Adrian Stokes

Still Life


Not on display

Adrian Stokes 1902–1972
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 613 × 461 × 19 mm
Bequeathed by David Sylvester in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota 2001


Adrian Stokes is best known as the author of books and articles about modern art, particularly on Henry Moore (1898-1986), Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), and on the appreciation of Italian Renaissance art and architecture (his namesake, the landscape painter Adrian Stokes 1854-1935, is no relation). He was also a painter of landscape, the nude and still life, depicting his subjects in even tones of warm browns and reds so that they appear indistinct.

Stokes taught himself to paint in the 1930s as a practical extension of his criticism, and learnt also from his first wife, the abstract painter Margaret Mellis (born 1914). He exhibited in London in the 1950s and 60s, but remained a private artist, highly regarded among a circle of intellectuals, but not generally known, and with sufficient private means not to need to sell his work. His writing is abstract and psychoanalytical, concerned with the perception of form. He was a keen admirer of Melanie Klein (1882-1960) whose psychoanalytical thinking informed Stokes's writing.

Late in his life he wrote approvingly of Turner, in a way that might describe his own painting, 'There is a long history of indistinctness in Turner's art, connected with what I have called an embracing or enveloping quality, not least of the spectator with the picture' ('Painting and the Inner World', Gowing, III, p.237). Stokes's paintings depict objects whose substance is rendered indistinct by broken brushwork that conveys a lambent light, dissolving the distinction between form and ground.

In 2001 Tate was bequeathed a group of eight of Stokes's paintings by his friend and admirer, the critic David Sylvester (1924-2001). He had previously lent them in 1993 to Tate's annual 'New Displays' of the Collection, a procedure newly devised in 1990 by the Gallery's director Nicholas Serota, and Sylvester subsequently asked that this bequest should be named in his honour. In 1968 Sylvester had dedicated his catalogue for the Arts Council Henry Moore exhibition to Adrian Stokes.

Further reading:
Adrian Stokes 1902-72, A retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1982.
Lawrence Gowing, ed., The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, London, l-III, 1978.

David Jenkins
February 2002

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Technique and condition

The primary support for Still Life (1958) is linen canvas stretched over a pine stretcher. The canvas is a fine, 1 x 1, plain weave fabric with a Winsor & Newton Ltd. “Winton” stamp on the reverse face of the top tacking edge. The expandable stretcher has four members with non-mitred, mortise and tenon joints. The canvas was prepared with a layer of size, probably animal glue, and given two layer of priming. The first layer was a commercially applied, off-white oil ground. The second layer was applied by the artist to the front face only and just covers the front edges. This oil layer is thicker, with a creamy colour.

The muted shades of oil paint were applied to the front face of the canvas only. Thin washes of colour were brushed applied in superimposed layers. The brushwork is vigorous in application, softened with blending on the surface. The paint is generally semi-transparent with some spots of opaque paint. There are areas of low, textured paint and some canvas weave is apparent although the surface is generally flat. The surface has a soft, slightly patchy sheen.

The painting arrived at Tate in a well-used state. There were numerous dents, deformations and cracks from handling and storage conditions. The surface was lightly coated with grime and drip marks and debris had accumulated behind the stretcher bars. The stretcher is somewhat flimsy and provides inadequate support for the canvas. There were a few abrasions and losses on the edges of the painting and there was one old, unfilled loss on the front face, this old loss was crudely repainted, probably by the artist.

The painting was surface cleaned front and back, and removed from its stretcher. The work underwent some flattening treatments to remove the worst dents and reduce the over deformations. The original stretcher was retained and the painting was given a loose lining of polyester sailcloth. This will help stabilise the stretcher and provide an overall support for the painting. The painting was re-stretched over the loose lining and secured with staples on the reverse. The losses were filled and retouched with watercolours. While still not perfectly flat, the painting is stabilised and the soft surface sheen uncovered from beneath the grime.

Patricia Smithen
August 2003

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