Graham Sutherland OM



Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint, gouache and graphite on paper on hardboard
Support: 689 × 1524 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Furnaces 1944


Oil, gouache and pencil [black crayon?] on paper mounted on hardboard
689 x 1524 (27 1/8 x 60)

Inscribed in black gouache ‘Sutherland 1944’ b.l.
Inscribed on back in pencil ‘LD4173’

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London, 1944-5
National War Pictures, Royal Academy, London, Oct.-Nov. 1945 (907)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (113, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (159, repr. p.134)

Michael Rothenstein, Looking at Paintings, London 1947, p.36, repr. p.37 (col.)
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.706
John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Wood to Hockney, London 1974, p.61

Robert Melville, G. Sutherland, London 1950, p.17, fig.19a
C. Hoyland and T.G. Rosenthal, The Artist and War in the Twentieth Century, booklet to accompany BBC Radio 3 series of the same name, London, 1967, p.27
John Russell Taylor, ‘Sutherland Revealed as a Miniaturist at Heart’, Times, 25 May 1982, p.13

Furnaces shows part of the process of arms manufacture at the Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London, one of the three historic Royal Ordnance Factories in Britain, along with those at Enfield and Waltham.

Sutherland was employed by the War Artists Advisory Committee on a series of short-term contracts from June 1940 until the end of April 1945. After six months spent on depictions of steel works in South Wales, such as Feeding a Steel Furnace (Tate Gallery N05738), he had spent 1943 working on further ‘Production’ subjects: open-cast coal mining followed by limestone quarrying. A new four month contract began on 31 March 1944 and he made a series of paintings of the Woolwich Arsenal, the first five of which were accepted by the WAAC on 21 June. Furnaces was amongst these and was given the number LD4173. The others were LD4169, Small Furnaces for Casting (Imperial War Museum);[1] LD4170, Tempering Furnaces for Big Guns (whereabouts unknown); LD4171, Lifting an Ingot (whereabouts unknown);[2] and LD4172, Press for Making Shells (Manchester City Art Gallery).[3]

While the return to the theme of steel furnaces may be indicative of the perceived success of his earlier paintings, it may equally reflect the exhaustion of ideas for Sutherland’s subjects. By 1944 he was growing tired of his work as a war artist, though he assured Kenneth Clark in September 1944 that it had only recently become ‘irksome’.[4] The similarity between Press for Making Shells and such works as Blast Furnaces: Exterior (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)[5] of two years earlier, might suggest a loss of inspiration. In its broad view and marked symmetry, however, Furnaces can be seen as distinctive amongst his other war pictures. Similarly, the greater scale of some of the Woolwich paintings, including this one, would suggest a new self-confidence in his work. This may also be borne out by the fact that, unlike the majority of Sutherland’s war commissions, it is not on paper but hardboard, though his use and handling of mixed media, rather than just oil paint, would seem to attempt to ape the practice and effect he had developed in the smaller works.

Furnaces is painted on 6mm low density hardboard which, being very lean, has a powdery texture. The edges have all been scuffed and rubbed and all four corners have been damaged. In 1976 the board was losing cohesion and was found to distort when unframed, becoming convex to the picture face; it was consolidated and an accessory support panel was made.[6] Beneath the painting, squaring-up for the translation of the image is evident in places. Though the bare board is visible above the furnaces and in the chimney on the right, a white ground was applied to the central section of the lower half and up the vertical form in the middle of the composition. The textured surface of this area is due to the impasto of the ground rather than the top layer of paint; the black of the furnace doors was scratched to reveal the white and create the effect of crayon. A similar technique was used elsewhere, and in places the artist scraped into the board and then painted over it. Except for the black which is wax based, all of the pigments are very dry, especially the white which has virtually no medium at all. The green and pink that predominate appear to be oil paint, while wax crayon was used on the right hand side - yellow for the bricks, white for the writing on them and black for the drawing. Pencil lines defining the vertical stripes behind the furnaces show that the design was initially drawn out precisely. However, the left-hand pivot was clearly adjusted to position it further to the right and the unhappy bend in the central arm might be thought mechanically unlikely. That all three are straight in a large study for the painting suggests that this feature was an improvisation, perhaps because the pivot would exceed the frame if it too was straight. There have been some small losses of paint and in the green areas effloresence has had to be removed.[7] The fact that most of the colours are soluble in water, except the black which is soluble in white spirit, makes the picture surface almost impossible to clean.

Sutherland’s normal working practice was to make sketches before the motif and work these up to the finished paintings and intermediate versions of the same composition in the studio. At least one sketchbook has survived which contains drawings of a variety of details of this composition, in particular of the man on the left hand side.[8] Unusually, the one study for this work that has been published shows the composition inverted so that the chimney is on the left, despite being otherwise very similar; it is also entitled Furnaces, 1944 (private collection)[9] and on a relatively large scale (535 x 1195mm). Though sketchier in its finish, the smaller version is fairly completely painted in gouache and includes such precise details as the ‘No.7’ white inscription, the right-angled pipe that comes out of the base of the chimney and the pattern on the furnace doors. In both works the doors and the pivotting cranes are in roughly the same positions and the flames are also comparable; the colouring is similar in each and there is a figure, albeit vague, on the right of the study that equates with that on the left of the Tate’s version. It is not clear why the artist should have made two such proximate versions. That it was his preferred method to develop successive studies by squaring them up suggests that this smaller Furnaces is unlikely to have been the intermediate version of the composition.

Both images show a row of three furnaces which have been described as ‘like the faces of ravenous monsters waiting to be fed’.[10] The simile was presumably prompted by Sutherland’s description of the steel works in South Wales in animal terms and specifically by the analogy that resulted in the titling of Feeding a Steel Furnace.[11] In his WAAC paintings, the artist highlighted what might be seen as the most organic aspects of his subject - here the rhythm of the pivotting cranes. An echo of the combination of their form with the horizontality of the format might be seen in the paintings that he made in the South of France in the later 1940s, for example Large Vine Pergola, 1948 (British Council).[12] Furnaces is remarkable for his attention to detail: the form of the iron doors, the pipework around the chimney, the mechanism of the carefully poised lifting gear and the writing on the brickwork. Of the latter, ‘No.7’ is presumably the number of that row of furnaces and the graffiti around it includes the inscriptions ‘3.30’, ‘(EGU)’ OR ‘(ESU)’, ‘UNDER YOUR LIP’, ‘K.C.’ and ‘GS’. The last may be a reference to the artist, in which case one might wonder if ‘K.C.’ alludes to his great patron and the chairman of the WAAC, Sir Kenneth Clark. The enigmatic phrase ‘under your lip’ appears in a rough sketchbook drawing of two furnaces, but on the opposite side, suggesting that the artist used the detail but changed its location.[13]

Following the completion of his work at Woolwich Arsenal and after much lobbying on his part, Sutherland was sent to liberated France to paint the bombed remains of the Germans’ rocket launching sites at Trappes. Despite his eagerness to address the subject, such paintings at Trappes - Wrecked Locomotive, 1944 (Leeds City Art Gallery)[14] might be thought to be among the less successful pieces in a body of works which, more than any other, had served to establish his reputation as one of the leading British artists of his generation.

Chris Stephens
September 1998

[1] Repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.44c
[2] No reproduction found.
[3] Repr. John Hayes, Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.96, pl.59 (col.)
[4] Letter to Kenneth Clark, 18 Sept. 1944, Tate Gallery Archive 8812.1.3.3134
[5] Repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.98, no.100
[6] Tate Gallery conservation files
[7] Ibid.
[8] Sutherland sketchbook, TGA 812.9
[9] Repr. Francesco Arcangeli, Graham Sutherland, Milan 1973, pl.45 (col.)
[10] Alley 1982, p.103
[11] Sutherland, letter to Edwin Mullins in Telegraph Magazine, no.359, 10 Sept. 1971, republished in Roberto Tassi, Graham Sutherland: The Wartime Drawings, Milan 1979, trans. Julian Andrews, London 1980, p.104
[12] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.88c
[13] Sutherland sketchbook, TGA 812.9, [p.23]
[14] Repr. ibid., pl.44d

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