Adrian Stokes

Olive Trees


Not on display

Adrian Stokes 1902–1972
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 635 mm
Purchased 1958

Display caption

Hitchens’s work of the 1950s stretches the balance between painterly abstraction and representation of the visible world. Here, the forms and spaces of the woodland are translated into an abstract surface design, yet the picture equally captures the movement of light and shadow, the wind through trees, the textures of moss and soil. Heron wrote: ‘every statement [Hitchens] makes on the canvas is wrenched direct from Nature. The visual scene is always his point of departure....To no other painter do Cézanne’s precepts still apply more aptly: I mean that Hitchens may truly be said to be “realising his sensations before Nature”.’

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 762 x 635 mm (30 x 25 in)
Inscribed by the artist on canvas surplus in pale blue paint ‘ADS’

Purchased from the artist (Knapping Fund) 1958

Adrian Stokes, Arts Council tour, Serpentine Gallery, June-July 1982, Huddersfield Art Gallery, July-Aug., City Museum and Art Gallery, Gloucester, Sept.-Oct. 1982 (40, repr. p.41)

Tate Gallery Report 1958-9, London 1959, p.26
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.696

Andrew Forge (ed.), The Townsend Journals: An Artist’s Recod of his Times 1928-51, London 1976, p.47

Olive trees were a recurrent motif for Adrian Stokes, epitomising for him the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape. He first painted them at Aldous Huxley’s house at Sanary in the south of France in 1937, the year after he began to paint. He returned to the subject in Rapallo on the Italian Riviera the following year with Olive Terraces (Tate T00721) and other works and at various places in Italy over the following two decades or more.

This work appears to have been painted in a grove of olives and, beyond the trees, a group of red-roofed houses are visible on the left hand side. It was painted in July 1958 during a two month holiday with the painter Lawrence Gowing and his wife Julia on the estate of Casa Marlisa at Torri del Benaco, a village on Lake Garda in northern Italy.[1] Stokes was taken with neither the house nor the village, reporting to his wife that ‘except for the olives, its not nearly as nice as Maggiore’.[2] Nevertheless, he painted prolifically, starting at six o’clock every morning, and mostly on the same theme. The artist wrote at the end of July that, though he was hoping to paint in the village, ‘so far it has been entirely looking up into olives, and I have done 7 paintings, 3 of them on your big ones [canvases]’.[3] The artist’s widow believed that this would have been one of these three larger works. Another, entitled Olive Trees, Torri del Banco was exhibited in early 1965.[4]

Olive Trees is distinct from the Tate’s earlier Olive Terraces in its greater sense of distinction between figure and ground and a more prominent graphic element. The work is on a commercially prepared canvas. Characteristically, there was no underdrawing but the trunks of the two left hand trees were first delineated in Venetian red and the branches in the top half of the composition were initially rendered in thin brown oil. Generally, the paint is typically thin with a matt finish. The ground was bare in large areas, especially at the top, giving a sense of spatial recession. Lilac, a favourite Stokes colour, was applied over much of the background on the right hand side to flatten the composition, as was the darker green at the top. Finally, small dashes and larger areas of white were added around and over the uppermost branches and foliage to lessen the sense of depth between the tree members. Though lighter and looser than such works as Olive Terraces, this painting still demonstrates Stokes’s use of his chosen subject as a vehicle for chiefly formal and technical concerns: the achievement of a unified picture plane as representative of the artist’s psychological reintegration.

Chris Stephens
July 1998

[1] Adrian Stokes, letter to Tate, 30 Dec. 1958, Tate catalogue files.
[2] Stokes to Ann Stokes, undated letter [July 1958], Adrian Stokes papers, Tate Archive.
[3] Stokes to Ann Stokes, letter 28 July 1958, Adrian Stokes papers, Tate Archive.
[4] Adrian Stokes, Marlborough Fine Art, January 1965, no. 27.

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