Dennis Creffield

Isle of Dogs from Greenwich Observatory

1959

Not on display

Artist
Dennis Creffield 1931–2018
Medium
Oil paint on board
Dimensions
Support: (H) 712 x (W) 914 x (D) 3mm
Frame: (H) 723 x (W) 927 (D) 22mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Margaret Lapsley 2008, accessioned 2012
Reference
T13427

Summary

Isle of Dogs from Greenwich Observatory is an oil painting on board by the British artist Dennis Creffield. The painting is made up of an informal network of short, precise strokes and broader areas of oil paint. The effect is a conglomeration of areas of colour that are distinct, one from the other, and yet coherent. The composition is based upon, but not a literal description of, the view north-westwards from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, across to the peninsular of the Isle of Dogs. The painting relates to a drawing of the same subject, View from the Observatory, Greenwich 1961 (Tate T13428), which is similarly made up of an informal pattern of sharp, bold charcoal marks.

Creffield studied at the Slade School of Art, London from 1957 to 1961. Throughout that time he was living in Lewisham and had access to a space on the roof of Flamsteed House, part of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (the observatory itself had recently been moved to Herstmonceaux in Sussex). Creffield was able to leave his work and his equipment in the rooftop space and, while drawings might be completed in a single session, a painting such as this one would probably have been worked on during numerous sessions and completed in front of the motif. The image is based broadly on the view north-westwards from his vantage point. At the bottom of the painting are forms derived from the foreground of Greenwich Park; the irregular band of white that works its way across the composition about one third of the way up derives from the river and the light reflected off the water. The upper two-thirds of the composition derive from the landscape and buildings of the north bank of the Thames. This was an area of docklands that had been decimated by bombing during the war and which had recently seen the erection of poor high-rise housing developments as well as the restored docks. Some details can be associated with particular landmarks: for instance, the artist identified the vertical form on the upper left-hand side as deriving from a church tower and believed it to be that of St Alphage’s in the City of London. Though largely dismantled in 1923, the porch and tower of St Alphage’s were retained and survived the Blitz only to be torn down in 1962. It may be that other elements of Creffield’s composition relate to individual features in the landscape: warehouses, additional church towers or housing developments and possibly boats in the riverside docks. At the same time, the movement and density of the paint would be intended to evoke the structure of the landscape under scrutiny. Creffield had studied under David Bomberg (1890–1957) who laid great emphasis on the structure of an object, its sense of gravity and the ‘spirit in the mass’ (see David Bomberg, ‘Preface’, in Third Annual Exhibition of the Borough Group, exhibition catalogue, Archer Gallery, London 1949).

Creffield was one of a number of artists who had studied informally at the Borough Polytechnic under Bomberg. Bomberg was an inspirational teacher who instilled clearly defined ethical and artistic values in his students. While some developed a distinctive style of their own, several pursued a mode of visual expression not unlike that of their teacher and of each other. Creffield has acknowledged in particular his debt to Cliff Holden (born 1919), an older student of Bomberg’s who had introduced him to Bomberg and his ideas. Creffield had first attended Bomberg’s classes at the Borough in 1947 and, with Holden and others, showed with what was called the ‘Borough Group’. With Miles Richmond (1922–2008) and Dorothy Mead (1928–1975), Holden and Creffield continued to exhibit together following the break up of the Borough Group and its successor the Borough Bottega in 1951. Although Bomberg did not show his students his own work, this painting of Creffield’s echoes those Bomberg made at the end of the Second World War of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral towering over a devastated cityscape. In fact, Isle of Dogs from Greenwich Observatory fits into a larger body of work by such Borough Group artists as Holden, Richmond and Mead that use a similar palette, comparable handling of paint, composition and subject matter. It exemplifies the balance these artists struck between purely painterly values and the description of an external motif. Bomberg described the eye as a superficial, ‘stupid organ’, Creffield would recall, insisting on the importance of its integration with all of the senses (Bomberg quoted in Boris Ford (ed.), Cambridge Cultural History of Britain: Volume 9, Modern Britain, Cambridge 1988). In this mode of expressive depiction, Bomberg and his followers like Creffield sought to express a reality that was felt as well as seen.

Isle of Dogs from Greenwich Observatory is one of a number of paintings and drawings that Creffield made in his Greenwich workplace, and is a painting that he considered especially successful.

Further reading
Howard Jacobson and Lynda Morris, Dennis Creffield: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Flowers East, London 2005.

Chris Stephens
November 2011

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