Graham Sutherland OM

Form over River


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1797 × 1737 mm
Presented by Alistair McAlpine (later Lord McAlpine of West Green) through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973

Display caption

This was based on studies made on the banks of Eastern Cleddau, Picton Park, in Pembrokeshire, in the summer of 1971. Sutherland described the making of this picture: 'As with all my other organic forms - especially those deriving from the country here, it was the result of a chance encounter. Always one in a thousand such encounters are meaningful to me or productive, but those which are, have in their structure a movement and an equilibrium which straight away finds a response in my own make up. The colour was used to emphasise the mood of the ambience but only in certain aspects was it the actual colour of the object'.

Gallery label, April 1994

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Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Form Over River 1971-2


Oil on canvas 1797 x 1740 (70 3/4 x 68 1/2)

Inscribed in black oil paint ‘G.S. 1971-2’ b.r.
Inscribed on back of canvas in black oil paint ‘Form over River 1972’

Presented by Alistair McAlpine (later Lord McAlpine of West Green) through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1973

Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art by Alistair McAlpine for presentation to the Tate Gallery 1973

IXème biennale internationale d’art de Menton, Palais de l’Europe, Menton, July-Sept. 1972 (no number, repr. in col., earlier state)
Sutherland: Recent Work, Marlborough Galerie A.G., Zurich, Oct.-Nov. 1972, Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1973 (8, repr. in col. p.30, as Form over the River, unsigned)
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des beaux arts, Brussels, Sept. Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain (61, repr. p.73)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (209, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (264, repr.)

Tate Gallery Aquisitions 1972-4, London 1975, pp.242-3

Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.205 (col., earlier state)
John Sunderland, Painting in Britain 1525-1975, Oxford 1976, pl.218
Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, p.133, pl.92 (col., earlier state)
‘Tate Gallery Exhibition’, Goya, nos.169-171, July-Dec. 1982

During the last twelve years of his life Sutherland resumed the painting of forms derived from tree roots and other natural objects found in Pembrokeshire. That part of south-west Wales had been intimately linked to the establishment of his painting style and career in the 1930s and was closely bound up with his public image. In 1967 he returned to the region for the filming of a documentary about his work by the Italian director Pier Paolo Ruggerini, Lo specchio e il miraggio. He had not been there for over twenty years but the following year he made the first of what would become regular visits. As a result his work of the 1970s is dominated by Welsh subjects. Some of these deliberately return to the scenes of earlier paintings: Road at Porthclais with Setting Sun 1975 (Graham and Kathleen Sutherland Foundation)[1] depicts the same scene as Welsh Landscape with Roads 1936 (Tate Gallery N05666), for example. Most of them focus on organic forms at the water’s edge and River Form is one of these.

An earlier Tate Gallery catalogue entry reported that the work was painted in his studio in Menton in the south of France at the end of 1971 and the beginning of 1972. It was based on drawings made during the previous summer on the banks of the estuary of the Eastern Cleddau river in Picton Park, Pembrokeshire. A squared-up watercolour study for the painting was reproduced in an anthology of facsimile pages from Sutherland’s sketchbooks; it is dated 1971 in the accompanying catalogue.[2] Another study, reproduced as Study for Tree Form over River (private collection), is inscribed ‘1971’.[3] Of the painting, the artist told the Tate Gallery: ‘As with all my “organic forms” - especially those deriving from the country here [Wales], it was the result of a chance encounter’.[4] Though he did not say so, the main form derived from the entanglement of tree roots exposed where the water had eroded the foreshore, which was the source of a number of paintings. Several of these include organic elements similar, though not identical, to this one. Such visual structures also appear as details in larger paintings: in association with a tree trunk in Forest with Chains 1971-2 (private collection),[5] for example. The form on the left of Trees on a River Bank 1971 (private collection)[6] is especially close to Form over River.

The artist wrote that in the preparation of this work ‘several studies were made in notebooks in an attempt to crystalise [sic] the movement & to shed as many extraneous elements as possible - to give the ‘tune’ a beginning & an end’.[7] In addition, ‘5 or six watercolours were made in varying sizes apart from the sketch book drawings - all horizontal in shape, before the final painting was done’.[8] The development of an image through a succession of stages had been Sutherland’s working practice since the 1930s, though it might be said that the refinement of his painting ability made the production of a number of works for exhibition or sale an increasingly important part of the process. Through these intermediate images the subject was abstracted so that the painting diverged from its source material and in places the roots, leaves and shadows were reduced to rectilinear and circular formal devices. The artist drew attention to the artificial nature of the final image by the addition of the horizontal bands across the top and bottom of the canvas and pointed out ‘certain stable elements’ - small horizontal and vertical forms - ‘used to calm the movement and give it point’.[9]

To a degree the last steps in the development of the image can be followed as it was photographed at different stages of completion. Though the artist said it was finished when exhibited at the Menton Biennale in July 1972,[10] it appeared in an earlier state in the catalogue; the same photograph was used seven years later in a monograph on the artist by Roberto Sanesi.[11] The reproduction in Francesco Arcangeli’s book on Sutherland is closer to the painting’s final state but further adjustments were subsequently made to the circular forms, the details of the root structure and to the black square on the right hand side.[12] Finally, the canvas was only signed by the artist after it was photographed for the catalogue of his 1972 exhibition at the Marlborough Galerie in Zurich.

Sutherland wrote that ‘the colour was used to emphasise the mood of the ambience but only in certain aspects was it the actual colour of the object.’[13] The painting is predominantly made up of tones of green, largely applied in glazes of differing tones, with some black and small areas of brighter colours. The broad horizontal bands at top and bottom are of a single thin, lean coat of olive green oil paint which leaves the weave of the canvas easily visible. The main field of the middle area is similar, though richer in medium with successive layers of differing tones, but increasingly thick paint was used to define the main form and impasto is especially prominent in the white and yellow areas. The design appears to have been drawn in black oil paint and the forms were also outlined in black. In common with the majority of Sutherland’s paintings from the early 1950s onwards, Form over River was painted on the back of a commercially prepared canvas. An unpainted border runs around all four sides, suggesting that it was painted on a different secondary support and stretched afterwards; it is on a French commercial stretcher. The canvas is fragile and in 1978 all four corners were consolidated as they were either torn or worn away.[14]

The use of a rich green ground overlaid with other greens and black and juxtaposed with brighter areas of white and yellow recalls Sutherland’s Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods 1940 (Tate Gallery N05139). Despite this continuity in the artist’s work, the comparison exposes changes in technique and content. His earlier style often had a clumsiness that may have reflected a relative lack of facility but which also suggested the conception of the work of art as necessarily incomplete, its lack of resolution being indicative of the existential struggle of the artist. For this reason Sutherland had been described as ‘the Cézanne of metamorphosis ... a virtuoso of inconfidence, bringing the restlessness and anxiety of man into a searching relationship with the unease of the rest of the created word’.[15] By the 1970s, his style was considerably more polished and adept, reflecting, perhaps, both his greater experience and a change in his attitude. Over twenty years his technique reflected both confidence and an economy of means that was paralleled by a formal simplification. Form over River is typical of his work of the period in portraying the main motif against a relatively unmodulated ground of strong colour on a large scale and with considerable harmony and finish. Just as his earlier restlessness was replaced by confidence, so the ‘aggressive morphology’[16] of Sutherland’s forms were superseded by an elegant curvature and air of calm. For several critics, the manner of such late paintings was rather mannered and over-blown, as demonstrated by one description of them having ‘a Wagnerian tinge, long-winded and slightly alchemical’.[17]

Chris Stephens
September 1998

[1] Repr. Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, p.151, pl.112 (col.)
[2] Graham Sutherland Sketchbook, London 1974, [pp.34-5]
[3] Repr. Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.197
[4] Letter to Tate Gallery 7 Sept. 1974, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[5] Repr. Hayes 1980, p.161 pl.136 (col.)
[6] Repr. John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.160, pl.135 (col.)
[7] Letter 7 Sept. 1974
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.; IXème Biennale Internationale d’Art de Menton, exh. cat., Palais de l’Europe, Menton 1972 (col.)
[11] Roberto Sanesi, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1979, p.133, pl.92 (col.)
[12] Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.205 (col.)
[13] Ibid.
[14] Tate Gallery conservation files
[15] Robert Melville, Graham Sutherland, London 1950, [p.14]
[16] James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York 1948, p.136
[17] Observer, 1 April 1979, p.17


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