Gordon Onslow-Ford

A Present for the Past


Gordon Onslow-Ford 1912–2003
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1013 × 1213 mm
frame: 1040 × 1240 × 48 mm
Bequeathed by Mrs Jacqueline Marie Onslow-Ford 1979

Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘14.8.42’ bottom right and ‘A present for the past/Erongarícuaro 1942/G. Onslow-Ford’ on back of canvas
Oil on canvas, 39 5/8 × 47 1/2 (100.8 × 120.7)
Bequeathed by Mrs Jacqueline Marie Onslow Ford 1979
Exh: Gordon Onslow-Ford, Nierendorf Gallery, New York, January–February 1946 (2); Paintings by Gordon Onslow-Ford, San Francisco Museum of Art, November–December 1948 (no catalogue); California: 5 Footnotes to Modern Art History, Los Angeles County Museum, January–April 1977 (Dynaton Revisited 4, repr.)
Repr: Towards a New Subject in Painting: Gordon Onslow-Ford, San Francisco Museum of Art 1948, p.43; Art News, LXXVI, January 1977, p.73

The artist provided the following note on this work in August 1979: 'When this painting was made, I was haunted by what went on beyond dreams in the psyche. I had no pre-existing model from which to work. My approach to the unknown was through numerous automatic drawings that were distilled on to canvas. The painting began with lines and blank space, the lines were then integrated with space, by giving off light on one side and by being dark on the other. From this base, the painting slowly grew out of itself. Each part was an invention that did not become clear until it was down on the canvas. I had the impression that, in venturing into the inner worlds, nothing was lost. All was there, but seen in a new way, a merging and interlacing of sky, mountains, plants and creatures.

'In writing of the inner-worlds, words say too much in that they have associations with the known, words say too little in that they are inadequate to express a new kind of reality.

'The painting took about six months of continuous work. Two versions were kept going at the same time, a clarification in one version led to a further clarification in the other. In their final state the two paintings were far from identical. The other version belonged to Wolfgang Paalen. He informed me a few months before his tragic death in 1959, that it had perished in a disaster about which he had not the heart to talk.

'This painting is a sequel to “The Circuit of the Light Knight through the Dark Queen”, 1942. Here, the Queen has a halo-crowned head and a glowing crater, her body extends to form a landscape embellished with jewels and objects. The Knight has moved from being a questing Knight to being accepted as the Queen's Knight. As before, he is seen in different places and assumes different forms in the painting.

'The pair accommodate each other in a courtly way. There are chequer-board lines bent by space and time, some squares are filled in, some are empty, suggesting that a game or a quest is taking place. The whole is oriented towards a central egg form, as if in deference to a primordial parent. When this painting was made, my preoccupations, as I recall them, were mostly in terms of forms and colours. Forms and colours came to the pioneer painter first, words follow, perhaps years later, if at all.

‘When this painting was finished, I saw that it did not succeed in expressing all the qualities that I had sought, for example: I felt that the realm of the Dark Queen should be transparent, but the world as painted gave the impression of being solid. I knew, that other ways of expression had to be found. In looking back, it can be seen that aspects of the landscape of the Queen had grown from Cezanne and Cubism, and the Light Knight was a distant relative of de Chirico's manikins. I called this painting “A Present for the Past”, in the hope that it would add lustre to those paintings that had marked my way, and also to give me courage to venture further’.

There is a photograph of Onslow Ford's studio at Erongarícuaro in Mexico, where the picture was painted, which shows part of the other version and which confirms that the other picture was very similar but not identical in composition, and much darker in tone.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1978-80: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1981

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