Dennis Creffield

View from the Observatory, Greenwich


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Not on display

Dennis Creffield 1931–2018
Charcoal on paper
Support: 580 × 755 mm
Bequeathed by Margaret Lapsley 2008, accessioned 2012


View from the Observatory, Greenwich is a charcoal drawing on paper by British artist Dennis Creffield. The drawing is made up of an informal pattern of sharp, bold charcoal marks. These combine with a more diffuse covering of the support with charcoal of varying density that both creates atmosphere and further suggests forms. Small areas of paper have been left blank, or revealed, to provide contrasting areas of light. Like the related painting Isle of Dogs from Greenwich Observatory 1959 (Tate T13427), the composition is based upon the view northwards from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The artist recalled that though the area had been devastated by bombing in the Second World War, the riverside docks had subsequently been reinstated and the landscape had become dominated by new high-rise housing developments. A series of vertical forms that punctuate the horizon in the upper part of the composition may derive from these, though the artist has identified the largest, towards the top left-hand corner, as the tower of the church of St Alphage’s, the remains of which stood on London Wall in the City of London to the west and were torn down in 1962. This detail demonstrates that the work is not an empirically accurate depiction of the view, Creffield having distorted the space and arrangement of forms for artistic reasons. Finer vertical and near-vertical lines in the middle ground may derive from boats at the docks.

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 a drawing such as this one might have been completed in a single session, his paintings 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 this vantage point.

Creffield was one of a number of artists who had studied informally at Borough Polytechnic under David Bomberg (1890–1957). Bomberg was an inspirational teacher and instilled clearly defined ethical and artistic values in his students. He laid great emphasis on the structure of an object or setting, 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). While some of his students 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, Creffield’s painting and drawing 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. 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.

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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