal and diaries reveal that it was executed roughly a year later. On 4 September 1952 he lunched with Stokes who stated his wish to commission a nude.[3] The first sitting with the model, Miss Mond, was on 10 September when Coldstream drew for two hours and, after a similar drawing session the following day, he started painting on the twelfth.[4] How long the nude took to complete and how diligently he worked at it is uncertain. According to his diary, he had almost daily sittings with Miss Mond from the day he began until 29 October.[5] Neither the diary nor the journal has entries for the rest of that year but a further five sittings are recorded between 5 and 11 January 1953.[6] It may be that some sessions went unrecorded but the sudden intensity of the last sittings (the final two were on Saturday and Sunday) may suggest that the artist wished to complete the painting before the beginning of term. However, Peter Rumley has suggested that it was probably finished in the summer of 1953. His estimate was apparently based on William Townsend’s observation, towards the end of March, that the work was ‘still hardly covered with paint’.[7] At that time, Townsend noted, Coldstream had ‘had thirty six sittings of about 1 1/2 hours each and counts on needing about 15 more’.[8] That further sessions are not recorded in the diary is especially peculiar as regular appointments with a Miss Selfe throughout the spring and summer and with Miss Lewisohn during the long vacation suggest that Coldstream was already working on further nudes.

Though they were to become a staple part of his output from 1952 onwards, Coldstream had only painted one nude prior to Seated Nude, 1952-3, this was Standing Nude, 1937 (private collection)[9] which was painted in the Euston Road school. His enthusiastic adoption of the motif may be related to the same set of values as the empirical practice that his measuring marks signify. Nudes and life room studies were common in the work of other Euston Road artists, as their anonymity and position within artistic tradition made them ideal vehicles for exercises in what was intended to be an objective mode of painting. This view of the genre would be articulated by Kenneth Clark a little later when he discussed ‘the nude as an end in itself and as a source of independent plastic construction’.[10] Such an apparently detached subject was thus ideal for Coldstream’s desire for an empirical art that rejected the expression of subjective emotion: ‘there is a sense I feel in painting from the model that somehow it has less to do with oneself’, he said, ‘there is a certain impersonal quality ... it is something that is detached from me ... I’m not too personally involved’.[11]

This objectivity extended to the pose of the sitter and her setting. What Townsend described as the ‘severe view’ of the woman in Seated Nude may be explained by the artist’s assertion that he allowed his models to find a position that is comfortable as it further narrowed his own intervention.[12] Nevertheless, in Miss Mond’s slightly raised, seated position one might find echoes of Matisse’s Carmelina, 1903 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).[13]

Coldstream’s insistence that this work was primarily an exercise in representational painting is reflected in the fact that the context for the sitter is the artist’s studio. Though the screens that provide the backdrop here are less specific, he often highlighted the fact that his nudes are located in this professional space. In Two Nudes, 1953-4 (private collection),[14] the figures are separated by an easel and both Seated Nude, 1959-60 (private collection)[15] and Reclining Nude, 1974-6 (Tate T02079) include stacked canvases in the background. The emphasis placed on the process of painting by the candid inclusion of studio paraphernalia, which also became a characteristic of the work of Lucian Freud, had been seen most notably in the paintings of Alberto Giacometti, such as Annette in the Atelier with Chariot and Four Figures on a Pedestal, 1950 (private collection, London).[16] According to David Sylvester, Giacometti was ‘the contemporary whom Coldstream admire[d] above all’ and the critic discussed their work in similar ways.[17]

Seated Nude illustrates how Coldstream had developed a looser painting practice than the regular system of small parallel brushmarks that had characterised such pre-war works as On the Map (Tate T03068). Its technique and style also reflect the increasing prominence of the supposed measuring marks that he claimed to be the ‘unconscious’ traces of his attempts to get his subject ‘in the right place’.[18] The very dilute paint was applied mostly in thin scumbles, though with some thicker, more opaque areas, over a commercially prepared ground. The brushmarking is smaller and more tightly controlled around the model’s face than in the loosely applied background. The canvas appears to have been restretched at some point and horizontal charcoal lines near the top and bottom edges suggest that Coldstream may have intended the composition to have been smaller. The colour range is typically limited, the whole painting seeming to be suffused in a green light. The tones of green are only modulated by the small vertical and horizontal red dashes which appear to establish the position of the different elements of the model’s form. Less obviously, charcoal marks along the top and left hand edges locate the figure within the overall field of the canvas. In contrast to these, many of the more dominant red and brown markings appear to be over the top of the paint rather than under it, becoming part of the image’s representation rather than merely technical devices. They proliferate around the face and, especially, at the nipples and navel. Red was also used to outline the arms and legs, a technique which can be seen even more loosely employed around the hands in Coldstream’s portrait of Bishop Bell (Tate T00074).

In an echo of his writing on Giacometti, Sylvester has implied that Coldstream’s interest in the accurate location of his subject within the picture may be associated with existentialism. The artist’s process of measuring, he wrote, is

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.[19]

Sylvester is also one of the writers who have pointed out that, despite the artist’s insistence on their purely technical function, the measuring marks came increasingly to play a representational function. Since the wartime portraits, such as Havildar Ajmer Singh (Tate N05108), the red marks had provided colour and definition to key features: principally the eyes, mouth and, in the nudes, the nipples. In this last case, it has been suggested that ‘the heightened colour of these marks by-passes their measurement function and instead [they] have representational connotations, heightened and eroticised’.[20] Such a reading of Coldstream’s work reveals how his claim to an objective rendition of the model has been undermined by feminist critiques of the nude. In a refutation of Clark’s position, writers have demonstrated how the theme objectifies woman whilst also bearing a codified eroticism. The context of the artist’s studio and the emphasis on the painting process that it signifies may be thought of as counters to such overtones.

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] Peter Rumley, ‘Catalogue’ in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990. p.90.

[2] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, p.127.
[3] Coldstream journal, 1952, Tate Archive TGA 8922.1.11.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Coldstream’s appointment diary, 1952, Tate Archive TGA 8922.3.3.
[6] Coldstream’s appointment diary, 1953, Tate Archive TGA 8922.3.3.
[7] Townsend journal, 24 March 1953, quoted in Rumley 1990.
[8] Ibid.

[9] Reproduced in Gowing and Sylvester 1990, p.78.
[10] Kenneth Clark, The Nude, London 1956, 2nd ed. 1960, p.335.
[11] William Coldstream, ‘Painting Given Subjects: Interview with David Sylvester’ (20 October 1976), Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, April 1977, p.266.

[12] Entry for 24 March 1953, William Townsend’s Journals, University College, London Archive; David Sylvester, William Coldstream, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay, London 1976, p.5.
[13] Reproduced in colour in Jack Flam, Matisse: The Man and his Art 1869-1918, London 1986, p.95, pl.77.

[14] Reproduced in Gowing and Sylvester 1990, p.90.
[15] Reproduced ibid., p.93.
[16] Reproduced in colour in Reinhold Hohl, Alberto Giacometti: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing, London 1972, p.137.
[17] Sylvester 1976, p.9.

[18] Lawrence Gowing, ‘Remembering Coldstream’ in Gowing and Sylvester 1990, p.19.

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

[20] Neil Sharp, ‘Modernism and Art Education in Britain 1945-70’, unpublished MA dissertation, University of Sussex 1992, p.23.


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