Sir William Coldstream

Studio Interior


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1372 × 917 mm
frame: 1428 × 974 × 70 mm
Purchased 1962

Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas 1372 x 917 mm (54 x 36 1/8 in)
Inscribed by the artist on back in pen on central member of stretcher ‘WILLIAM COLDSTREAM | SLADE SCHOOL | GOWER St | WC1’ and in chalk on top member ‘The Studio’
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1962

William Coldstream and H.E. Du Plessis, London Artists Association, Cooling Galleries, London, March-April 1933 (29)
Euston Road School and Others, Wakefield City Art Gallery, May-June 1948, Harrogate, Sheffield, Brighton (21, as The Studio)
British Painting 1925-50: Second Anthology, Arts Council exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London, June-July 1951, Manchester City Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept. (13)
Exhibition by Members of the London Artists Association, tour 1953-4, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, Nottingham, South London Art Gallery, Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-upon-Hull, Aug.-Sept. 1953, Hove Art Gallery, March-April 1954, Portsmouth Art Gallery, April-May, Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln, June-July, Southend, July-Aug., Stockport, Sept.-Oct. (11)
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 (7, pl.5, as ‘The Studio’)
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 (6, repr. in col. p.49, as The Studio)

‘Art Exhibitions: London Artists’ Association’, Times, 22 March 1933
John Piper, ‘Younger English Painters II’, Listener, 29 March 1933, pp.490-2, repr. p.491
Anita Brookner, ‘London’, Burlington Magazine, vol.104, no.711, June 1962, p.727
Tate Gallery Review 1953-63 and Report 1962-3, London 1963, pp.49-50, repr. between pp.42 and 43
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.116-17
William Coldstream, ‘William Coldstream: “Painting Given Subjects”, interview with David Sylvester’, Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, April 1977, p.262, repr. pl.54
Dennis Farr, English Art 1870-1940, London 1978, p.294, pl. 109a
Catherine Lampert, William Coldstream: New Paintings, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay, London 1984, [p.7]
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, pp.18, 45, 47, 48-50, repr. p.49, fig.27
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.11-12, pl.19

John Rothenstein, British Art Since 1900, London 1962, pl.67 (as The Studio)
John Rothenstein, ‘The Tate Gallery’, Ambassador, no.11, 1962, p.53
Claude Rogers, ‘William Coldstream: Painter’, Studio, vol.163, no.829, May 1962, p.167
Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-1939, London and Bloomington, Indiana 1981, rev. ed. London and New Haven 1994, p.332, pl.162

Studio Interior is both unusual in Coldstream’s oeuvre and displays some of the features that would later come to characterise his work. It is the most abstracted of his paintings whilst being continuous, in several ways, with his later work.

The inscription on the stretcher presumably relates to a loan after Coldstream became professor of the Slade in 1949, as he told the Tate Gallery that the work was painted at his home at 6 Regent Square, close to London’s Euston Road, ‘towards the end of 1932 and finished in December of that year or early 1933’.[1] It was immediately preceded by The Table, 1932 (Bristol City Art Gallery)[2] and both works reflect the artist’s synthesis of his Slade training, the example of the major figures of modernist painting and contemporary critical writing. Coldstream’s work of 1928-9 had been influenced by Braque but he retrospectively saw his painting of the early 1930s as of the ‘Sickert, Matisse’ tendency, as opposed to those of his associates who especially admired the ‘Picasso-Braque point of view’.[3] He particularly associated both Studio Interior and The Table with the influence of Matisse; specifically, he said Studio Interior was indebted to ‘“The Studio, Quai St Michel”, 1916, which was hanging in the Gargoyle Club in Dean Street’.[4] As well as the studio theme, this debt is registered in the simple construction of the composition from linear elements and oblong forms. Coldstream seems to deliberately refer to his source by including a glass similar to that in the Matisse and, in The Table, by adding a metronome the form of which echoes the building in the Parisian background. In contrast, the muted colouring that would become typical of most of his subsequent work may be thought to reveal his debt to Sickert, then the subject of particular attention from Coldstream and his associates.

More broadly, the Matissean simplicity of Studio Interior may reflect his interest in the theory of ‘significant form’ as expounded by Roger Fry and Clive Bell, whose writings he read at that time. It may also relate to the studied pictorial construction of Cézanne, whose work was particularly valued in such Bloomsbury criticism. The painting may thus be associated with work by different artists which might loosely be related to modern art in Europe. Lawrence Gowing was later able to look back to Studio Interior as ‘one of the most “modern”’ English paintings of the time,[5] though this might be seen as something of an exaggeration if the painting is compared to the work of Ben Nicholson, for example. Paradoxically, John Piper associated the work with a general decline in the French influence on British art and described it in terms which anticipated later descriptions of Coldstream’s approach as empirical. He wrote that the artist seemed to have, ‘looked closely, and without adopting any mannerisms had “abstracted” his subject to serve his particular ends’.[6]

Coldstream wrote to the Tate, ‘The figure in my picture is, of course, myself seen in a mirror’.[7] However, the painting is not a simple self-portrait: the painter is further from the canvas than conventionally seen and appears to be painting the bust on the stool in the foreground. Such depictions of the artist’s work and professional space came to be common amongst the group of painters with which Coldstream was associated, though unlike such artists as Adrian Stokes or B.A.R. Carter, for example, he did not paint views of the life or cast rooms. However, he had previously produced a painting Artist and Model in 1928, a theme to which he would return in 1983.[8] This late work may be seen to embody the concern with the actual process of picture making which dominated Coldstream’s approach and a similar idea might have informed Studio Interior.

On the one hand, the work demonstrates how the basic characteristics of Coldstream’s painting practice were established at an early stage. Like his later canvases, its muted colours were thinly applied in several scumbled layers on a thin white ground. On the other hand, it is painted in a far looser way than his subsequent work, leaving areas of ground visible towards the bottom which make the picture especially reminiscent of Sickert’s work. Coldstream’s restricted palette of white, cobalt blue, black, raw and burnt umber and yellow ochre is equally Sickert-like.[9] This colouring was remarked upon by contemporary commentators: the art critic of The Times, finding the feeling of Studio Interior similar to that of Velázquez, whose Las Meninas is echoed by the composition, suggested that the artist was ‘deliberately restricting his palette until he has completely mastered tonal relations’.[10]

A number of compositional revisions - the bust, the figure of the painter and his canvas were all originally placed further back and to the right - suggest Coldstream had trouble with this work. Around the time that he finished it he told his friend John Rake of the confusion in his mind. ‘I have had great difficulty with my painting lately’, he wrote in March 1933, going on to assert his belief in the importance of ‘objective vision’ over the subjectivism of Surrealism.[11] He saw Impressionism as the key point of departure but also felt that ‘the logical development of the mainstream of European painting has led to photography. After Degas the camera’. However, he rejected a friend’s proposal that ‘the logical development of objectivism in painting must eventually lead to regarding the canvas itself as an object’ in the belief that ‘painting is the exploitation of vision & not material. And the picture, in essence, is an illusion’. He recognised in Manet a source more pertinent than the primitivism of the modernists: ‘We can’t believe in the gods and demons of the early Greeks the Egyptians or Savages though we may admire them, but we can believe in glasses & tablecloths ordinary women, in fact in light’. But, he conceded, ‘we can’t paint like that now’.[12]

A few years later, Coldstream related these questions to contemporary economic events. ‘The 1930 slump affected us all very considerably’, he recalled in 1937 and went on to say (perhaps with this painting in mind): ‘After 1930 I worked only from nature, but always in the direction of abstractions. That is to say that I did not alter or invent shapes, but selected very consciously from the objects I was painting, used a rather formalised colour and tone scheme and usually left out the features, if I was painting a head. Putting in any facial expression was absolutely taboo as being vulgar particularisation’.[13] In works like Studio Interior, Coldstream saw ‘the conflict between [his] natural curiosity about particular visual facts and the obligation to abstract and generalise which was imposed by current aesthetic theories’. This conflict, which is reflected by his retention of a steep perspective that contrasts with the flatness of his Matisse source, was exaggerated by his awareness of social problems arising from the slump. This political consciousness led to his conviction that ‘art ought to be directed to a wider public; whereas all ideas which I had learned to regard as artistically revolutionary ran in the opposite direction’.[14] Though such a degree of abstraction would not recur in his work, the desire for objectivity in painting would come to be a major determinant of Coldstream’s subsequent work and the basic ethos of Euston Road teaching. Around 1932-3, Coldstream’s associates were also producing semi-abstracted still lifes and figure subjects which in the case of Geoffrey Tibble, Edgar Hubert and Rodrigo Moynihan would finally develop into the Objective Abstractions of 1934-6. By August 1933, Coldstream had also begun to make abstract works, though his attempt at ‘Objective Abstraction’ failed and his belief in the public role of art prompted him to turn from painting to the documentary film movement and to join the GPO film unit in 1934.

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] Coldstream, letter to Tate Gallery, 27 Sept. 1962.
[2] Reproduced in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.75.
[3] Coldstream, ‘My Painting’, 1937, reprinted R.S. Lambert, ed., Art in England, Harmondsworth 1938, p.101.
[4] Letter, 27 Sept. 1962; L’Atelier, Quai St Michel, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

[5] Lawrence Gowing, ‘Introduction’, William Coldstream, exh. cat., Arts Council tour 1962, p.6.
[6] John Piper, ‘Younger English Painters II’, Listener, 29 March 1933, p.491.

[7] Letter, 27 Sept. 1962.
[8] Artist and Model, 1983, private collection, reproduced in Gowing and Sylvester 1990, p.105.

[9] Tate conservation files.
[10] ‘Art Exhibitions’, Times, 22 March 1933.

[11] Coldstream, letter to John Rake, 8 March 1933, Tate Gallery Archive 787.10.
[12] Ibid.

[13] ‘My Painting’, 1937, p.101.
[14] ibid., p.102.

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