Leonard McComb

Portrait of Zarrin Kashi Overlooking Whitechapel High Street


Not on display

Leonard McComb 1930–2018
Watercolour and graphite on canvas
Unconfirmed: 1840 × 1885 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1983

Catalogue entry

T03601 Portrait of Zarrin Kashi Overlooking Whitechapel High Street 1981

Watercolour on paper (watermark ‘Hayle Mill Handmade’) laid on cotton duck 72 3/8 × 74 1/4 (1840 × 1885)
Inscribed ‘Leonard/McComb/1981’ b.l. and ‘My name is Zarrin I am my fathers daughter and my father loves me’ along lower edge
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1983
Prov: Purchased from the artist by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1983
Exh: RA 1983 (808, as ‘Portrait of Zarine Kashi, Whitechapel’); Leonard McComb Drawings Paintings Sculpture, AC tour, Serpentine Gallery, October–November 1983, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, November 1983–January 1984, City Art Gallery, Manchester, January–March 1984, Gardner Art Centre, University of Sussex, Brighton, March–April 1984, Fruit Market Gallery, Edinburgh, May–June 1984 (68, repr. in col.); Representation Abroad, Hirschhorn Museum, Washington, June–July 1985 (92, repr. as ‘Zarrin Kashi Overlooking Whitechapel High Street’)
Lit: Timothy Hyman, ‘Leonard McComb: Body and Spirit’, London Magazine, xxii, August–September 1982, pp.64–73 (detail repr. p.69); Timothy Hyman, ‘Leonard McComb: Body and Spirit’, Artscribe, No.37, October 1982, pp.38–43 (repr. p.42). Also repr.: Elma Mitchell, Furnished Rooms, Liskeard 1983 (detail repr. on front cover)

Zarrin Kashi is an Iranian who at the time of this picture was working as a professional model. The setting is a room in the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art (City of London Polytechnic), London E1. All quotations in this entry are from a letter from the artist dated 1 April 1986, except where otherwise indicated.

The artist has presented for the Gallery's files ‘the first scribblings for the picture taken from my sketchbook at the time’. These are three pencil drawings, all 6 1/2 × 6 1/2 (165 × 165), numbered to show their sequence. McComb writes that ‘glancing at these sketches I realise I... redesigned the studio - made the window lower - and redesigned the relationship between the wall and the window-frame’. In addition there was a preparatory drawing in coloured crayons (private collection) and a working drawing (the artist) in which ‘the whole composition is quite carefully worked out - squared off - and was used to transcribe onto the finished painting’.

The artist writes that:

The painting was made at the Sir John Cass School and here in my studio [in Brixton]. It was transported each Saturday on the roof rack of my Morris car for 10 consecutive Saturdays to the John Cass School, where I was a student with about 8 other students, who worked from the same model (Zarrin Kashi), same pose each Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The teacher was Frederick Dean, portrait painter, who allowed us to set up the pose as we wished. My fellow students were part-time artists, retired workers, amateurs, ‘A’ level students, etc. The painting was made in the summer term and because our studio was needed for an annual exhibition of students' work David Graham, teacher and painter, very kindly organised another studio for us to continue working - so we had about 12 days in all on the work...

In addition to the time I spent at the Cass I must have worked here at least another 18 days on the painting and 3 days designing and making up the frame, with Barbara's [his wife] help in this.

In a letter of 30 May 1986, McComb added:

The studio where the painting was made is on the 5th floor of the Sir John Cass School; the studio is directly opposite the roof of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Whitechapel High Street.

The cityscape is very much a composed aspect of the painting; the buildings have been freely selected from a 180 degree eye sweep of the view; as seen through the window. In essence, the cityscape space has been sandwiched closer. Moving backwards from left to right, in the picture's cityscape, is Canon Barnet Primary School, Commercial Street, with the corner of Denning Point G L C Flats behind; these have been brought forward displacing the buildings in front of them on Whitechapel High Street.

The centre foreground-end of the School, with grid windows, has been enlarged and lowered.

The iron railed wall, and windowed slate roof corner, which completes the right foreground of the painting is of Whitechapel Art Gallery, and although without decorative columns, is pretty well unchanged in scale and position. The middle distance back to the chimney, is a selection of the linen merchants and clothing manufacturers' buildings, which border Wentworth Street, Thrawl Street, Loleworth Close, and Fashion Street; these run parallel to Whitechapel High Street and in between Commercial Street, and Brick Lane. Behind Fashion Street provided my major omission, where I left out Hawksmoor's christ Church, Spitalfields with its surround of splendid plane trees. These I replaced with a taller and slimmer version of Trumans (I left out the name) brewery factory chimney which has been brought forwards from far distant end of Brick Lane. In the painting the chimney acts as a smoking centre for the space of the cityscape, echoing the vertical column of Zarrin herself; the top of the chimney being parallel to her head. The flats left and right behind the chimney are enlarged and have been brought forwards from their Hoxton horizon. The view of Hampstead seen behind the church on a fine day has been omitted. One of the visual aspects of the painting which became increasingly interesting as the work developed, was the variety and almost Byzantine beauty of the brickwork in this part of the East End of London. I used opera glasses extensively in studying the cityscape.

In the painting ‘the window was opened as a device to connect Zarrin and the internal room with the unsympathetic city landscape outside. Zarrin standing with natural dignity, a creature of the sun, against the mishmash of Victorian and contemporary tower blocks. Timothy Hyman's article expresses very well the thoughts and feelings which I tried to convey in the painting, including the relevance of the quote.’ The relevant passage in Hyman's article (cited above; it was published twice in slightly different forms) reads as follows:

In the strangest work of all, the same model stands like a sentinel, over and against a roofscape of the tower blocks and small factories of the industrial East End: shoulders thrust back and head uplifted in a motion that seems to speak of endurance. The wavy lines and arcs around her body contrast with the cityscape's steady pulse of horizontal and vertical (though the smoke billowing from the distant chimney acts as a sudden all-important eruption of curves). This city-figure is like an emblem; one's bound to see her somehow embodying a value, a meaning.

On the general level, there seems to be the polarisation of mankind against the hostile environment we have created - the organic against the inorganic. But there is also the meaning specific to the individual sitter. She was from the Middle East, and the mental suffering born of her displacement fed into the work; several times as she stood there, McComb heard her repeat ‘My name is Zarrin: I am my father's daughter, and my father loves me’, and he ended by inscribing this poignant chant along the bottom of the picture. She is, then, in part an emblem of solitariness; and I think we can recognise in all McComb's single colossal figures an air both of the tragic, and of aspiration.

McComb has provided a sketch showing his and Zarrin Kashi's positions in relation to the room as a whole and its windows, during work on the Tate's picture. This room ‘is top floor and flanked by windows on two sides. ...By changing one's position in the studio a variety of cityscapes are possible.’ McComb confirms that the following works represent scenes in the same room: ‘Portrait of John’ 1976 (repr. 1983 Serpentine Gallery catalogue cited above, p.14), ‘Nude by City Window’ 1978 (repr. ibid., p.7) and ‘Nude by Window, Whitechapel’ 1980 (not repr.). In the following further works the model was Zarrin Kashi: ‘Zarrin Sleeping’ 1980 (repr. ibid., p.48) and ‘Zarrin Seated’ 1981 (detail repr. in colour, ibid.; a larger detail repr. Hyman article in Artscribe cited above). McComb recalls that these other portraits of Zarrin Kashi were also ‘made as a Saturday student at the Cass and carried each Saturday, to and from here on top of my car’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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