N.H. Stubbing (Tony Stubbing)

Coral Variations (24)


Not on display

N.H. Stubbing (Tony Stubbing) 1921–1983
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 2007 × 3226 mm
Purchased 1992


In 1949 Stubbing was one of a number of artists, including Mathias Goertiz (born 1915), Eduardo Saura (1930-88) and Joan Miró (1893-1983), who attended a meeting held in the deep recesses of the Caves of Altamira in Northern Spain. Surrounded by colourful pictures of bison, wild boar and deer painted by the Magdalenian people between 16,000 and 19,000 BC, the group met to discuss the direction of contemporary art in the aftermath of World War II (1939-45). Although the ‘School of Altamira’ was short-lived, the experience was to profoundly influence the direction of Stubbing’s work. His wife, Yvonne Stubbing, recounted his experience:

When he first entered the cave he found a hand outlined on the wall near the Bull paintings ... a signature perhaps? It was like an outlined stencil ... the first stencil! Done with pigments squeezed through a pig bladder Tony suggested. He put his hand over the hand and it fitted perfectly ... fingers exactly the same length ... width, palm the same shape ... perhaps it was from that moment he started identifying with prehistorical man!

(quoted in Rituals, p.7)

Five years after his first sight of these prehistoric paintings, Stubbing gave up painting with his brush and began to create pictures composed of hundreds of hand prints. He would either lay his hand flat on the canvas or drag his fingers across the surface. These methods are evident in Coral Variations, where the accumulation of marks creates a rhythmic and vibrant surface. The variations in tone create a boundless space, the eye being drawn into the dense network of colours and textures. The title may follow from the visual illusion of a coral reef, or to the slow accumulation in the picture of the traces of the presence of a living organism, in this case his hands. In 1956, the year of this painting, Stubbing was living in Paris. There he became immersed in the avant-garde scene, and would became aware of the American Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock (1912-56) Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Willem de Kooning (1904-97). The size of paintings by these artists may have influenced Stubbing to create a work on a large scale.

In the early 1960s Stubbing began to attract the attraction of the museum director Alfred Barr (1902-81) and critic Herbert Read (1893-1968). The latter wrote of Stubbing’s paintings made from hand prints ‘the work of art must be, not a projection of or from an existing state of feeling, but rather an extension of consciousness itself, the creation of an object that awakens new feelings, that adds a facet, however minute, to the slow crystallization of experience into beauty’ (N. H. (Tony) Stubbing Retrospective, p.9). In 1968 Stubbing had to give up painting with his hands due to an allergic reaction to the paints.

Further reading:
Rituals: N. H. (Tony) Stubbing, exhibition catalogue, England & Co., London 1990
The Tate Gallery: 1986-1988 Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1996, pp.494-8
N. H. (Tony) Stubbing Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, England & Co., London 2000

Heather Birchall

June 2002

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Stubbing made the multi-layered, all-over pattern of this picture by applying his paint-covered hands directly onto the canvas. In places he dragged and rubbed the paint with his fingers to create the restless rhythm. The earthy colours were chosen for their association with nature.

Stubbing’s technique was inspired by pre-historic wall paintings. He saw it as a way of tapping into ancient rituals and expressing the primal forces of life.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.


You might like

In the shop