Ruskin Spear

Haute Couture


Not on display

Ruskin Spear 1911–1990
Oil paint on board
Support: 2280 × 920 × 5 mm
Purchased from funds provided by the Patrons of British Art 2003


Spear depicts in Haute Couture a model swaggering down the catwalk at an Italian fashion show, wearing the sophisticated ‘middle-class couture’ that the fashion industry was producing in the 1950s. Her head is raised in the air in order to avoid eye contact with the crowd of onlookers. Some of the women appear to be almost asleep, while others gaze at the catwalk model. Their frumpy clothes and bulky figures contrast with her tailored suit and slender frame. Mervyn Levey described the painting as an ‘acid statement’ where ‘fashion is a demon that haunts the old and the ugly’. He continues ‘The lust to look lovely and fashionable is crystallized in the modern fashion show, with its covens of monstrous old women’ (Levey, p.20)

Spear was born in Hammersmith into a working class family. As a young man, he supplemented his teaching income with a job making fashion drawings for Vogue magazine. Martin Harrison suggested that Spear’s ‘resentment at his employment and the first-hand knowledge he acquired of the fashion business’ (Harrison, p.82) led him to paint this satirical view of the fashion industry.

Harrison has pointed out that Spear copied this picture from a tiny black and white photograph in an Italian magazine of about the same date. The nipped-in waist and calf-length, pencil skirt were typical features of the post-war look designed to make women look ‘feminine’ in the most traditional sense. The photographic source is also evident in this painting from the cropped figures at the edges. Spear may have borrowed this idea from Sickert (1860-1942), who frequently in the late 1920s and 1930s copied photographs of interesting gestures or moments. The realist subject matter and use of strong outline and bold colours also reflect the paintings of Sickert and members of the Camden Town Group.

Spear’s ability to penetrate the characters of people who walked the streets or spent time in the bars and cafes around Hammersmith can be seen in many of his paintings. Haute Couture is unusual in its foreign and glamorous subject, and was made in the same year that Spear was elected a Royal Academician. Three years later this painting was included in the ‘Looking at People’ exhibition at the South London Art Gallery in Camberwell, and later in the same year the picture travelled with the exhibition to Moscow.

Further reading:
Mervyn Levey, Ruskin Spear, London 1985, pp.18-20, reproduced in colour, pl.10
Martin Harrison, Transition: The London Art Scene in the Fifties, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 2002, p.82, reproduced in colour, no.95

Heather Birchall
February 2003

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Contemporary critics often made links between post-war social realism and previous schools of British art. Among these the Camden Town Group was most commonly cited, especially the paintings of Walter Sickert.

Undoubtedly Sickert’s pictures of ‘the poetry of everyday life’ were of major importance to Ruskin Spear and others. As in this painting of a fashion show, Spear even used newspaper photographs as source material, just as Sickert had done. The picture is a parody of the elitist world of high fashion, in which Spear had worked during the war.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like