Meredith Frampton

Trial and Error


Meredith Frampton 1894–1984
Oil paint on canvas
Frame: 1264 × 848 × 67 mm
Bequeathed by Miss J.B. Dickins 2010, accessioned 2019


Trial and Error was painted in 1939 and has a distinctly surreal character in its juxtaposition of different objects. The painting, portrait in format with an arched top edge within a rectangular frame, depicts a still life arranged on two tiers – a stool or small side table being set on top of a larger table. An urn, designed by Frampton and topped by a pear, stands in a small portable niche. A roll of ribbon unfurls from the side of the niche to the table-top beneath on the right side of the painting, and a small pair of scissors hangs open, from one handle, underneath and to the left of the ribbon. To the front of the stool have been pinned a scroll of paper (that carries Frampton’s ‘MF’ monogram and the date), a playing card (the Queen of Spades), and a drawing of a hand. On the larger table are arranged flowers in a teapot, a small vase and a green ribbed glass poison bottle. The head from a lay figure rests on top of a sketchbook that is open to a double spread of a geometry drawing. A partly unfolded map zigzags across the lower left corner of the table-top.

The picture contains various references to the art of painting itself – for instance, the head from a lay figure, such as would be used by an artist as a model rather than drawing from life, that sits on the open sketchbook. However, the title seemingly alludes to a greater meaning than just the artist’s craft; other items in the still life, as would be consistent with the tradition of still-life painting, perhaps suggest the vicissitudes of life itself – for example, such emblems as the green poison bottle or the white carnation, which in the language of flowers generally represents the purity of love. The painting also provides a commentary on other paintings by Frampton. The playing card is the companion of the King of Spades, the only displayed card in A Game of Patience 1937 (private collection), while the drawing of the hand is a preliminary study for the right hand of the sitter in the same painting. The portable niche had previously been used by Frampton in his portrait of Sir Henry Newbolt 1931 (National Portrait Gallery, London). The picture is also an anthology of visual rhymes: the pear echoes the shape of the urn on which it stands; a vessel for liquid to be drunk – the teapot – is juxtaposed with one for liquid not to be taken (the poison bottle); curling paper is contrasted with sharply folded paper; the foliage of one of the carnations is shaped like the scissors that hang nearby, scissors that could cut both the flower and the ribbon that curls down beside it.

Such visual rhyming alongside Frampton’s precise draughtsmanship and smooth brushwork all lend the work an enigmatic quality. Although this painting has been described as surreal, Frampton was never consciously influenced by surrealism. Tate curator Richard Morphet observed of Frampton, however, that:

His works’ slight affinity with that of Magritte and the early de Chirico lies in their shared concerns with extreme stillness, with the sense their works give of an acute awareness simultaneously of the present moment and of the past, and with the fascination of the Object. It is a paradox that the very degree of Frampton’s success in the accurate and therefore unambiguous rendering real life objects on a flat surface should introduce an element of mystery in the viewer’s mind.
(Tate Gallery 1982, p. 25.)

Further reading
Richard Morphet, Meredith Frampton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1982.

Robert Upstone, Andrew Wilson and Emma Chambers
February 2007
Updated September 2010, May 2012 and March 2019

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Display caption

Many of the objects in this still life refer to the ‘art of painting’. For example, the head of a model used for life drawing placed on the open sketchbook. Other items could suggest the temporary nature of life. These include the urn and the white carnation flowers, often seen at funerals. The unusual mix of objects, painted in Frampton’s precise style, give the work a surreal, dream-like quality.

Gallery label, November 2019

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