Sir William Coldstream

The Right Reverend George Bell, D.D., Bishop of Chichester


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Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 908 × 711 mm
Presented by Dr Bell 1956

Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas 908 x 711 mm (35 3/4 x 28 in)
Inscribed by the artist on back, on central member of stretcher, in pencil ‘Feb 25, 26, 27 | March 5 6’, left.
Presented by Dr Bell, Bishop of Chichester 1956

Gift of the artist to Dr Bell, Bishop of Chichester

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 (53, pl.1, as ‘1954-5’)
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 (39, repr.)

Daily Mail, 18 Nov. 1954
‘Portrait of Bishop “A Bit Grim”’, Times, 18 Nov. 1954, p.5
Canon Mortlock, ‘Imitating Life’, Church Times, 10 Dec. 1954
‘Bishop’s New Portrait “Spit of Him”’, Portsmouth Evening News, 8 Oct. 1955
‘That picture’, [?Portsmouth] Evening News, 8 Feb. 1956
‘Bishop’s Portrait’, Worthing Herald, 30 March 1956
Tate Gallery Report 1955-6, London 1956, pp.22-3
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.115-16
Peter T.J. Rumley, ‘Sir William Coldstream: Catalogue Raisonné 1926-83 and Artistic Career 1908-45’, unpublished D.Phil thesis, University of Sussex, 1986, p.64, pl.93

Benedict Nicolson, ‘Painters to Watch 5: William Coldstream’, Observer, 27 Nov. 1960
Terence Mullaly, ‘Coldstream’s Sparkling Intimation of Reality’, Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1962, p.17
C.D. Jasper, George Bell: Bishop of Chichester, London 1967
‘Paintings by William Coldstream’, Exchange Diary, 1 Nov. 1990

For many years William Coldstream remained outside the art world of dealers and one-person exhibitions. As a result, his post-war reputation as a painter was based largely upon his work as a portrait painter. Because of his stated desire for an objective painting, he welcomed the predetermination of his subject and so, as David Sylvester has observed, was ‘one of the very few serious painters of our time who have rejoiced in the disciplines of the commissioned portrait’.[1] His depiction of the Rt Rev. George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, is typical of a host of portraits of politicians, senior administrators, academics and churchmen that he produced from the late 1930s onwards.

Dr Bell was one of the most prominent and controversial clergymen of his times. Born in 1883, he was ordained in 1907 and rose rapidly through the Church of England’s hierarchy. After a number of years at Canterbury, where he was Dean from 1924 to 1929, he became Bishop of Chichester at an unusually young age in 1929. His reputation was as a liberal: he worked extensively to forge links between different Christian denominations and had a particular interest in the trade union movement. His obituary in the Times recalled that in the early 1930s ‘he was sharply criticized in many quarters for his exposure of the anti-Christian trend of Hitlerism and its beginnings, and even more sharply, ten years later, for deprecating the allied policy of bombing cities and civilian homes in Germany’.[2] In 1942 he clashed with Anthony Eden over the foreign secretary’s refusal to aid moves to depose Hitler in Germany and it has been said that Winston Churchill prevented him from becoming Archbishop of Canterbury because of his criticism of ‘blanket bombing’.[3] Instead he remained at Chichester until his death in 1958. Bell established an association with contemporary art: he was an honorary life member of the Central Institute of Art and Design and sat on its Church and the Artist committee and had formed the Sussex Churches Art Council; as he explained in his article ‘The Church and the Artist’,[4] he had worked towards the ‘reassociation of religion and art’ in different media in the diocese of both Canterbury and Chichester.

Coldstream’s portrait was commissioned as a presentation to Bell to mark his silver jubilee as bishop in 1954. It was paid for with money raised by a subscription, organised by Lord Bessborough and the Bishop of Lewes, of over four thousand people worldwide. The artist confirmed that the dates inscribed on the stretcher refer to sittings. The portrait was painted at the Bishop’s Palace, Chichester over a total of thirty six sittings, starting at the end of February 1954 and continuing after the formal presentation at the Dome, Brighton on 1 October.[5] The painting had a hostile reception, however, as people felt the genial bishop had been given a pugnacious scowl. The Daily Mail quoted the Rev F. Parkin of Worthing’s conjecture that the portrait ‘would frighten children’ and Bell’s defence of the painting: ‘I have it on the excellent testimony of my wife that whatever I may think about the mood caught and fastened for ever upon the canvas, it does represent a not-completely absent side of my character’.[6] Coldstream withdrew the portrait, telling Bell on 24 October that he was ‘most unwilling to see Lord Bessborough and those subscribers to this portrait put into the position of sponsoring a picture they do not like or want’.[7] Another painting was to be commissioned for the palace and Coldstream himself suggested Middleton Todd, RA. The original portrait was given by the bishop to the Tate Gallery through the mediation of John Piper; Todd’s The Right Reverend G.K.A. Bell, D.D., Bishop of Chichester,[8] was shown at the Royal Academy in 1956 and now hangs in Chichester Cathedral.

Typically, despite the amount of time spent on it, Coldstream’s portrait combines fastidiousness with a lack of finish. In common with his nudes, such as Seated Nude (Tate T03074) and, most especially, Reclining Nude (Tate T02079), it demonstrates the way in which the marks that were the supposed tools of Coldstream’s attempt to get things ‘in the right place’ became deliberate pictorial devices. For example, what appears to be underdrawing in red paint has been applied around the hands, and more lightly around the eyes, to strengthen them. The red’s distinctiveness is emphasised by its slight solubility in water.[9] The work was painted in several thin layers with considerable use of scumbling and low impasto.

The portrait was on extended loan to Southampton City Art Gallery from June 1972 to October 1976; it hung in Church House, Westminster between September 1992 and January 1993 and has been on loan to Pallant House, Chichester since March 1993.

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] David Sylvester, William Coldstream, exhibition catalogue, Anthony d’Offay, London 1976, p.5.

[2] ‘Bishop Bell: An International Churchman’, Times, 4 Oct. 1958.
[3] Frank Field, ‘What of the Unsung Hero?’, Independent, 25 May 1992, p.17.
[4] George Bell, ‘The Church and the Artist’, Studio, vol.124, no.594, Sept. 1942, pp.81-92.

[5] William Coldstream, letter to Tate Gallery, 8 Feb. 1956.
[6] Daily Mail, 18 Nov. 1954.
[7] Quoted in Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.91.
[8] Reproduced Royal Academy Illustrated, London 1956, p.31.

[9] Tate conservation files.

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