Adrian Stokes

Landscape, West Penwith Moor


Not on display

Adrian Stokes 1902–1972
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 609 × 508 mm
frame: 716 × 615 × 80 mm
Purchased 1985

Display caption

Stokes began to paint in 1936. He completed this view before beginning to study painting at the Euston Road School in autumn 1937. Penwith Moor is in West Cornwall, where Stokes lived for several years from 1939, at Carbis Bay, near St Ives. He came to think of West Cornwall, 'the penisula between the two seas, extending ... from St Ives to Land's End', within which this moor is located, as 'the only part of Britain belonging to the geography of the Ancient World'. He was acutely aware of the geology of a terrain and of its history and natural resources. It delighted him to think that the Romans had mined the Cornish landscape for copper.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 609 x 508 mm (24 x 20 in)

Purchased from Mrs Ann Stokes Angus, the artist’s widow (Grant-in-Aid) 1985

Adrian Stokes, Marlborough Fine Art, London, Jan. 1965 (7, as West Penwith Moor, 1936)
Cornwall 1945-55, New Art Centre, London, Nov.-Dec. 1977 (137, repr., as West Penwith Moors, c.1945)
Adrian Stokes, Serpentine Gallery, London, June-July 1982 (13, as c.1939), Huddersfield Art Gallery, July-Aug., Gloucester Museum and Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct. 1982 (no number)
St. Ives 1939-64: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-April 1985 (71, as c.1937)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, London 1988, pp.283-5, repr.

It was most probably in Cornwall in 1936 that Adrian Stokes produced his first painting. However, Margaret Mellis told the Tate that Landscape, West Penwith Moor was definitely not painted in that year. ‘He showed it to me sometime in 1937 when I saw him in London (about June 37) and he had only just done it’, she recalled.[1] Cornwall had a special significance for Stokes, who associated it with childhood and with his brother who had died in the First World War.[2] He was particularly attracted to West Penwith, the most extreme tip of Cornwall stretching westward from St Ives to Lands End, where Landscape, West Penwith Moor was ‘painted on the spot’.[3] He and Mellis went to live there in 1939 and, as a result, the work has been mistakenly dated to 1939 and 1945. According to Mellis, the style, which she described as an ‘improvement’ on Stokes’s naive landscapes of the previous year, demonstrates that the painting predates his attendance at the Euston Road School, which opened in October 1937. She has suggested that his palette was considerably brighter before he went to the Euston Road,[4] after which time it dimmed, brightening again with his last paintings (Tate T03579-T03587).

A painting dated 1936 (though exhibited as 1937 in 1982) and entitled Landscape, Cornwall remains in the artist’s estate.[5] He showed a work, or works, of that title in two exhibitions which, though the dates are uncertain, were probably both held in 1938. The first was number 54 in an exhibition of New Paintings by British artists at Alex Reid & Lefevre, London in January, and the other number 17 at the Storran Gallery’s English and French Paintings in February. A painting entitled Landscape, St Ives was also shown in an Exhibition of Work by Members of the AIA which went on a national tour of municipal galleries in 1939.

Stokes is reported to have said that he started painting because ‘there was no one else prepared to paint the kind of painting that he thought ought to exist’.[6] As Richard Wollheim points out, this reveals how his painting project derived from a particular theory of art. It also suggests that his association with artists of different camps - the Euston Road School and the Constructivists of Hampstead - was facilitated by his perception of something lacking in both of them. One might suggest that, in common with such painters as William Coldstream, he sought an objective art, but one in which the paintings’ formal character was independent from the motif. It was in this way that he promoted the work of Ben Nicholson in March 1937, explaining that for him ‘abstraction in painting can mean nothing other than such separation from subject-matter ... of the exercise for the eye that all good paintings afford’.[7] Stokes’s retention of an object in his painting and his persistently flat picture space may be seen as the result of his desire for an independent and objective art.

An earlier Tate catalogue entry drew upon an expansive letter to the gallery from Dr Richard Read, a Stokes scholar, in which it was proposed that the rich colouring of Landscape, West Penwith Moor should be seen in relation to the artist’s book Colour and Form, published in the same year.[8] Stokes discussed a colour harmony in which colours were contrasting but none dominant; Read suggests that such an ‘identity in difference’ may be discerned in West Penwith,[9] with its ‘progression from warmth to coldness of colour, its equal emphasis, its absence of chiaroscuro and its constitution of bony and distinctive shapes out of matt hues rather than line’. He went on to suggest that the work’s ‘partial vagueness and diffusion of colour ... may be an enduring homage to the values of Giorgione’, an artist greatly admired by Stokes.[10]

Stokes wrote of his belief that ‘living colour ... seems pre-eminently to come from behind, from the back, from the canvas’.[11] In West Penwith the effect of translucent strong colour - green in the oval, yellow above it and orange below - is the result of a range of techniques. Though there are some isolated areas of impasto, the paint was generally thinly applied to a thin white ground, dominated by the texture of the canvas, over some pencil underdrawing. The artist made a secondary application in the form of glazes, some impasto was dabbed on later and areas of paint were scraped or rubbed to retrieve transparency. Though most of the paint is oil-based, yellow flecks to the right of centre have been found to be soluble in water. There is some scratching around the edges of the composition from poor framing in the past, and further isolated scratches are likely to be studio damage. The painting has an unevenly applied varnish layer which may, in time, affect the overall appearance. It was cleaned on acquisition.[12]

Landscape, West Penwith Moor depicts part of the moorland which, in contrast to the gentler southern aspect, runs along Penwith’s northern coast. There the landscape, which is characterised by its poor soil and consequently sparse vegetation, is punctuated by ancient field patterns and granite outcrops as seen in the foreground of the painting. As well as simple agriculture, west Cornwall has historically been associated with tin mining, especially around St Just. Stokes said he saw West Penwith as ‘the only part of Britain belonging to the geography of the Ancient World. It was certainly a fount of tin and so, perhaps, of Greek bronzes’.[13] He similarly described the wide pasture-land around Zennor, not far from the presumed site of the painting, in classical terms: it is, he writes, ‘of Homeric scale, it seems to the observer who is picking out the farm communities and noticing the inhospitable sea, the isolated perpendicular stones and the network of bright walls’.[14]

The flattened perspective of the composition makes it hard to understand the spatial relationships depicted in Landscape, West Penwith Moor. It would appear that the artist is looking from sloping ground across to another hill, so that the viewpoint is downward in the foreground and rises beyond. Such an undulating terrain is typical of Penwith’s granite based moorland, the elevation of which is suggested by the high horizon. Though it is not possible to identify the site with any certainty, it seems likely that it would be close to the village of Zennor. A painting of similar terrain, dominated by a patchwork of small fields, entitled Near Zennor, Cornwall, Winter and executed on the same trip, is in the Government Art Collection.[15] In 1963, the artist Peter Lanyon reminded Stokes of a painting he had made ‘years ago’ at Towednack, a moorland village inland from Zennor.[16] There is at least one place where one might see a round field which, when viewed across the valley as here, appears elliptical as in Landscape, West Penwith Moor. This is below the hamlet of Porthmeor, a few miles west of Zennor, on the slopes of the valley that runs down to Porthmeor Cove. There, as in the painting, the lush green field stands out against the orange and brown of the surrounding heather and gorse and, alongside the natural granite protrusions, the valley is littered with the ruins of mine buildings and traces of a neolithic settlement.

Mellis recalled discussing this work with Stokes and said that, in particular, he ‘liked the rounded shape near the top and the swelling skyline’.[17] She implied that the form was associated with the artist’s consciousness of what lay under the earth, continuing: ‘He used to say he liked Cornwall very much because although it looked barren it gave you the feeling that underneath were riches like copper ... He really liked very cultivated and rich country. He didn’t like barrenness or anything fierce’.[18] His interest in the region’s geology related to his late brother’s love of the subject, but would also have been encouraged by Lanyon, with whom he painted during his 1937 visit. The underground wealth of Cornwall had a symbolic importance for Lanyon - descended from mine owners - and this stretch of coast, between St Ives and St Just, particularly dominated his work from 1936 until the 1960s. Stokes’s sense of a significance beyond the visual echoed his own description of the local artist Alfred Wallis’s paintings: ‘The surface of his sea ... is the showing also of what lies under it ... a solid darkness from the depth’.[19] Stokes had bought a number of paintings from Wallis the previous December and his flattened perspective may also be thought to relate to Wallis’s use of multiple viewpoints in a single composition.

Richard Read has also suggested that the flattened space of West Penwith reflects Stokes’s desire to ‘register an effect of layering that he felt [the landscape] to possess’.[20] While this may be seen in geological terms, Read also proposed that it was invested with a psychological symbolism. He highlighted the coincidence of this work with the end of Stokes’s period of analysis with Melanie Klein and the first appearance in his notebooks of overtly psychoanalytic interpretations of aesthetic experience. Read argued that the layered format may be seen as a symbolic representation of Freud’s metaphoric conception of the unconscious and his theory of the superimposition of the senses. He equated the spatial relations of the painting with the accumulation of the past and present experience of the individual and the land. Claiming that ‘it took many years for Stokes to chrystallize [sic.] in words the meaning that West Penwith strove to capture in paint’, Read illustrated his argument with the artist’s later use of geological imagery: ‘Unconscious mechanisms at the back of behaviour are less particularized the deeper they are probed: at some distant point the rocks of psychological necessity give place to the molten bed of biological urge. The precious top-soil of conscious life will be refreshed by the new concern for what lies beneath’.[21] This, Read claimed, ‘is the nearest we can come to a “gloss” on West Penwith Moor - hence the granite substratum, the scrub and the precarious field of our picture’.[22]

More speculatively, Read suggested that one might see in the painting ‘a hint - I would put it no stronger than that - of an exclusively Kleinian approach’. He proposed that the combination of the isolation of the painting’s individual constituents with their inter-relatedness through ‘a long distance but intense chromatic relationship’ might symbolise or embody the work of art’s psychologically reparative function. Referring to Klein’s theory of art as an act of reparation for damage done to the mother in fantasy, he suggested: ‘This kind of firm amalgamation is just possibly Stokes’s allegory of Kleinian thought’.[23] Similarly, one might relate Stokes’s insistence upon the primacy of a unified picture surface to Klein’s conception of art as a process of reparation and reintegration. In contrast, Mellis maintains that Stokes would have approached the work in purely visual terms. ‘When you are painting you think of the shape and colour of what you are looking at ... The unusual thing about Adrian was that although he was a writer this didn’t impinge itself on his painting’.[24] Nevertheless, in the light of Read’s speculative reading, the fact that Stokes chose to start painting in a place that he associated with childhood and his particular delight in the womb-like oval of Landscape, West Penwith Moor may take on new significance.

Chris Stephens
July 1998

[1] Margaret Mellis, letter to Tate, 29 Feb. 1988, Tate catalogue files.
[2] Adrian Stokes, Smooth and Rough, London 1951; reprinted in Lawrence Gowing ed., The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, London 1978, II, p.218.
[3] Margaret Mellis, Tate questionaire, 9 Dec. 1987, Tate catalogue files.
[4] Margaret Mellis, interview with David Lewis and Sarah Fox-Pitt, 31 May 1981, Tate Archive TAV272AB.

[5] Reproduced in Adrian Stokes, Arts Council tour 1982, p.38.

[6] Richard Wollheim, ‘Adrian Stokes: Critic, Painter, Poet’, Adrian Stokes, exh. cat., Arts Council, 1982, p.27.
[7] Adrian Stokes, ‘Mr Ben Nicholson at the Lefevre Galleries’, Spectator, March 1937, reprinted in Gowing 1978, I, p.315.

[8] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-6, London 1988, pp.283-5; Richard Read, letter to Tate Gallery, undated [Jan. 1988], Tate catalogue files.
[9] Adrian Stokes, Colour and Form, London 1937, p.49.
[10] Read, letter [Jan. 1988].

[11] Colour and Form, 1937, p.23
[12] Tate conservation files.

[13] Adrian Stokes, Smooth and Rough, in Gowing ed. 1978, II, p.218.
[14] Ibid.

[15] No.6843, reproduced in Government Art Collection of the United Kingdom: The Twentieth Century, London 1997, p.138.
[16] Peter Lanyon to Stokes, letter, 10 June 1963, Adrian Stokes Papers, Tate Archive TGA 8816.

[17] Mellis letter, 29 Feb. 1988.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Colour and Form, 1937, Gowing 1978, II, p.32.

[20] Read, letter [Jan. 1988].
[21] Smooth and Rough, 1951, Gowing 1978, II, pp.235-6.
[22] Read, letter [Jan. 1988].

[23] Ibid.
[24] Mellis, letter, 29 Feb. 1988.

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