Sir William Coldstream

Winifred Burger


Not on display

Sir William Coldstream 1908–1987
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 790 × 562 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1960

Display caption

Coldstream studied at the Slade School of Art and then tried to make his living as a professional artist. Shortage of money, however, forced him to teach and, from 1934 to 1937, to work with the pioneering documentary film-maker, John Grierson, at the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit. In 1937 Coldstream and others founded the Euston Road School of Drawing and Painting. This was Coldstream's first portrait on his return to full-time painting. It was commissioned by the sitter's husband and painted at the Burgers' flat in Upper Park Road, Hampstead. The portrait surived the bombing of Burgers' flat during the war.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 790 x 562 mm (31 1/8 x 22 1/8 in)
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1960

Commissioned by the sitter’s husband S.G.H. Burger, sold after his death to the Leicester Galleries, London 1959, from whom purchased by Adrian Stokes 1960; Chantrey Purchase from Adrian Stokes 1960

Cross-Section of English Painting 1938, Wildenstein and Co., London, March-April 1938 (33, as Mrs Burger)
Younger British Painters, Contemporary Art Society, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1939 (17, as Mrs Burger)
An Exhibition of Paintings by Members of the Euston Road Group, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, May-June 1941 (3, as Mrs Berger)
Euston Road School, Arts Council tour, York City Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct. 1948, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Oct.-Nov., Coleg Harlech, Nov.-Dec., Manchester City Art Gallery, Dec. 1948-Jan. 1949, Doncaster Art Gallery and Museum, Jan., Lewis Textile Museum, Blackburn, Feb. 1949 (12, as Portrait of Mrs Burger, 1937/8)
Ten Decades: A Review of British Taste 1851-1951, Institute for Contemporary Arts and Arts Council exhibition, Royal Society of British Artists Galleries, London, Oct. 1951 (214, as Portrait of Mrs S.G.H. Burger)
New Year Exhibition 1960, Leicester Galleries, London, Jan. 1960 (82, as Portrait of Mrs Winifred Burger, 1947)
Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London April-Aug. 1960 (14)
William Coldstream, South London Art Gallery, April-May 1962 (13, pl.10, as Mrs Burger, 1937)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (9)
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 (9, repr. in col. p.54)

Anthony Blunt, ‘Exhibitions’, Spectator, vol.160, no.5726, 25 March 1938
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.116
Richard Morphet, British Painting 1910-45, London 1967, p.[17], pl.27
Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School: A Study in Objective Painting, Aldershot 1986, pp.119, 122, 207, repr. p.123, fig.72
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.19-20, 114, pl.26

Thomas McGreevy, ‘William Coldstream: Draughtsman in Paint’, Studio, vol.119, no.564, March 1940, p.94
Royal Academy Illustrated, London 1960, p.8
Tate Gallery Report 1959-60, London 1960, p.17
John Rothenstein, British Art Since 1900, London 1962, pl.67
John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.257
Norman Reid, The Tate Gallery, London 1969, p.154
Guide to the Collections of the Tate Gallery, London 1975, p.48
The Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion to the National Collection of British and Modern Foreign Art, London 1979, p.110 (col.)
Simon Wilson, British Art: From Holbein to the Present Day, London 1979, p.150
Judith Bumpus, ‘The Euston Road School’, Art and Artists, no.198, March 1983, p.16

Coldstream’s portrait of Winifred Burger was commissioned by the sitter’s husband, S.G.H. Burger, a Civil Servant with an interest in painting, after the artist had moved into their street, Upper Park Road, Hampstead, towards the end of 1935. Mrs Burger (née Blacket, sister of Prof. P.M.S. Blackett), who had trained as an architect, had known Coldstream since he was a child. The work was executed at the Burgers’ flat and took, by Mrs Burger’s account, about sixty sittings.[1] According to Coldstream these were spread over about six months.[2]

This work was previously dated 1936-7 as Coldstream had been unable to recall with certainty in which year it was painted and had suggested that its production might have spanned the two years.[3] Mrs Burger thought it ‘must have been 1936’ but also said it was executed ‘about the same time’ as his portrait of W.H. Auden, which was in fact begun in June 1937. This later dating is confirmed by Coldstream’s correspondence with his friend Dr John Rake. He wrote on 17 April 1937 that he had ‘left the GPO [General Post Office] yesterday’ and was ‘negotiating with a commissioned portrait’.[4] If this work took six months to paint, it is possible that he was referring to discussions with Mr Burger, as he wrote in August or September from Helen Anrep’s Suffolk home that he had painted portraits of ‘Isherwood, Spender, Colebrook and Auden and [was] in the middle of one of a woman who lives in our road in London which I hope to finish when I get back’.[5] While in Suffolk, he was also painting his On the Map (Tate T03068). The re-dating of Mrs Winifred Burger to 1937 undermines Peter Rumley’s description of it as ‘Coldstream’s first commission on his return to full-time painting’.[6]

The first portrait which Coldstream considered of any consequence, painted at week-ends while he was still with the GPO, was of Anastasia Anrep, daughter of Boris and Helen Anrep; it was bought by Kenneth Clark after it was shown at the 1936 London Group exhibition. As his letter to Rake demonstrated, Coldstream completed several portrait commissions for friends during the next few years. He painted the writers W.H. Auden (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin ), Christopher Isherwood (whereabouts unknown), and Stephen Spender (private collection),[7] all in 1937, Spender’s wife Inez (Tate N05883) and friends such as Sonia Brownell (1939, private collection).[8] He received several more public commissions in the same period, such as portraits of E.A. Smith-Rewse, 1937-8 for Shell Trading and Transport Co. (Southampton City Art Gallery) and of the publisher Sir Humphrey Milford, 1938 for Oxford University Press (Ann and Vivian Ridler).[9]

For the personal subjects Coldstream employed a more intimate composition, usually showing just the head and shoulders. In the latter part of 1936 he had told Rake that he was ‘not much interested in doing anything but faces’, suggesting that for him the portraits served a more generic purpose than purely representing a likeness. That Mrs Burger is shown half-length may reflect, then, the nature of the commission, the pose falling between the intimacy of W.H. Auden and the formality of such works as Sir Humphrey Milford. Coldstream was unusual amongst modern painters in welcoming portrait commissions rather than seeing them as merely financially expedient. This stemmed from his political position. Since the Slump he had been concerned about the relationship between art and the general public and it was this that had prompted him to largely abandon painting to work on documentary films which he saw as a more popular and modern medium of communication. Subsequently, for him and his associates the attempt to formulate a modern art with a wider public appeal included a belief in the necessary professionalism of the artist. For this reason, the commissioned portrait was a vital component of both the economic and theoretical structures within which they worked.

In 1937 he explained how his belief that ‘photography had forced painting into a position of permanent preciousness’ was undermined by his experience of film and how he became ‘convinced ... that the provinces of photography and painting overlapped only to a very small extent’.[10] It was around this moment of recommitment to painting that Coldstream developed the style and practice which, with some minor variation, would characterise his work for the rest of his career. While retaining his socialist politics, Coldstream rejected the possibility of social realism - then advocated by such left-wing groups as the Artists International Association (AIA) - and worked from the belief that the best means of bridging the gap between the modern artist and the public was through a completely objective art form. To this end he developed a working practice based on a concept of disinterested vision and measurement in an attempt to dispel the personal and subjective. As David Sylvester would later put it, he showed that art was not an ‘ivory tower’ by echoing the objective reporting of the documentary film and painting the ‘ordinary ordinarily’.[11] Coldstream would later explain why he avoided invention: ‘there’s a certain impersonal quality one can get if one works very strictly, objectively as it were, from nature, which doesn’t happen to my work if I’m working out of my head’.[12]

Coldstream’s position was echoed in other fields of cultural production. It was similar to the theory of documentary film and paralleled the attitude of the writers with whom he was associated who, in Stephen Spender’s assessment, ‘were extremely non-political with half of themselves and extremely political with the other half’.[13] Coldstream’s close friend Graham Bell gave a more political tone to his analysis in his pamphlet The Artist and his Public (1939). There he associated the decadence of modern art with the snobbishness of its supporters and attributed a loss of artistic craft to the decadence of capitalist society. Thus, his call for a popular art was an appeal for a revival of technical skill in which the ‘honest craftsman’ was contrasted with the ‘deliberate fraudulence’ of the Royal Academy and the ‘self-deception’ of the modernists.[14] Anthony Blunt, a campaigner for politically engaged realism, held the portrait of Winifred Burger up as indicative of Coldstream’s superiority and historical relevance. Claiming that the painting gave him ‘as much pleasure as any... produced by an English artist since the war’, he contrasted its honesty with the ‘shocks, ingenuities [and] obscurities’ of Surrealism and consoled the artist that ‘the future belongs to him, but Picasso belongs to the past’.[15]

Measuring marks, the indicators of Coldstream’s empirical approach which would proliferate to become his trademark, are visible in places; most are faint, though there is one bright red intersection between the buttons of Mrs Burger’s blouse. The work is painted to differing degrees of finish in a manner which also became typical. Most of the working of the blouse is blue-black paint underdrawing and large areas of ground were left bare. The background was loosely painted with broad strokes in contrast to the fine cross-hatching of the handling of the face and arms. These were thinly painted with small, vertical strokes in layers of progressively darker tones, in a manner derived both from the Slade School drawing technique of Henry Tonks (Coldstream’s tutor) and from Cézanne’s painting. This technique reflects Coldstream’s desire for a minimum of incident and expression and his insistence upon the flatness of the picture surface, an aspect which he later identified as fundamental to his approach and associated with Adrian Stokes’s theory of carving in relation to painting in Colour and Form, 1937.[16] The denial of space is also indicated by his toning down of the profile by the small hatchings across the line between Mrs Burger’s face and the background.

John Piper later summarised the qualities of such works:

A Coldstream portrait is above all tentative. There is no easy brilliance or dash, nothing hit-or-miss about it. The paint is thin and the form developed by means of a lot of short, dry lines, ranked together or hatched. One form dies into another without a boundary line, or through a little series of boundary lines that suggest an area that is indefinite and unconstrained.[17]

This painting was buried under rubble for some time when the Burgers’ flat was hit by a bomb during the Second World War. Though the artist told the Tate Gallery that this did not ‘appear to have done it any harm’,[18] close examination has revealed multiple small scratches consistent with the effect of flying glass splinters. Only one of these scratches, on the sitter’s left shoulder, appears to have been retouched. Possibly related to this incident is a change in the size of the painting’s stretcher. That an unvarnished, though painted, one inch strip along the bottom of the composition was at one time turned over is clearly evident from the filled in tack holes along it. A strip of wood has been added to the stretcher to enable this strip to be restored to the visible image. Why part of the original image should have been obscured is not known, though it is possible that the canvas had to be attached to a smaller stretcher after the bombing. The re-adjustment was clearly made in or before 1960 as the extra strip is visible in the reproduction in Royal Academy Illustrated of that year. Though an unreliable source, dimensions in exhibition catalogues may indicate an approximate date when the canvas was reduced. The work was listed as 31 x 22 inches in 1949 in the Arts Council’s Euston Road School catalogue, but as 30 x 22 inches in the catalogue of the Institute of Contemporary Arts’s Ten Decades exhibition two years later.

Chris Stephens
August 1998

[1] Winfred Burger, letter to Tate Gallery, 5 May 1960.
[2] Coldstream, letter to Tate Gallery, 28 April 1960.

[3] Ibid.
[4] Coldstream letter to Dr John Rake, 17 April 1937, Tate Archive TGA 787.20.
[5] Coldstream letter to Rake, n.d. [Sept. 1937], Tate Archive TGA 787.21
[6] Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-87, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.77.

[7] Reproduced ibid., pp.10, 77 respectively.
[8] Reproduced ibid., p.82.
[9] Reproduced ibid., pp.79, 81 respectively.

[10] Coldstream, ‘My Painting’, 1937, reprinted R.S. Lambert, ed., Art in England, Harmondsworth 1938, p.101.
[11] David Sylvester, ‘Grey Eminence’, New Statesman and Nation, 27 April 1962, p.609.
[12] William Coldstream, ‘William Coldstream: “Painting Given Subjects”, interview with David Sylvester’, Burlington Magazine, vol.119, no.889, p.266.

[13] Stephen Spender, The Thirties and After, Glasgow 1978, p.18.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Anthony Blunt, ‘Exhibitions’, Spectator, vol.160, no.5726, 25 March 1938.

[16] William Coldstream, ‘A Nonconformist: Interview with Rodrigo Moynihan’, Art and Literature, no.4, spring 1965, p.207.

[17] John Piper, ‘The Euston Road Group’, Listener, vol.25, no.646, 29 May 1941, p.771.

[18] Coldstream, letter, 28 April 1960.

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