Adrian Stokes

Olive Terraces

1938 and c.1952

Not on display

Adrian Stokes 1902–1972
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 559 mm
Purchased 1965

Display caption

This picture was painted in 1938 at Rapallo on the Italian Riviera but was largely repainted some fourteen years later. The subject of a stable environment in which man and nature combine to orderly purpose had great appeal to Stokes. He wrote : 'The conditions of Mediterranean agriculture are nearly always gratifying to the aesthetic sense. Here, produce so often demands the sculptural, domestic and architectural aid of man ... Olives love their man-made terraces that go in stone perspective up the piedmont.'

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 760 x 559 mm (29 15/16 x 22 in)
Inscribed by the artist on back in ink ‘8/0921’; ‘8/0921 | OLIVE TERRACES’; ‘Adrian Stokes’; ‘Stok[...], and in paint on canvas surplus ‘AD.S 1938’

Purchased from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1965

Adrian Stokes, Marlborough Fine Art, London, Jan. 1965 (14, repr.)
Adrian Stokes, Arts Council tour, Serpentine Gallery, London, June-July 1982, Huddersfield Art Gallery, July-Aug., City Museum and Art Gallery, Gloucester, Sept.-Oct. 1982 (10, repr. p.38)

Tate Gallery Report 1964-5, London 1966, p.54
Marina Vaizey, ‘Adrian Stokes, John Hubbard’, Financial Times, 5 March 1973

Italy held a special place in Adrian Stokes’s affections and in his work; he first went there in 1922 and returned repeatedly, living there for periods of time. The frequency of his visits during the 1920s was curtailed by his decision in 1933 to settle in London whilst undergoing psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein; that treatment ceased in 1938, the year in which, by the artist’s own account, Olive Terraces was painted at Rapallo.[1] An inscription on a photograph of this work indicates that it was executed in July during Stokes’s honeymoon in Italy with his first wife, the painter Margaret Mellis. He produced several paintings of the same subject on that trip. A work, or works, entitled Olive Trees, Rapallo was exhibited at the London Group in October 1938 and at the Lefevre Gallery in 1940.[2]

Rapallo is a resort on the Italian Riviera east of Genoa which was favoured between the wars by writers and artists, such as Thomas Mann, Oskar Kokoschka and Max Beerbohm. It had played a particular role in Stokes’s development: while at Oxford, he would join his parents who holidayed there every summer. It was there, in the winter of 1924, that he had met the Sitwells - ‘the first to open my eyes’[3] - and, two years later, encountered Ezra Pound. The poet was an important influence on Stokes’s study of the Tempio Malatesta in Rimini and was instrumental in the publication, in The Criterion, of the resultant essays which were subsequently reworked in Stones of Rimini (London 1934). Stokes later regretted that he had, for a while, also been influenced by Pound’s Fascist sympathies, though it would appear that by 1938 Stokes’s political position was equivocal. It is most probable that the Stokeses would have stayed in a hotel in Rapallo, but it seems likely that they would have visited Pound. To do so at a time when the poet was a regular contributor to Oswald Mosley’s British Union Quarterly, as Italy was adopting increasingly anti-Semitic policies and in the year that the British government’s appeasement of Mussolini had forced the resignation of the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, suggests that Stokes had, at least, a disregard for politics. On the one hand, this may be borne out by his resistance to the political ideologies of both of the artistic groups with whom he associated at that time: the socialist realism of some of the Euston Road School, specifically Graham Bell, and the idealism of the Constructivists, then at their height following the publication of Circle.[4] On the other hand, Stokes designed posters for an anti-Franco demonstration in Trafalgar Square in May 1938 with Mellis.

That this work was painted in situ is demonstrated by the widespread attachment of fine, probably wind-borne, debris in the paint.[5] In his letter to the Tate, Stokes said that Olive Terraces was ‘largely re-painted in 1952’ and this is confirmed by close examination.[6] Painted over a commercially prepared white oil ground, the first campaign of work displays a transparent and fluid application. A layer of varnish separates the original painting from the later additions which are leaner and more scumbled in technique, emphasising the transparency of the earlier work. Markings of paint film along the left and bottom edges suggest that, between 1938 and 1952, the work might have been in a more traditional frame than the thin baguette later favoured by the artist. It is apparent that the reworking involved the simplification of the foreground colour relations and the suppression of harsh accents in the background. Though the final image is largely unvarnished, some later brushmarks in the bottom left hand corner were subsequently saturated with a local application of varnish, suggesting that Stokes wished to retain the vibrant quality of the additions. Comparison with a photograph of the first state shows that one or two trees which were originally darker were toned down and that the white house at the top of the composition was partially obscured by the addition of a tree. The overall effect of the repainting is to establish a unified surface, minimising contrast and difference between foreground and background.

The flattening of the composition is reinforced by the painter’s motif. It is a characteristic of many of Stokes’s treatments of landscape that, in contrast to the distanced view or panorama of the Claudean paradigm, the subject appears to rise up in front of the viewer. Here, as in Landscape, West Penwith Moor, 1937 (Tate T04123), this formula is dictated by the topography of the location and the artist’s viewpoint. The painting shows olive trees planted in terraces, viewed as though looking across and down so that there is no horizon. The spatial ambiguity, accentuated by the artist’s technique, allows him to combine a representational subject with a flattened picture surface. The denial of depth in Stokes’s composition, which several critics have compared to the work of Bonnard, might be seen as typical of his negotiation of a style that both adopted the techniques and resisted the extremes of abstraction and representation.

In his advocacy of Ben Nicholson’s work, Stokes defined abstraction in terms of an objective art: ‘For me, abstraction in painting can mean nothing other than such separation from subject-matter ... of the exercise for the eye which all good paintings afford’.[7] However, rejecting the idea of non-representation, he insisted upon the derivation of aesthetic values from Nature. As he explained in a letter to William Coldstream in September 1937, his own painting was ‘inspired by a perception of nature rather than by the contemplation of other pictures’.[8]

Stokes shared with Coldstream both a belief in the retention of the flatness of the picture surface and an admiration for Cézanne. That common ground presumably attracted him to the Euston Road School, whose pursuit of an objective painting was also in accord with his position. Shortly after his first visit to the school, Stokes wrote to Coldstream of their shared advocacy of ‘a quiet realism’.[9] In Colour and Form, published at that time, he described the ‘carving conception’ of painting which gives each form equal significance through colour and held up Cézanne as exemplary in his preservation of the evenness of the picture. The use of colour to establish an equality between adjacent forms and so further emphasise the picture plane was defined by Stokes in terms of the concept of ‘carving colour’, and he used the olive to illustrate his point: ‘A simple instance of such an effect is an olive tree in a typical Mediterranean landscape. In dark brown and shadeless leaves the rich colour and substance of the earth from which the tree rises has undergone a silver metamorphosis, a rarefication: the very growth of the tree is presented to us as a thing completed or accomplished’.[10]

Olives were a motif to which Stokes frequently returned, as also witnessed by Olive Trees, 1958 (Tate T00216). They were amongst his earliest chosen motifs, as he first painted them while staying at Aldous Huxley’s villa at Sanary in south-east France during the winter of 1936-7. They may be seen not only as the natural embodiment of Stokes’s approach to colour in painting, but also as a symbol of the Mediterranean culture with which he most readily identified. In 1934 he had observed that ‘in general the conditions of the Mediterranean agriculture are nearly always gratifying to the aesthetic sense’, and gone on to associate this with such human interventions into the landscape as are seen in Olive Terraces.

Here produce so often demands the sculptural, domestic and architectural aid of man ... Olives love their man-made terraces that go in stone perspective up the piedmont. There are high walls for the fruit-bearing trees, craterous stone structures for the preservation of water, the terracing of hills for the straight trees and for the gnarled and filigree olives. Everywhere there is the same ratio between art and growth that one finds in the garden, between mineral and the vegetable, between tub and shrub, between sculpture and horticulture, between the statue and the wood.[11]

Stokes’s consciousness of the underlying structure of the landscape has also been related to his paintings of Cornwall of the year before, such as Landscape, West Penwith Moor.

The flatness of his painting is further emphasised by a lack of drawing and rigid structure which is in contrast to the work of Cézanne and to the values expounded by Coldstream. That he was conscious of this is clear from his letter to Coldstream: ‘My pictures at their best are but ghosts, giving an end-result without substance. They are, if you like, abstract landscapes, polite generalizations about a certain aspect of natural organization that I have felt deeply. I’ve not studied or followed the actual subjects at all. I don’t approve of this except as a first dilettante phase’.[12]

Chris Stephens
July 1998

[1] Adrian Stokes, letter to Tate Gallery, 17 Feb. 1965, Tate catalogue files.

[2] Olive Trees, Rapallo, London Group, London, October 1938 (40) and Art of Today, Lefevre Gallery, London, February 1940 (56).

[3] Adrian Stokes, exh. cat., Arts Council tour 1982, p.52.
[4] J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson, N. Gabo eds., Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London 1937.

[5] Tate conservation files.
[6] Letter, 17 Feb. 1965.

[7] Adrian Stokes, ‘Mr Ben Nicholson at the Lefevre Galleries’, Spectator, March 1937, reprinted, Lawrence Gowing, ed., The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, London 1978, I, p.315.

[8] Stokes to William Coldstream, undated letter [Sept. 1937], William Coldstream papers, Tate Gallery Archive 8922.4.774.

[9] Ibid.
[10] Adrian Stokes, Colour and Form, 1937, reprinted Gowing 1978, II, p.37.

[11] Adrian Stokes, Stones of Rimini, 1934, reprinted Gowing 1978, I, p.208.

[12] Stokes to Coldstream, [Sept. 1937].

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