Ian Stephenson

Flaxman: Understudy


Not on display

Ian Stephenson 1934–2000
Oil, enamel and paper on paper
Support: 559 × 762 mm
Purchased 1975

Catalogue entry

[from] (SANDSEND SERIES FROM BEYOND THE WORLD'S END) 1972 [T01941-T01944; complete]

Inscribed ‘FLAXMAN understudy’ b.l., ‘Ian Stephenson 1972’ b.r. and corrected with downward arrows and registration marks l. and r.
Oil and enamel with collage on paper treated with white polish, 22×30 (55.9×76.2)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1975
Exh: 11 englische Zeichner, Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, May–June 1973, and Kunsthalle, Bremen, July–August 1973 (Stephenson 15, repr.); Recente Britse Tekenkunst, Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp, September–October 1973 (Stephenson 15); Art as Thought Process, Serpentine Gallery, December 1974–January 1975 (no numbers); Ian Stephenson: Paintings 1955–66 and 1966–77, Hayward Gallery, March–April 1977, also Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, May–June 1977, and Turnpike Gallery, Leigh, August–September 1977 (71)

All four studies [T01941-T01944] were first shown at an informal British Council preview, Drawings by 11 British Artists, at the Hayward Gallery in London on 16 March 1973, immediately prior to their despatch for tour in Europe.

The following statement by Michael Compton, quoting the artist, was displayed as the wall text which accompanied the studies in the London showing of the Arts Council exhibition Art as Thought Process. This text was available only in a typescript catalogue (pp.14–15), as Stephenson's work, with that of two other artists, was added for the London showing, and does not appear in the original printed catalogue of the touring exhibition.

'Stephenson's paintings are characteristically made by spattering droplets of paint on to the surface of canvas or paper. A layer of one colour succeeds another until the painting is complete. Because the droplets are distinct and quite widely spaced they obliterate some but not all of the previous layers so that the final effect is determined not only by the colour and quantity of the spots of paint but by the order in which they were applied. Generally in the paintings (but not in the drawings) there are no sharply defined changes across the surface. The composition is therefore as much a matter of depth and sequence as of extension and separation, a characteristic which is mirrored in the fact that its effect changes greatly as you approach it or draw back. A painting, however, may be made up of several joined canvases of varying or alternating composition.

'Occasionally he carries out studies or experiments on a small scale. The group of eight drawings [the Sandsend Series understudies] is a rare example of a set which is directly related to specific paintings but in a surprising way:

“These studies are the outcome of large intuitive paintings and not the other way about, and as such the process could be described as ‘painting towards drawing’. For each of the four canvases there is a pair of studies; a smaller study with a collaged rectangle and a larger study with a painted rectangular area; the rectangles being scale versions of the canvas (quarter scale in one case).

“In all of the studies the proportional placement of the rectangles is related to the confines of the overall sheet, within the paper with three equal margins.

“Each canvas and pair of studies was painted simultaneously and each set has an identical sequence of identical colours. Therefore, the studies form a precise record of the master painting at an arbitrary stage in its development. As such they are all called understudies”.'

Stephenson was interested in making deliberate and carefully controlled studies, the ‘rules’ and proportions of which had been pre-determined, from paintings which were arbitrary. This reversed the process of the ‘Small Spray Studies’ of 1962 when the artist had annotated each study with physical data of its making for future reference. He considered the paintings to be arbitrary because the proportions were determined by the length of the stretchers which had not been specially made, and by the entirely intuitive decisions about the quantities, consistency, and colours of the layers of spraying, made as he went along.

The inscription ‘optional orientation-preferred position’ on the two larger studies (T01942, T01944) reiterates Stephenson's concern with the choice of upright or horizontal hanging positions. This concern was common to some earlier and larger canvases such as ‘Quadrama IV’ (T01688). Reference to ‘any orientation’ is made by William Feaver in the catalogue of the Hayward Gallery exhibition (op. cit. p.12), and the Sandsend Series canvases were hung vertically in the Hayward Gallery and horizontally in the Arnolfini and Turnpike Galleries in 1977. These single paintings followed after some years of making double, treble or quadruple canvases. Stephenson felt that the pairs of understudies were one means of justifying his move from multiple to single canvases, because they provided different ways of exploring the same theme.

The whole group of paintings and studies is related to the environs of Chelsea and the vicinity of the river where Stephenson lives, works and teaches. Thus ‘Chelsea Reach’ is a reference to that section of the river below Battersea Bridge and Lindsey House, and to the physical stretching of the arm required to cover the whole canvas. The artist was interested in the fact that both Turner and John Martin had lived nearby. A coloured engraving of Martin's ‘The Plains of Heaven’ had been the first picture of which he had been aware as a child, an interest dogged by coincidence: for the space reserved for ‘The Plains of Heaven’ in the 1970 Newcastle exhibition of Martin's work, the only space visible from the adjacent galleries where Stephenson's retrospective exhibition was hung, was to be filled only with a similar Victorian engraving. It was not until these studies were first displayed at the Tate Gallery in 1975 that the artist finally saw ‘The Plains of Heaven’, bequeathed to the Gallery in the previous year. ‘Flaxman’ is a reference to the type of linen canvas used as the support, to his old telephone exchange, and to a confused association of ideas which linked the neo-classical artist John Flaxman with the blue-green colour of the paintings and the Chelsea Art School Annexe's original name of Wedgewood [sic], where the pictures were painted. The other titles in the series have equally wide associations. ‘Manresa’ refers to the road in which Chelsea Art School is located, and thence to the town in Northern Spain where St. Ignatius Loyola wrote ‘The Spiritual Exercises’. ‘Thames’, the largest and bluest painting, reaffirms the river. The generic title ‘Sandsend Series from beyond The World's End’ broadens the area to include the location of the art school annexe, southwest of The World's End in Chelsea, and in turn combines an oblique reference to the granular nature of the paintings with the cataclysmic and apocalyptic themes of British Romantic painting.

This catalogue entry is based on two interviews with the artist (23 March and 29 May 1977) and has been corrected and approved by him.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978


You might like

In the shop