Graham Sutherland OM

Black Landscape


In Tate Britain

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint and sand on canvas
Support: 810 × 1321 mm
frame: 1006 × 1506 × 76 mm
Purchased 1980

Display caption

This Welsh scene reflects the artist's anxiety at the threat of war; it was painted during the ‘phoney war’ between 1939 and 1940. Both the title and the ominous twilight effect suggest imminent violence. Later the artist would transform objects found in nature, such as tree roots and branches, into human-like presences. Here it is the stark rocky landscape that rises up as a dark, threatening presence.

Sutherland was influenced by the pastoral vision of William Blake and Samuel Palmer (shown in room 8). This painting echoes the breadth of vision Blake showed in times of war, transcending narrowly nationalistic concerns.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Black Landscape 1939-40


Oil and sand on canvas 810 x 1321 (31 7/8 x 52)

Inscribed on back of canvas in black paint ‘BLACK LANDSCAPE | GRAHAM SUTHERLAND | 70 guineas’ at left hand side and on stretcher in pencil ‘Graham Sutherland’ on cross-bar, and ?‘AO/2006’ b.l.

Purchased from James Kirkman Ltd, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1980

?Purchased from the artist by Ruskin Gallery, Stratford-on-Avon; ...; Marlborough Fine Art, London by 1965, from whom purchased by Matthew Prichard, Cowbridge 1966, by whom sold to James Kirkman Ltd.

First Exhibition of Paintings by Walter Goetz; Recent Paintings by Graham Sutherland, Leicester Galleries, London, May 1940 (17)
Works by Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Temple Newsam, Leeds, July-Sept. 1941 (135)
Moore, Piper, Sutherland, British Institute of Adult Education exhibition, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Nov.-Dec. 1941 (67)
Forty Painters, Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts tour, Hyde Park Social Club, Plymouth, March-April 1942, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, April-May, Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, May-June, South Shields Public Libraries, Museum & Art Room, June-July, West Hartlepool Art School, July-Aug., Darlington Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Army Quiet Club, Liverpool, Sept., unidentified military camp, Wellington, Oct.-Nov. (44)
Graham Sutherland, Haus der Kunst, Munich, March-May 1967, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, June-July, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, Aug.-Sept., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, Oct.-Nov. (3, repr., as ‘1937’)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (72, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (72, repr. p.92)
Loan to Graham Sutherland Gallery, Picton Castle, Haverfordwest, March-Oct. 1985
Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1921-40, Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London, Oct.-Dec. 1986 (99)
British Art in the Twentieth Century: The Modern Movement, Royal Academy, London, Jan.-April 1987, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, May-Aug. (176, repr. in col. p.267)
Masterpieces of British Art from the Tate Gallery, Metropolitan Museum, Tokyo, Jan.-March 1998, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Kobe, April-June 1998 (91, repr. in col. p.151)

Raymond Mortimer, ‘Notes on Shows’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.19, no.481, 11 May 1940, p.62
Eric Newton, ‘Graham Sutherland’, Sunday Times, 12 May 1940
Tate Gallery Aquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.209
Peter Fuller, ‘Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1921-40, Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London’, Burlington Magazine, vol.129, no.1006, Jan. 1987, p.44
Virginia Button, ‘The Aesthetic of Decline: English Neo-Romanticism c.1935-56’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1991, pp.54, 90, repr.

Sacheverell Sitwell, ‘The Arts in England’, Vogue, vol.101, no.8, Aug. 1945, p.32, republished as ‘The Future of English Art’, Vogue (New York), vol.106, no.6, 1 Oct. 1945, p.149 (with the artist)
Manuel Gasser, ‘Der Maler Graham Sutherland’, Werk, vol.36, no.11, p.377 (detail with artist)
Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.11 (as ‘1937’)
Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, between pp.64 and 65 (as ‘1937’)

The first recorded date for Black Landscape is 1939-40.[1] However, it may also be associated with an earlier moment as it relates closely to a watercolour that was produced in 1937 and exhibited in Sutherland’s first one-person exhibition the following year alongside such works as Welsh Landscape with Roads, 1936 (Tate Gallery N05666).[2] This earlier version, also entitled Black Landscape, (Glasgow Art Gallery & Museum)[3] was in the collection of Sutherland’s friend and patron Kenneth Clark and, as an earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry has suggested,[4] the artist would have been able to renew his acquaintance with it when he and his wife went to live with the Clarks in Upton House, Tetbury, Gloucestershire for a year from December 1939. It is presumably because of this association with the more widely disseminated watercolour that this work was dated 1937 in Sutherland’s 1967 retrospective.

That said, Sutherland may not have needed to consult Clark’s watercolour. In 1969 he drew up a map of St David’s Head in Pembrokeshire marking the locations of various early landscapes, including the Black Landscape watercolour.[5] This confirmed that the composition was based on the view from a position close to the village and inlet of Porth Clais looking north towards the rocky outcrop Clegyr-Boia. Sutherland was very familiar with the landscape depicted as he had visited the area regularly since the summer of 1934 and returned there with his wife shortly after Christmas 1939. He would also have had many studies to hand as he had produced several paintings that depicted Clegyr Boia from a variety of positions, including Sun Setting Between Hills, 1937 (private collection),[6] Western Hills, 1938 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh)[7] and Road and Hills in Setting Sun, 1938 (ownership unknown).[8]

Despite the suggestion of the topographical specificity of Black Landscape, 1939-40, the difference between it and its precursor demonstrate its artifice. The watercolour did not have the strong horizon line that bisects the oil painting and, as a result, it was more frontal, with less sense of spatial recession. In the earlier rendition the pointed hill descends to the right in a single curve, but in the later painting its line is less clear as there is a more complex stepping down of layered forms. The foreground of the oil is sparer and much lighter, suggesting that its use of an angular structure and a large recessive plane are formal devices. While another piece of high ground rises up the left hand edge of the watercolour, that side of the oil is empty save for a group of stylised plants borrowed from higher up in the earlier painting. This openness may have been intended to counter the greater complexity of the left hand side of the composition that was remarked upon by a contemporary critic, who believed that Sutherland’s attempt to ‘balance an intricate left side with a massively simple right side [was] ingenious, but not ... successful’.[9] There is some visual evidence to suggest that in the oil the left-hand peak was originally broader and more rounded, more like the hill in Western Hills. The later adjustment demonstrates the artist’s free interpretation of his sources and suggests that he might have sought to bring the oil in line with the watercolour after he had started work on it.

Sutherland’s concern for compositional balance is evident from the painting itself. A narrow band of thinner more matt paint along the right hand side indicates that the canvas was moved on the stretcher about 1cm to the left; this is confirmed by an extra set of tack-holes, some of which can be seen running down the right hand edge. The effect of this adjustment was to establish a greater margin between the arc formed by the right hand hill meeting the foreground and the painting’s edge. Various elements of the composition also appear to be as much formal devices as they are illustrative: the diagonal steps which give a sense of recession to the foreground, for instance, were absent in the earlier watercolour but had been used in the much sparer Welsh Mountains, 1937 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney).[10] Though a jagged line was used to divide the left-hand hill in both versions of Black Landscape, its appearance in Welsh Mountains suggests it was also one of Sutherland’s preferred pictorial devices, as were the stylised plants on the left of Black Landscape which would reappear in such works as Horned Forms, 1944 (Tate Gallery T00834). Despite these formal priorities, the peculiarity of certain details, such as the small area of dots in the middle of the foreground and a tiny light square, carefully left unpainted in the middle distance, would suggest that they have a specific relationship to an external source.

Compositional differences between the two versions of Black Landscape would seem to validate the argument that one was not actually derived from the other, though it remains likely that Sutherland referred to the earlier version while working on the oil. In the latter, the right-hand foreground is so reduced that a grey-pink plane is suggestive of the surface of a lake though none exists; this gives a greater sense of mass, uniting both the foreground and the hill into a single rotund bulk in contrast to the more linear structure of the watercolour. The massiveness of the land is similar to that which characterised David Bomberg’s otherwise very different Spanish landscapes that had been shown in London in 1936.[11] The rounded fulsomeness of Sutherland’s landscape also recalls those works of art based upon a duality between the land and the human body, most particularly the female figures of Henry Moore - Recumbent Figure, 1938 (Tate Gallery N05387) for instance.

Noting that ‘black and dark red are dominant colours’ in Sutherland’s work, a contemporary critic cited the first version of Black Landscape as proof of the artist’s ‘perception of a stormy, brooding atmosphere in nature’.[12] The suffusion of Black Landscape in tones of pink, combined with the strength of the black linearity, gives it a sense of the setting sun that seems to illuminate several of his works of the period. This may simply reflect the westerly location of their sources, but, in 1937, he had described how a landscape’s colours and forms can be altered by the melancholy drama of the dying light. In Myfanwy Evans’s The Painter’s Object (1937), a publication that signalled the growing romantic trend in British modernism, he described the Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire: ‘the setting sun, as it were precipitating new colours, turns the stone ... The coloured patches which streak the surfaces give emphasis to the form and variety to the eye. These patches are warm, even in a cold light. But now they assume tones as of blood.’[13] The qualification of visual analysis with a macabre undertone is typical of Sutherland’s writing and a similar ambiguity may be discerned in the mood of Black Landscape and especially in other works such as Red Landscape, 1942 (Southampton City Art Gallery).[14] identified In both of these works a menacing tone has been detected, suggesting a comparison with ‘apocalyptic sensibility of John Martin’.[15] The casting of sublime scenes in the sanguine colours of the setting sun recalls Paul Nash’s famous war painting We Are Making a New World, 1918 (Imperial War Museum),[16] and may be thought to reflect the air of anxiety and violence resulting from another conflict. Black Landscape was executed during the ‘phoney war’ of 1939-40 while Sutherland, an evacuee from his Kent home, was considering his own wartime role. That Sutherland would have accepted such readings of his landscapes alongside more topographical interpretations is suggested by his refusal to identify specific locations in their titles. Thus, such works as Black Landscape become more generalised statements than representations of a single place.

The dark of this work also results from Sutherland’s employment of techniques which emulate those of watercolour painting. The use of a dominating black structure combined with a wash-like single colour relates the oil painting back to the earlier version; thin drips on the sides of the canvas reflect the general application of red and indicate that the canvas was painted while flat. However, the painting is considerably more complex than at first it seems. The pale areas are built up of several layers of different tones of pink and of grey - stippled in places - and, unexpectedly, much of the black was painted over these. Squaring up, visible on the left hand side, would seem to indicate that the composition was transferred from a study but the fact that the grid is incised into the black paint suggests that it has been applied or reintroduced at a later stage. In the bottom right hand corner, a small triangulated rectangle incised into the paint but covered over with the black would seem to be related to this original compositional process. That the off-white ground is visible in places may suggest that the design was drawn out before painting and was followed fairly closely; this was Sutherland’s standard practice, though he would also institute changes during painting. Grit, probably sand, was mixed in with the early layers of paint, adding to the texture of the work and asserting the presence of the picture surface. This technique, which was also used in the slightly earlier Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate Galley N06190), probably derived from the paintings of Georges Braque, whose influence on Sutherland had been noted in responses to his 1938 exhibition.[17] In Black Landscape the grit was not applied universally, though its pattern does not seem to relate to the composition.

That Sutherland’s emulation of the style of Black Landscape, 1937 was not a retrogressive step is indicated by a 1940 watercolour, probably of Clegyr Boia, in the same manner, Dark Hill with Hedges and Fields, (private collection).[18] Like both versions of Black Landscape, the predominance of a black linear structure that articulates the design of this work clearly reflects the artist’s continued debt to Samuel Palmer. The dark surface pattern is a characteristic of such paintings by Palmer as Coming from Evening Church, 1830 (Tate Gallery N03697) but Sutherland’s work is especially close to his ink and wash drawings, such as Evening: A Church among Trees, c.1830 (Tate Gallery N03698). In both, as in Black Landscape, one might see the ‘all-over pregnancy of the picture space’ that Melville identified as the foundation for the relationship between the artists.[19] Palmer had first exerted an influence on Sutherland in the 1920s when the etching boom stimulated his reassessment and by the 1930s his work was established as a major inspiration for those artists who were dubbed neo-romantic. In addition to significant displays at the Victoria and Albert Museum (1926)[20] and Burlington House (1934),[21] this was in part a result of Sutherland’s own use and advocacy of his work, along with that of William Blake, as revealed in his short essay ‘A Trend in English Draughtsmanship’ (1936).

In a validation of his own contribution to the International Surrealist Exhibition and an implicit theorisation of a modern art that was neither realist nor abstract, Sutherland categorised drawing as either objective, extrinsic or subjective, intrinsic. The latter, which he saw as akin to poetry in its creativity, depended not only upon visual experience (the source for objective draughtsmanship) but upon the absorption of external data ‘in the reservoir of the subconscious mind out of which emerge the reconstructed and re-created images’.[22] Though he quoted Picasso and acknowledged that ‘in our time ... this approach has derived an immense stimulus from abroad’,[23] Sutherland cited Blake, Palmer and Turner as examples of this poetic painting. In an echo of Herbert Read’s identification of Blake as a precursor of Surrealism, he thus aided in the establishment of an art that combined the influence of European modernism with a native tradition which found a ready audience in the anxious period of the late 1930s and 1940s. In a similar way, Black Landscape encapsulates that neo-romantic moment in which artists echoed British predecessors both stylistically and in their recourse to the depiction of native, often peripheral, landscapes whilst producing works consistent with a modern visual vocabulary.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Works by Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Temple Newsam, Leeds 1941
[2] Graham Sutherland, Rosenberg and Helft Gallery, London, Sept.-Oct. 1938
[3] Repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.10c
[4] Tate Gallery Aquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.209
[5] Repr. John Hayes, Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1982, p.18, fig.6
[6] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.14a
[7] Repr. Hayes 1982, p.68, pl.29 (col.)
[8] Repr. ibid., p.69, pl.30 (col.)
[9] Raymond Mortimer, ‘Notes on Shows’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.19, no.481, 11 May 1940, p.481
[10] Repr. Hayes 1982, p.63, pl.21
[11] David Bomberg: Recent Paintings of Spain, Cooling Galleries, London, June 1936
[12] ‘The Art News of London’, Art News, New York, vol.37, no.3, 15 Oct. 1938, p.20
[13] Graham Sutherland, ‘An English Stone Landmark’ in Myfanwy Evans (ed.), The Painter’s Object, London 1937, republished in Sutherland 1982, pp.36-7
[14] Repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.30 (col.)
[15] Virginia Button, ‘The Aesthetic of Decline: English Neo-Romanticism c.1935-56’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of London, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1991, p.90
[16] Repr. Margot Eates, Paul Nash: Paintings, Drawings and Illustrations, 1948, pl.10 (col.)
[17] ‘The Art News of London’, Art News, New York, vol.37, no.3, 15 Oct. 1938, p.20
[18] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.14c
[19] Melville 1950, unpaginated
[20] Drawings, Etchings and Woodcuts by Samuel Palmer and other Disciples of William Blake, Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1926
[21] Exhibition of British Art c.1000-1860, Royal Academy, London 1934
[22] Graham Sutherland, ‘A Trend in English Draughtsmanship’, Signature, 3 July 1936, republished in Sutherland 1982, p.30
[23] Ibid., p.32

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