Not on display

N.H. Stubbing (Tony Stubbing) 1921–1983
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1562 × 1943 × 25 mm
Bequeathed by Ana Ricarda-Stubbing 2001


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 Druid Light, the accumulation of marks creating a rhythmic and vibrant surface.

Druid Light is one of a number of paintings Stubbing produced at this time which are linked to ceremonial and ritualistic practices. These paintings, which he referred to as ‘Rituals’ or ‘Ceremonies’, were consistently painted on a large canvas around a central focus. Yvonne Stubbing wrote that he was ‘interested in the Druids early in the 1950s as well as the cavemen; everything had to do with the beginning of civilization ... He was a very religious man ... painting to him was a devotional act’ (quoted in Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, p.498). This painting also reveals Stubbing’s interest in the ancient Egyptian philosophy of Hermeticism. The illusion of light radiating from the centre of the painting can be imagined to be coming from what the followers of this cult believed to be ‘God’s All-Seeing Eye’. The pair of touching hands above this symbol are also connected with this mystical philosophy.

In 1968, nine years after completing this painting, Stubbing had to give up painting with his hands as he suffered from an allergic reaction to the paints. By this time, however, he had secured an international reputation. He had also begun to receive support from Alfred Barr (1902-81) and Herbert Read (1893-1968), the latter wrote of Stubbing’s 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).

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, reproduced p.1 in colour

Heather Birchall

July 2002

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Display caption

This picture reflects Stubbing’s interest in direct forms of artistic expression and in mysticism. He made it by pressing his paint-covered hands directly onto the canvas. The technique was inspired by prehistoric wall paintings.

Embedded in the painting are signs associated with the Druids and the Ancient Egyptian philosophy of Hermetism. The radiant, central motif may be interpreted as the All-Seeing Eye, while the clasped hands above it also have mystical connotations.  

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

N.H. (Tony) Stubbing visited the neolithic cave paintings at Altamira, Spain in 1949. He was profoundly influenced by the experience and from 1954 until 1969 he painted works by applying paint directly to the canvas with his hands. Druid Light is one of these works, which he referred to as “Ceremonies” or “Rituals”.

Stubbing stretched his linen over a wooden stretcher with mortice and tenon joints. The work was stapled to the outer edge of the stretcher. White oil priming was applied to a field on the front face of the canvas, leaving up to 1 cm of raw canvas visible on the front outer edge.

The paint was applied over the priming with some of the paint staining the canvas where it lay over unprimed canvas on the front outer edge. The artist systematically loaded both of his hands with paint, pressed them flat against the surface of the painting and then pulled his hands away. In some areas he slid his hands slightly and/or pressed his fingers together. This has created a variable surface. Ridges were formed where paint was squeezed between his fingers. Sharply pointed impasto formed where he lifted his hands from the surface. The paint colours mixed as he pressed and pulled the surface, sometimes blending and sometimes forming striations. A few layers were applied, overlapping previous applications. The paint was applied in concentric circles out from the centre of the canvas, sometimes with his hands pointing inwards and sometimes with his fingers pointing out from the centre towards the outer edges. The centre of the painting contains the thickest paint and in this area the final applications of paint were done with the fingers pointing outward to the edge of the canvas. The only break in this circular pattern is with the impression of two handprints placed above the central circle, pointing slightly inwards. Most of the coloured paint is vehicular with a glossy or satin finish. The black paint is very lean and matte in contrast.

The unvarnished painting is not framed. A strip of brown paper tape was applied neatly around the outer edge of the painting and although now torn and degraded, it originally offered minimal protection from handling marks and covered the staples.

The uneven thickness of the paint film combined with slack tension has caused numerous planar distortions of the canvas surface and slight corner draws. Where matte black paint lay over more glossy colours, it retracted as it dried, resulting in networks of cracks and these areas are fragile but intact. The complex surface texture has accumulated years of grime and dust, which could prove difficult to clean. The painting requires additional structural support and careful handling.

Patricia Smithen
May 2001

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