Arthur Jackson



Not on display

Arthur Jackson 1911–2003
Oil paint and graphite on canvas board
Support: 254 × 356 mm
frame: 353 × 456 × 22 mm
Purchased 1965

Display caption

This painting was made in the same year that Naum Gabo wrote an article called ‘The Constructive Idea in Art’ in the anthology Circle. Gabo proposed that form and content should be ‘one and the same thing’, in science, architecture and design as well as in art. He offered the fluidity and poise that Jackson achieved in this small painting as an example of the Constructive idea. Using a combination of precise measurements and intuition, Jackson over-layers the forms to give the painting a three-dimensional quality.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

Arthur Jackson Hepworth b.1911

Painting 1937 1937


Oil and pencil on canvas board, mounted on white painted plywood
255 x 355 (10 x 14) on plywood 330 x 430 (13 x 17)

Inscribed in pencil on white-painted back ‘ARTHUR JACKSON | PAINTING 1939.’ [sic] centre and ‘TOP’ upper centre

Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1965

Purchased from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art Ltd 1965

Art in Britain 1930-40 Centred around Axis, Circle, Unit One, Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1965 (61, repr.)

Tate Gallery Report 1964-5, London 1966, p.44

As a painter, Arthur Jackson (the first names used by Jack Hepworth to distinguish himself from his cousin Barbara Hepworth), was part of a phalanx of abstract artists associated with ‘Constructive art’ in the mid-1930s. Painting 1937 may be located at a crucial moment in this development. Although inscribed ‘Painting 1939’ (a mistake made in preparation for exhibition in 1965),[1] it was made in the same year as the ‘Constructive idea in art’ was proposed by Naum Gabo in the anthology Circle (1937).[2] This publication served as the culmination of a longer development in which British artists contributed to continental engagements with abstraction and sought to draw together what united several different approaches. Hepworth and Nicholson belonged to the internationalist association Abstraction-Création during 1933-4. Although Jackson did not join that alignment, he was introduced to Piet Mondrian by Jean Hélion in Paris, and travelled to Lucerne to meet the Swiss painter Hans Erni at the time of the 1935 exhibition Thèse, Antithèse, Synthèse.[3]

A deliberate echo of these continental developments was found in London in the aspirations of Paul Nash’s Unit One and the 7 & 5 Society. During 1933-4, their accompanying publication (edited by Herbert Read) and touring exhibition served as self-conscious mediations between avant-garde art and the public.[4] The longer-established 7 & 5 Society was increasingly orientated towards abstract art under Nicholson’s dominance, who saw it as the site for encouraging aspirants to the Unit (of which he and Hepworth were members).[5] Although Nash considered this ‘just a little sinister’,[6] it was artists such as Jackson that Nicholson had in mind. Jackson has recalled that he was ‘too young’ to participate in Unit One but was ‘invited’ to contribute to the 7 & 5 Society exhibition in March 1934.[7] In the following month he was nominated for membership by Nicholson;[8] he showed as a member in the final, exclusively abstract, exhibition in October 1935.[9] For Nicholson, the introduction of like-minded artists (Cecil Stephenson was another whom he nominated) aided the impression of a broad alliance; for Jackson, the support of the older artist was of considerable importance.

Jackson’s connections with Nicholson were close and coincided with the early years of the latter’s relationship with Hepworth. That the final meetings of the 7 & 5 Society were held in the sculptor’s studio serves as tangible evidence of the couple’s centrality to an aspect of avant-garde activity in Hampstead. Jackson had a studio nearby in Parkhill Road. Furthermore, he had informal lessons with Nicholson over the period 1932-5, in which the latter ‘taught by example’ and through encouragement.[10] Although the familial relationship with Hepworth does not appear to have been so easy going, she substituted in this guiding capacity during Nicholson’s absences. In July 1932, she reported: ‘I’ve just been over to JH. I think he’s on to something.’[11] Some time later, she was more specific: ‘Had a long talk one pm with Jack H about Picasso & the abstract & think he’s getting on to things.’[12] Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a trace of seniority in these comments.

The first paintings which Jackson published date from 1934, and tend to confirm Hepworth’s prediction. Although his output was restricted because of the photographic work which earned him a living,[13] he may have been able to throw off representational art more swiftly because he was that much younger. A Painted Relief, 1934 (private collection)[14] shows an interest in Arp’s witty organic forms, but a greater intricacy and restraint is evident in Painting 1934 (whereabouts unknown) – reproduced in Axis no.1[15] - which features inexact rectangular and L-shaped forms with Nicholsonian circles. Referring to their illusion of a shallow space, Jackson described this phase in retrospect as ‘beginning with interlacing rectangular shapes in overlapping colours (1934-5)’.[16] This spatial solution has similarities with John Piper’s contemporary work (at that time, secretary of the 7 & 5), and Jackson related it to a need to avoid the trap of decoration by becoming ‘flat and two dimensional’, adding modestly: ‘I am not alone in trying to achieve a three dimensional quality in abstraction in which I was varyingly successful.’[17]

These aspirations were apparent at the time even as commentators recognised Jackson’s debt to Nicholson. Writing in the first number of Axis, Geoffrey Grigson asserted how the accompanying illustrations of abstract art conveyed what he called ‘a small history of English ideas, English hesitancy, English error and English performance’. He summarised Jackson’s work in positive terms: ‘An attempt at moving forward to fullness and complexity. Affirmation at least, however much it seems done by way of trial out of Nicholson.’[18] The same point of reference was used by Hugh Gordon Porteus in his review of a contemporary group show which included works by Nash, Piper and Nicholson. He observed that ‘it is the trio of attractive abstractions by ... Mr Arthur Jackson (Nicholsonesque with a personal difference), that provide the surprise of this show’.[19] Although Porteus’ emphasis on ‘overlapping rectangles of limpid colour’ may be suggestive of decorative qualities avoided by the painter themselves, these judgements show the emergence of Jackson’s public profile.

In his retrospective notes, the artist identified the introduction of curves in 1935-6 as the next stage in his painting, with ‘the shapes separating out, tied together with lines and more precisely geometrical’.[20] This is substantiated by the flat forms of Painting 1935 (private collection), reproduced in Axis late in that year,[21] and by a larger painting also called Painting 1935 (Peter Nahum) but dominated by lens-shapes, which appeared in the following number of the periodical which accompanied the exhibition Abstract and Concrete.[22] The first of these paintings may have been amongst those given a mixed review at the 7 & 5 by J.M. Richards, who contrasted ‘the thick inter-woven colours’ with ‘Hélion’s sleek, metallic, separated forms’, and concluded that Jackson’s ‘are, perhaps, too pleasing as colour and pattern.’[23] However, no less an authority than Herbert Read chose to include the larger painting in the third edition of his seminal book Art Now (1936),[24] where it was placed between comparable works by Hélion, Piper, Nicholson and Erni. It would also be reproduced in Circle.[25]

Such company – among now better-known artists – did not upstage Jackson’s work, indeed the fluidity and balance of form was exemplary of an aspect of Constructive art of that moment which he was making his own. In retrospect, he saw the ‘three dimensional quality in abstraction’ as being achieved in the Tate’s Painting 1937 ‘more successfully than in many and in a rather new way for me. It seems to have been the culmination of a development of which I was not really aware myself.’[26] He went as far as to describe it as ‘one of the most successful I did ... perhaps because it was produced in a more light-hearted spirit, i.e. not trying quite so hard, than some of the others’.[27] He kept the painting, and did not even exhibit it until 1965.

The stress placed upon the freedom of the composition in this account must be understood within the terms of Jackson’s painting. Certainly the earlier propensity for quadrilateral or related forms had been overtaken by an interweaving of areas defined by linear outlines but overlapping and rendered as if transparent. In particular, a pencil-line curve descends from an initially straight line at the top left, and falls between the yellow and blue to turn inside the lower edge of the oval; while another rises from this line, in the lower left, momentarily thickening before turning inside the top edge of the curve to contain the dark blue plane and join the distorted semi-circle that defines the thickly painted white form to the right. A sense of overlaid forms is also achieved through different densities of hue: the dark blue of the central plane contrasts with that of the mid-blue around it (which appears to have been scraped-back to the canvas-broad), while the chalky whites (one modified by pencil drawing) contrast with the strong blocks of red, yellow, blue, black and white.

However, both in the drawing of the boundaries and in other aspects of the composition the freedom was contained within certain geometric restrictions. These may have been based upon the use of the Golden Section, the proportional system used to establish formal harmonies; it may be expressed as the division of a line so that the shorter part is proportional to the longer in the same way that the longer is proportional to the whole, or numerically as approximating 1:1.618. It seems likely that Painting 1937 was composed using this system, with the Golden Section point measured along the sides and diagonals projected across the resulting rectangles. The upper and lower arcs of the focal oval appear to be centred on these points of intersection (diagonals from the corners of the canvas to the Golden Section point of the long sides); the more pointed ends may have been centred upon the crossing points of diagonals of half the compositional area (i.e. a quarter of the way along the horizontal axis). Measurements from the canvas make this likely though not absolutely certain and this variability suggests that the initial geometry was softened by freehand drawing. This may be reflected in Jackson’s retrospective comment that: ‘this painting seems to me to add up these trends [of the preceding years] with a new unself-conscious freedom.’[28] Perhaps, this also encompassed the surprising strength of the almost turquoise blue which frames the central oval, and which was certainly applied after the subtly worn down areas which its contains.

Both the ‘freedom’ and the ‘light-hearted spirit’ emphasise Jackson’s extension of the formal constraints of ‘Constructive’ art. As well as the parallel developments of Piper and Hélion, Jackson shared this spirit with Nicholson. In 1935 (white relief) (Tate Gallery T00049), for instance, Nicholson had juxtaposed compass and hand-drawn circles in a way which may be understood to emphasise the craft tradition of British art. In preceding paintings Nicholson had experimented with the lyrical line associated with Surrealism which he appreciated for the playfulness of form. It may be in a similar spirit that Jackson allowed the intervention of wandering curves in Painting 1937. This having been said, the rhyming of shapes across his composition – especially the domed curve in the centre and the white form to the right – suggests an awareness of the Cubist vocabulary of Juan Gris, in whose work a form could function to signify different objects. It may be significant that, in 1937, Axis carried one of the first English articles on Gris’s work,[29] reproducing a 1921 Harlequin in which such a delineated form served as a simplified head. Indeed, the implication of a head amongst the overlaid elements in Painting 1937 is difficult to avoid, even if the composition should not be read as having realistic allusions.

In this respect Painting 1937 should be understood in the context of the contemporary theories propounded in Circle. Gabo’s exegesis on ‘The Constructive Idea in Art’, which opened the anthology, was unequivocal in its proposition that this ‘idea’

has revealed an universal law that the elements of a visual art such as lines, colours, shapes, possess their own forces of expression independent of any association with the external aspects of the world; that their life and their action are self-conditioned psychological phenomena rooted in human nature; that those elements are not chosen by convention for any utilitarian or other reason as words and figures are, they are not merely abstract signs, but they are immediately and organically bound up with human emotions.[30]

In similar, though less precise, terms Nicholson wrote of ‘the “principal objective” of abstract art’ as ‘reality’ rather than realism. He, too, stressed the connection with life, asserting that ‘it is only at the point at which a painting becomes an actual experience in the artist’s life ... more or less capable of universal application ... that it is capable of becoming a part, also, of the lives of other people and that it can take its place in the structure of the world, in everyday life.’[31] It seems probable that Jackson would subscribe to these views, seeing painted form as independent of realistic depictions but also of pertinence to contemporary life. Such a position was given especial urgency in the increasingly desperate international situation (following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War) and may be seen to answer accusations that Constructive art was detached and idealistic, and without political or social relevance. Implicitly Circle was published to counterbalance the advent in 1936 of Surrealism, with its seductive dream-like imagery and vociferous political commitment to the left.

If Jackson could see Painting 1937 as a synthesis of his work to date, he would conclude his assessment of his work in the 1930s by recognising a further sophistication in subsequent works. Like many others he saw their promise cut short: ‘I suppose they would have led to another synthesis if the war had not come first and it became, for me, impossible to do any more ...’[32] By January 1939, Jackson was included in Living Art in England, [33] an exhibition of uniting Constructive and Surrealist artists as an assertion of vitality in the face of totalitarian repression. Although he contributed to a show two months later,[34] he had already turned to architecture, a new activity which could be directed to the war effort and, later, the task of reconstruction.

Matthew Gale,
April 1999

[1] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, letter to Mary Chamot, 2 June 1965, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[2] J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo (eds.), Circle; International Survey of Constructive Art, London 1937, reprinted 1971
[3] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, interview with the author, 11 Oct. 1996; These, Antithese, Synthese, Kunstmuseum, Lucerne, Feb.-March 1935
[4] Herbert Read (ed.), Unit One: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, London 1934
[5] Wells Coates, letter to Paul Nash, 3 March 1933, Unit One Papers, Tate Gallery Archive 9120.7
[6] Paul Nash, letter to Wells Coates, ‘Sunday’ [March 1933], Unit One Papers, Tate Gallery Archive 9120.8
[7] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, interview with the author, 11 Oct. 1996; 7&5, Leicester Galleries, London, March 1934
[8] Ben Nicholson, letter to John Piper [27 April 1934], copy in 7 & 5 Society papers, Tate Gallery Library
[9] 7&5, Zwemmer Gallery, London, October 1935
[10] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, interview
[11] Barbara Hepworth, letter to Ben Nicholson, postmarked 22 July 1932, Tate Gallery Archive 8717.1.83
[12] Barbara Hepworth, letter to Ben Nicholson, ‘Tues’ [? July or Sept. 1932], Tate Gallery Archive 8717.1.93
[13] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, letter to Mary Chamot, 18 April 1965, Tate Gallery cataloguing files, quoted in Tate Gallery 1964-5, London 1966, p.44
[14] Photograph in Jackson papers, Tate Gallery Archive
[15] Axis, no.1, Jan. 1935, p.26

[16] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, letter 18 April 1965, quoted in Tate Gallery 1964-5, 1966

[17] Ibid.
[18] Geoffrey Grigson, ‘Comment on England’, Axis, no.1, Jan. 1935, p.10
[19] Hugh Gordon Porteus, ‘Exhibition of Abstract Painting at the Experimental Theatre’, Axis, no.1, Jan. 1935, p.27
[20] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, letter 18 April 1965, quoted in Tate Gallery 1964-5, 1966
[21] Axis, no.4, Nov. 1935, p.22
[22] Axis, no.5, Spring 1936, p.12
[23] J.M. Richards, ‘Ben Nicholson at the Lefevre: 7 & 5 at Zwemmer’s’, Axis, no.4, Nov. 1935, p.24
[24] Herbert Read, Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture, 3rd ed. 1936, pl.75
[25] Circle, London 1937, reprinted 1971, [p.26], fig.19
[26] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, letter 18 April 1965, quoted in Tate Gallery 1964-5, 1966
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Douglas Lord [pseudonym of Douglas Cooper], ‘Juan Gris’, Axis, no.7, Autumn 1936, pp.9-12
[30] Naum Gabo, ‘The Constructive Idea in Art’, Circle, London 1937, reprinted 1971, p.7
[31] Ben Nicholson, ‘Quotations’, ibid., p.75
[32] Arthur Jackson Hepworth, letter 18 April 1965
[33] Living Art in England, London Gallery, Jan.-Feb.1939, promoted in London Bulletin, no.8-9, Jan. Feb. 1939, pp.9-45, 57-8
[34] Ben Nicholson; Abstract Paintings by 9 British Artists, Alex Reid and Lefevre, London, March 1939

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