Adrian Stokes

Still Life: Last Eleven (No. 3)


Not on display

Adrian Stokes 1902–1972
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 508 × 610 mm
Purchased 1983

Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 508 x 610 mm (20 x 24 in)

Purchased from Mrs Ann Stokes Angus, the artist’s widow (Grant-in-Aid) 1983

The Last Paintings of Adrian Stokes, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-March 1973 (no catalogue)
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 (120, repr. as Still Life: Last Eleven (No.4))
The Hard Won Image: Traditional Method and Subject in Recent British Art, Tate Gallery, London, July-Sept. 1984 (134, repr.)

Richard Wollheim, ‘Adrian Stokes’, Listener, 28 Dec. 1972, p.900
John Russell, ‘Review’, Sunday Times, 25 Feb. 1973
Nigel Gosling, ‘Review’, Observer, 25 Feb. 1973
Lawrence Gowing, ‘True to Form’, New Statesman, 2 March 1973, p.316
Michael McNay, ‘Adrian Stokes’, Guardian, 3 March 1973
Marina Vaizey, ‘Adrian Stokes, John Hubbard’, Financial Times, 5 March 1973
Christopher Fox, ‘Review’, Studio International, vol.185, no.954, April 1973, p.153
Keith Roberts, ‘Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions’, Burlington Magazine, vol.115, no.841, April 1973, p.263
Richard Wollheim, ‘Adrian Stokes, Critic, Painter, Poet’, 4th William Townsend lecture, Slade School of Art, 1978, extended version published Times Literary Supplement, 17 Feb. 1978, p.207, reprinted in Stephen Bann (ed.), ‘Adrian Stokes 1902-72’, supplement, PN Review, 15, vol.7 no.1, 1980, p.37
Richard Wollheim, ‘On Adrian Stokes’s Paintings 1972’, Adrian Stokes, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London 1982, p.18
Richard Wollheim, ‘An Artist Who Practiced What he Preached’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 18 June 1982, pp.12-13
Robert Melville, ‘The Last Eleven’, London Review of Books, 15 July-4 Aug. 1982, p.18
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, pp.330-6, repr.
Ann Buchanan Crosby, ‘Souvenir de Adrian Stokes’, Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no.25, autumn 1988, pp.9-12

Adrian Stokes painted eleven still lifes between early September 1972, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and his death on 15 December. Of the series of eleven works, the last nine belong to the Tate Gallery and this is the first of these and third of the series. The two preceding it were given by Stokes to friends - the novelist David Plante and the painter Andrew Forge - before he agreed to his wife’s suggestion to keep the final works together.[1] This implicit definition of the eleven works as a single, coherent entity was reinforced by the accounts of friends and a memorial exhibition at the Tate Gallery and its critical reception.[2]

Only one of the series, No. 10 (Tate T03585), was dated by the artist, but an earlier catalogue entry on the Tate’s nine works has drawn upon the accounts of the artist’s widow and of David Plante to establish a speculative chronology for the paintings.[3] Though uncertain, Ann Stokes Angus accepted David Plante’s identification of the work in his collection as ‘the first of the series’ and concluded that Forge’s must be No.2. The current order of the other nine was suggested by her; it differs from that in the 1982 retrospective of Stokes’s painting where a chronological presentation was not considered. In a letter to the Tate, she recalled that Stokes ‘began getting ill in late July [1972] ... August was almost the worst moment for us both since he was given a brain scan which showed he had cancer on the right side and he realized he would die’. She suggested that a key moment in his illness and in the production of these works was his stay in University College Hospital between 18 and 21 September. There X Rays revealed the cancer to have spread throughout his body and the doctors sent him home with Cortisone to relieve the pain.[4] The pills enabled Stokes to continue painting and, he told Plante, ‘made him “very happy”’.[5]

Though Richard Wollheim described the series as ‘a small group of paintings that Stokes began ... when he returned home after a few days in hospital’,[6] Ann Stokes Angus has said that it began earlier. In 1986 she was unsure how many paintings were completed before the visit to hospital and the administration of Cortisone. She speculated that as many as four may have been painted before that time, but concluded that the first was started before and completed after Stokes’s trip to hospital. ‘About David P[lante]’s picture; he had painted the right hand half before going to U.C.H. and was unable to paint the left hand half, which he was able to do as soon as he got back’.[7] She attributed that initial inability to the effect of the tumour in the right hand side of his brain. However, in a letter to the painter Lawrence Gowing, written only a week after Stokes’s death, she suggested that it was the second of the series that Stokes had difficulty in completing: ‘He did 11 new ones since the beginning of September, one before going to UCH for X rays etc.; half of a second before when he simply couldn’t paint the left half at all, but on returning with the pills to fade out at home ... he was able to paint the left side’.[8] The fact that the left hand side of No.1 remains bare, may confirm its precedence in the series and suggest that it was No.2 (Andrew Forge) that was resolved after Stokes’s stay in hospital. Alternatively, Forge’s may have been the first of the series and Plante’s the second; as Ann Stokes Angus concluded in her 1986 letter, ‘I am still in doubt as to the pictures painted before Adrian was put on Cortisone. But if David is correct about his being the first picture then all the others come after the Cortisone’.[9]

She secured the order of this work, No.3, and No.4 (Tate T03579) by means of their appearance. Though she initially suggested that they preceded the Cortisone treatment as she saw them as ‘dark ... unhappy, rather desperate pictures’, she finally concluded that they post-dated Stokes’s hospital visit, unless he ‘put David’s [No.1] aside & did 2, 3 & 4, as I have said, before the hospital’.[10] Though there may be some doubt over this, her earlier letter to Gowing records that ‘Adrian painted a very agonized painting before Dr Fieldman came to us’.[11] In 1986, she recalled that their usual doctor had gone on holiday by 21 September and a cancer specialist - presumably Dr Fieldman - was called in. It seems most likely that No.3 would be this agonized image, thus placing it before 21 September and so before the hospital trip. That No.1, No.2 and No.3 are identical sizes may suggest that they were done one after the other. She noted that Stokes improved both of them, ‘but mainly repainted [No.4] which he felt a lot for’.[12] In common with most of the series, No.3 was painted in Stokes’s attic studio, before his decreasing physical powers forced him to work in his wife’s pottery in the basement.

In his letter to the Tate, David Plante recalled that by the end of November Stokes ‘was hardly able to hold the brush’.[13] Ann Buchanan Crosby has described how his wife helped him at that time:

She was crouching beside him, his paint brushes in her hand, his palette was on a table beside his easel ... Adrian would groan and indicate which blob of colour he wished Ann to dab a brush into ... He grasped the brush from her and would aim a sure stroke or perhaps two onto the canvas, then jab the brush back to her.[14]

Ann Stokes Angus explained that it was only the final painting (No.11, Tate T03581) with which she helped. She recalled that Stokes ‘took longer over the last 3 and was unable to start the No.10 for several days. No.11 was very, very difficult’.[15] She added later:

On the Last of the ‘Last 11’ ... he sat in front of the canvas & said ‘You paint it’. I said ‘How can I paint your picture’ he repeated ‘you paint it’ ... As he wouldn’t start I sat close behind him & asked where he wanted it started & what colour, & though he could scarcely communicate with ordinary words he showed me what he wanted ... to my relief he got interested in the brush, took it from me & scrubbed out what I had done but for a bit of background & did the whole picture himself. I think he finished it the next day which must have been Wed ... At the end of the last painting session ... he dropped his brushes deliberately, with a clatter & murmured words to the effect that it was finished. I was quite aware that he meant everything was finished.[16]

In painting still lifes, Stokes continued a major aspect of his work. He seems to have painted his first in the summer of 1939 and the motif came to dominate his output from the late 1950s. Though he had concentrated on writing and not painted for a time immediately before beginning the Last Eleven, he had executed still lifes earlier in 1972 - for example Still Life with Five Objects, 1972 (Telfer Stokes).[17] The objects depicted in the last eleven are consistent with his previous practice: glass decanters, wine bottles and pots made by his wife. Stokes used the still life motif to explore the possibility in painting of a relief-like space in which volumes were defined as the picture space was, paradoxically, flattened. In earlier, more precisely representational works, such as Still Life, 1963 (Tate T00720), this was partly attempted by the use of a background close to the object. With these last works the objects appear to float in a less-defined space: there is little or no suggestion of a divide between the backdrop and the table-top, for example.

The Last Eleven paintings reflect the artist’s condition. For Richard Wollheim, Stokes’s illness facilitated the achievement of his desired results: ‘in the last few weeks Stokes had increasing difficulty in bringing the canvas into focus; his grip on the brush was uncertain; he did not always pick up from the palette the colour he sought. None of this matters. The hand and the eye, so long the agents of the mind, turned incapacity into freedom’.[18] By his widow’s account, Stokes, too, saw these works as the realisation of the style for which he had worked: ‘this is how I should have painted’, she recalled him saying in November 1972.[19]

He had articulated his aims a few years earlier:

my interest as a painter ... is in an interpretation of volume that is without menace in slow and flattened progression as in the lowest relief, in which any section is as prominent or important, or is as little so, as any other section. I am interested in a status of mutual recognition, as it were, between objects and their spaces wherein there is nothing monumental, no movement, no rigidity, no flourish, no acuteness, no pointedness, no drama.[20]

Stokes’s painting style changed little over the years and these characteristics may be identified in his painting from earlier periods. However, in these final still lifes one may see a brightening of his palette and the achievement of a greater ambiguity between pictorial space and the flat surface of the canvas. The symptoms of his illness forced him to paint in a looser style, compared by several critics to Turner, which Wollheim saw as typical of an Old Master in his last years.[21]

In common with all but one of the nine works owned by the Tate, No.3 was painted on a prepared, Winsor & Newton, canvas. In all of the works the density of the oil paint varies from very thin washes to isolated areas of impasto, a few of which are unusually thick for Stokes; all the works have areas of bare ground. A high thinner content gave the paint a largely matt finish and made runs and dribbles a feature of the technique. This is one of several works in which turps appears to have been poured along the top to create a dribbling effect. The colouring is continuous with Stokes’s earlier work, though the lighter palette of a number of the series is distinctive. In this painting the Venetian red of the left hand jug and of the very cursory horizontal marks at the bottom appear to have been applied first. The rich green of the bottle on the right was dampened down with black over all but the very right hand edge of it. The predominant, very liquid dark blue of the background was clearly painted around the objects as it dribbles over them. All of the works are in good condition.

Chris Stephens
July 1998

[1] Still Life: Last Eleven (No.1), 1972, David Plante, reproduced in colour in Adrian Stokes, exh. cat., Arts Council, 1982, p.25; Still Life: Last Eleven (No.2), 1972, Andrew Forge, not reproduced.
[2] The Last Paintings of Adrian Stokes, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-March 1973.

[3] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986.
[4] Ann Stokes Angus, letter to Tate, 2 April 1986, Tate catalogue files.
[5] David Plante, letter to Tate, 16 March 1986, Tate catalogue files.

[6] Richard Wollheim, ‘Adrian Stokes’, Listener, 28 Dec. 1972, p.900.
[7] Letter to Tate, 2 April 1986.
[8] Ann Stokes Angus to Lawrence Gowing, letter, 23 Dec. 1972, Adrian Stokes papers, Tate Gallery Archive 8816.
[9] Letter to Tate, 2 April 1986.

[10] Ibid.
[11] Stokes Angus to Gowing, 23 Dec. 1972.
[12] Letter to Tate, 2 April 1986.

[13] Plante, letter to Tate, 16 March 1986.

[14] Ann Buchanan Crosby, ‘Souvenir de Adrian Stokes’, Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, no.25, autumn 1988, pp.9-12, trans. Tate cataloguing files, courtesy of the author.

[15] Letter to Tate, 2 April 1986.

[16] Ann Stokes Angus, letter to Tate, 8 April 1986, Tate catalogue files.

[17] Reproduced in colour in Adrian Stokes, exh. cat., Art Council, 1982, p.23.

[18] Wollheim 1972, p.900.
[19] Letter to Tate, 2 April 1986.

[20] Adrian Stokes, ‘A Drama of Modesty: Adrian Stokes on his Paintings’, Studio International, vol.185 no.954, April 1973.

[21] Richard Wollheim, ‘On Adrian Stokes’s Paintings 1972’, Adrian Stokes, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London 1982, p.18.

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