Graham Sutherland OM

Feeding a Steel Furnace


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 902 × 864 mm
frame: 1156 × 1097 × 77 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Feeding a Steel Furnace 1941-2


Oil on canvas 902 x 864 (35 1/2 x 34)

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1942 (changing display, no cat.)
?National War Pictures, provincial tour 1943-4, either 3rd Selection, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, Jan. 1943, Warrington Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, Feb.-March, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, March-April, Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, April, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, May, Salford Art Gallery and Museum, June, Rochdale Art Gallery and Museum, July, Cartwright Memorial Hall, Bradford, Aug.-Sept., Usher Art Gallery and City Museum, Lincoln, Sept.-Oct., Oldham Municipal Art Gallery, Oct.-Nov. 1943, Doncaster Art Gallery and Museum, Jan.-Feb. 1944, or 4th Selection, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, Jan. 1943, Oldham Municipal Art Gallery, Feb., Bankfield Museum, Halifax, March-April, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, May, Mansfield Museum & Art Gallery, June, Stoke-on-Trent Public Museum & Art Gallery, July, Wolverhampton Municipal Museum & Art Gallery, Aug.-Sept., Hereford Public Library, Museum & Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct., Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, Oct.-Nov., Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Dec. 1943-Jan. 1944
?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1944-5 (changing display, no cat.)
National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (322)
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, Jan.-Feb. 1946 (110), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March (110), Raadhushallen, Copenhagen, April-May (110), Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris, June-July (110), Musée des beaux arts, Berne, Aug. (112), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Sept. (113), Narodni Galerie, Prague, Oct.-Nov. (113), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, Nov.-Dec. (113), Galleria d’arte moderna, Rome, Jan.-Feb. 1947 (113)
Continental Exhibition: Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery Exhibited Under the Auspices of the British Council, Tate Gallery, London, May-Sept.1947
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, Arts Council tour, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct.1947, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, Oct.-Nov., Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov.-Dec., Birkenhead, Williamson Art Gallery, Jan.1948, Bristol City Art Gallery, Jan.-Feb. 1948, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth, Feb.-March, Brighton Art Gallery and Museum, March-April, Plymouth City Art Gallery, April-May, Castle Museum, Nottingham, May-June, Huddersfield Museum and Art Gallery, June-July, Aberdeen Art Gallery, July-Aug., Salford Art Gallery and Museum, Aug.-Sept. (69, repr. pl.12)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (96, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (122, repr. p.115)

Cecil Beaton, War Pictures by British Artists, Second Series, No.2: Production, London 1943, p.6, pl.36
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.705

Sutherland: Disegni di guerra, exh. cat., British Council, Palazzo Reale, Milan 1979, pl.113, p.117, republished as Roberto Tassi, Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.121, pl.113

Sutherland’s third six-month contract with the War Artists Advisory Committee began on 1 August 1941, at which time he was completing the last of his paintings of bomb damage in London. He continued to be assigned to Supply and Home Security subjects but, with the Blitz over, was directed towards industrial production for his next works; it was noted that he ‘already had specific factories in mind’.[1] Having returned to Kent from a few days holiday in Pembrokeshire on 15 September, it was suggested that he might go to Cardiff to paint steel works for arms production.[2] He went to the Guest, Keen and Baldwin Steel Works near Cardiff later that month and on 29 October the WAAC noted that he was ‘now back [from Wales and] ... had secured much promising material’.[3] On 15 December the artist’s wife Kathleen told the secretary of the WAAC, E.M. O’Rourke Dickey, that Sutherland had been ready to deliver four large paintings and some smaller ones but had been advised by Sir Kenneth Clark, WAAC chairman, to keep them until the New Year as there were ‘one or two alterations to be made to two of them’.[4] Eventually, seven paintings were accepted by the WAAC on 21 January 1942: Feeding a Steel Furnace was allocated the number LD1767 alongside LD1768, A Foundry: Hot Metal has been Poured into a Mould and Inflammable Gas is Rising (Tate Gallery N05739), LD1769, Tapping a Blast Furnace (Tate Gallery N05740), LD1770, Teeming Pit: Tapping a Steel Furnace (Imperial War Museum),[5] LD1771, Blast Furnace - exterior (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery),[6] LD1772, Mouth of Hot Metal Container (Manchester City Art Gallery)[7] and LD 1773, Slag Ladles (Imperial War Museum).[8] As it is not possible to identify positively the two works that were worked on during January 1942, all seven may be dated 1941-2.

All of the works accepted by the WAAC were included in the permanent, expanding display of war pictures at the National Gallery. Many were also sent out on tours of provincial galleries organised either by the Museums Association or the British Institute of Adult Education. These exhibitions, presumably designed to reassure as many people as possible of Britain’s persistent cultural life, proved immensely popular. It is known that this work was included in one such tour in 1943 but, in the absence of a catalogue, one cannot be certain whether it was the so-called 3rd or 4th Selection. This work returned to the provinces when it was lent to the Arts Council to be displayed at the McManus Galleries, Dundee from May 1955 to October 1957 and again when it was shown, along with Tapping a Blast Furnace at Paisley Museum and Art Galleries from 1962-4.

During the war the production of steel was especially urgent as Britain, cut-off from foreign imports, sought to correct the arms shortage that, despite the process of rearmament that had begun in 1936, had left the nation vulnerable at the end of the 1930s. The arms crisis had been exacerbated by the abandonment of almost all of the British army’s equipment on Dunkirk Beach in June 1940. Such was the demand that nationwide collections of scrap iron and steel were instigated; most famously, the cast-iron railings in many cities were removed to be turned into weapons. The inclusion of scrap metal alongside pig iron in the steel-making process was normal practice and it is the introduction into the furnace of the ‘scrapbox’ at the end of long delivery arm that is depicted in this work. The opening of the door of the furnace allowed in air, creating the tongue of yellow flame at the centre of the composition.

Though his titles indicate Sutherland’s desire to record accurately the process depicted, he seems not to have undertaken a documentary approach. There is no indication of an attempt to represent a sequence of events, rather the pictures consist of a selection of themes that were especially visually powerful. The group of works submitted in January 1942 cover three different, albeit interconnected, processes: the production of iron from iron ore; the creation of steel from the iron; and the casting of the steel into armaments. It may be thought that the progression of natural material transformed into arms had a symbolic role to play in wartime propaganda. Among the three works belonging to the Tate Gallery, a stage of each process is represented. In Feeding a Steel Furnace, while certain details appear to be accurate, much of the composition is very generalised and ill-defined. A comparison of the painting with those of similar sites with which it was reproduced in the official series War Pictures by British Artists reveals how much more stylised Sutherland’s manner was. The selection shows what an attractive subject such a scene became, with comparable works by R.V Pitchforth, Michael Ayrton and Henry Rushbury RA. Despite the detail in Rushbury’s drawings, in his introduction Cecil Beaton explained the degree of abstraction in the depictions of ‘Production’ in terms of photography’s technical inability to record such subjects. ‘In those vulcan forges’, he wrote,

our eyes become attuned, unlike the camera lens, to the nuances of darkness amid a strange world that is spasmodically suffused by flashes of green, magenta, puce and golden light. In this world of molten metals, of glowing furnaces, soot and firework sparks ... Sutherland has reverently seized his opportunity to capture this fleeting phenomenon of sequined brilliance, of mystery, of glowing magic.[9]

It may be thought that Sutherland’s attempt to capture a fleeting sensation is most clearly demonstrated by the hot colouring which, though doubtlessly derived from the original scene, serves an emotive and allusive function.

The overall pink tones conjure up a sense of the heat in the steel works. On a drawing of a similar furnace Sutherland noted: ‘flames leaping from furnace as door is raised. Very dark all round. Heat terrific. Suggestion of soil on ground.’[10] It may be that it was the desire to communicate the ‘suggestion of soil’ that prompted the almost granular texture of the paint which is especially impasted in the lower section of the painting. That quality might equally be associated with the encrusted surfaces of the furnace which interested Sutherland, perhaps reminding him of the organic surfaces on which he had drawn in his pre-war work. That the composition was carefully formulated before the artist began painting is indicated by the fact that much of the impasto is in white under the more thinly painted upper layers. A pencil grid - typical of Sutherland’s working practices - was drawn before painting began. This was annotated with numbers along the right hand side and with letters across the top. In the top right hand corner some of these were evidently reinstated over the pink and black paint, suggesting that the artist consciously sought to retain their presence as part of the final image. Such a signalling of the working process had become an established aspect of modernism, as is, perhaps, most famously illustrated by Cézanne’s many ‘unfinished’ works. It may be thought that in Sutherland’s case the suggestion that the image has been precisely worked-up from studies made before the motif invests it with a documentary status that belies its stylised manner.

Most of the paintings produced by Sutherland for the WAAC are on paper, but this work, like Tapping a Blast Furnace, is on canvas. The use of a different support may result from his desire for a heavily textured surface in response to the subject matter or may reflect the fact that he had secured some canvas. The material was in short supply during the war and a few months after these works were completed Sutherland justified a bill from his colourman by explaining that he had stocked-up with five yards of Belgian canvas.[11] The work has a commercially prepared white ground over which the white impasto was applied followed by the black, pinks, oranges, yellows and greens of the final image. The paint was generally loosely worked and, in places, was modified by being scratched back. Some paint has been lost along the sides and, in particular, there has been cleavage that corresponds to the inner edges of the stretcher.[12] An especially prominent loss in the flames on the left hand side has exposed a one inch long area of ground. Following his usual practice, which had proved especially effective in the gouaches of bomb-damage, black linear elements were added at a late stage, serving to unite the composition and assert the flatness of the picture plane. In this way the outline of the otherwise amorphous flame was asserted, the curvature of the rod was delicately defined and a surface pattern was established by such details as the rivets in pink over black.

As the title may suggest, Sutherland saw the furnaces in anthropomorphic or bestial terms. Such a dualism was typical of his approach and earlier in the same year he had produced a series of works in which the debris of the Blitz was depicted in animal-like forms. In retrospect he would relate this use of what he termed visual ‘paraphrase’ to the display of Picasso’s Guernica and related drawings in London in 1938:

The conception of the idea of stress, both physical and mental, and how forms can be modified by emotion had been, even before the war, much in my mind. It was crystallised and strengthened by my understanding of Picasso’s Guernica. Faces become distorted by tears and mouths open in fear ... I had seen aspects of this in certain kinds of destruction. So did I, too, in the steel works. As the hand feeds the mouth so did the long scoops which lunged into the furnace openings feed them, and the metal containers pouring molten iron into ladles had encrusted mouths.[13]

Through such an anthropomorphic treatment the debris of the Blitz had operated as a symbol of human suffering, giving the paintings a level of significance beyond the documentary. This was presumably Sutherland’s intention with the paintings of the steel works too, though the subject is less poignant. He had served a year’s apprenticeship (1920-1) in a heavy engineering environment and found the return to such a place stimulating as the machinery caused him to reassess the way he looked at organic forms. ‘I believe’, he wrote later,

that returning to these vast machines, with violence in the air, later made me see a correspondence in the forms of nature. I began to see a curious similarity between machine forms and nature forms. I have always liked and been fascinated by the primitiveness of heavy engineering shops with their vast floors. In a way they are cathedrals ... And yet the rite - a word I use carefully - being performed when men are making steel, is extraordinary; and how primitive it all really is.[14]

With a possible allusion to alchemy, the artist’s emotive description elevated the importance of the war production while also locating it within an atavistic tradition.

Sutherland’s language reflects the romanticism of his treatment of the subject. The illumination of darkness with hot colours is a typical motif of the Sublime. Such a rich glow may recall the epic tableaux of John Martin, to whose ‘apocalyptic sensibility’ - exemplified by The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-3 (Tate Gallery N05613) - such pieces as Sutherland’s Black Landscape (Tate Gallery T03085) have been compared.[15] The content of Feeding a Steel Furnace certainly invites comparison with the depictions of fires and, most especially, of volcanic eruptions in which the Romantics delighted. The fiery furnaces of the steel works may be even more fittingly equated with representations of Hell. Certainly that obvious comparison stimulated Douglas Cooper to discuss both the steel and tin mine series in relation to William Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1824-7), citing specifically The Simoniac Pope (Tate Gallery N03357), Cerberus (Tate Gallery N03354) and The Devils by the Side of the Pool (Tate Gallery N03358).[16] The form and colouring of the flames in The Simoniac Pope are similar to Sutherland’s, but otherwise the lyrical elegance of Blake’s watercolour seems very different to the heavy handling of Feeding a Steel Furnace. More appropriately, perhaps, the rich colouring and strong contrasts which the artist seems to have sought may also be associated with images of industrial scenes, as epitomised by such works as Wright of Derby’s A Blacksmith’s Shop, 1771 (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection).[17] Sutherland’s pictures may be seen as modern descendants of these works and one might speculate that such a thought might have been in the mind of the artist or his patron - either the WAAC in general or its chairman Kenneth Clark specifically - when the steel works commission was formulated.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Minutes of the 54th War Artists Advisory Committee meeting, 24 Aug. 1941, Imperial War Museum GP/72/D
[2] Graham Sutherland, letter to E.M. O’R Dickey, secretary to WAAC, 19 Sept. 1941, Imperial War Museum GP/55/57/61
[3] Minutes of the 59th War Artists Advisory Committee meeting, 29 Oct. 1941, Imperial War Museum GP/72/D
[4] Kathleen Sutherland, letter to E.M. O’R Dickey, 15 Dec. 1941, Imperial War Museum GP/55/57/70
[5] Repr. Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.129, pl.124
[6] Repr. ibid., p.113, pl.102
[7] Repr. ibid., p.126, pl.121
[8] Repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.98, no.99
[9] Cecil Beaton, War Pictures by British Artists, Second Series, No.2: Production, London 1943, p.6
[10] Study: Flames Leaping from Furnace, 1941 (private collection), repr. Tassi 1980, p.107, pl.96 (col.)
[11] Sutherland, letter to E.M. O’R Dickey, 4 March 1942, Imperial war Museum GP/55/57/75
[12] Tate Gallery conservation files
[13] Sutherland, letter to Edwin Mullins in Telegraph Magazine, no.359, 10 Sept. 1971, republished in Tassi 1980, p.104
[14] ‘Graham Sutherland’ in Noel Barber, Conversations with Painters, London 1964, p.48
[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] Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.27
[17] Repr. Judy Egerton, Joseph Wright of Derby, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.100, no.47 (col.)

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