Graham Sutherland OM

Hydrant II


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1118 × 905 mm
Presented anonymously 1970

Display caption

This picture is one of a number of works Sutherland made in the 1950s that were stimulated by memories of objects he had seen in factories and foundries as an official war artist during the Second World War. His main preoccupation during the 1930s and 1940s had been with organic forms. In works such as 'Hydrant' Sutherland extended this interest by exploring the relationship between organic and man-made forms. In 1972 he wrote: 'No doubt that these quasi machine forms were the result of my early training as an engineer but also there is rather more the question of my interest in the correspondence between machine and mechanical forms and natural forms'.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

Hydrant II 1954


Oil on canvas 1118 x 905 (44 x 35 5/8)

Inscribed on back of canvas in grey paint ‘HYDRANT II (OIL) | 1954 | G. SUTHERLAND’

Presented anonymously 1970

Acquired from the artist by Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York, from whom purchased by Mrs Paul Rankine, Bethesda, Maryland 1957; ...; Sotheby’s 19 July 1967 (207, repr.), bt. Greffier

Graham Sutherland: Gemälde und Zeichnung, British Council German tour Sept. 1954-March 1955, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, Sept.-Oct. 1954 (40, repr.) and tour, Cologne, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Hamburg (40)
Documenta: Kunst des XX Jahrhunderts, Museum Fredericianum, Kassel, July-Sept. 1955 (610)
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 (60, repr. p.73)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (153, repr.)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (204, repr. in col.)
Loan to The Graham Sutherland Gallery, Picton Castle, Haverfordwest, March-Oct. 1985
A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, Barbican Art Gallery, London, May-July 1987 (343)

Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pp.48, 55, pl.136 (as Hydrant)
Tate Gallery Report 1970-2, London 1972, pp.189-90

Despite the specificity of its title, Hydrant II shows an essentially ambiguous form that is suggestive of both man-made and organic realms. A similar motif, but predominantly gold with white highlights, appeared in an earlier painting in which it was set against a black background with some deep purple areas.[1] Though initially exhibited as Golden Form against a Black Background this earlier work was also shown at Sutherland’s retrospective in Turin in 1965 as Hydrant with Black Ground and it is presumably in reference to this that the Tate painting is entitled Hydrant II. There are significant differences between the two works in addition to the colouring: while the Tate work is almost square, its predecessor is tall and narrow; in the latter the form is raised on a pedestal and differs slightly from the other, which appears to stand on the ground.

The Tate’s work was rendered in the delicate manner that Sutherland developed in the 1950s. It was painted on a commercially prepared white ground with a limited palette consisting of little other than French Ultramarine, Viridian, black and white. Thin oil washes of various tones of blue provided the background on to which the form was thinly sketched in black and green; there are isolated areas of impasto and a number of bolder passages in the upper corners and towards the bottom left hand corner. The paint is generally lean and all of the colours are soluble in water and white spirit. The artist does not appear to have used a compositional grid as he had in earlier works, but pale lines were drawn over the blue to locate the main form. It has been suggested that the painting was made on a temporary support to keep the canvas flat and stretched after painting and this was confirmed by a friend of the artist.[2]

Hydrant II is typical of most of Sutherland’s output of the period in that it presents an imaginary object in a sculptural manner, as an isolated form against a simple background. In this respect such works invite comparison with Francis Bacon’s treatment of the human figure. Douglas Cooper listed it as one of several ‘which are part organic, part mechanical and sometimes near human’ and explained that ‘these three worlds impinge on each other constantly in Sutherland’s work’.[3] This was confirmed by the artist in 1972 when he related Hydrant II to his long-standing ‘interest in the correspondence between machine and mechanical forms and natural forms’.[4] He had developed this theme a few years earlier: ‘Right from the beginning I was interested in certain correspondences. I use the word in the same sense as Baudelaire, meaning the correspondence between machines and organic forms, between organic forms and people, and of people with stones.’[5] Charles-Pierre Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences, from Les Fleurs du Mal, addresses the equivalence between the senses and different sensory qualities:

As far-off echoes from a distance sound
In unity profound and recondite,
Boundless as night itself and as the light,
Sounds, fragrances and colours correspond.

Sutherland would habitually cite such parallels, in particular recalling a story of a blind man who said that scarlet must be like the sound of a trumpet,[6] and frequently employed examples from poetry.

He acknowledged that his use of mechanical forms may have been ‘the result of my early training as an engineer’ and Cooper associated it with his ‘memories of things he had seen in factories and foundries during the war’.[7] That the relationship was considered from both perspectives is illustrated by the assertion that Sutherland saw ‘figures, buildings and natural objects ... [as] what he calls “working machines”’.[8] Here the title most obviously evokes the fire hydrants that are a feature of an urban environment and which may be seen to be tapping into a system which mimics or controls nature. The suggestion of a natural equivalent is especially forcefully made in a related drawing, Study 1953 (ex coll. Le Roux S. Le Roux),[9] in which the element which branches out from the right hand side of the form appears spine-like and taps into the ‘ground’. In this respect, Sutherland later observed, ‘You know the mechanical principal of intake and evacuation has a strange parallel to the human state, and to the tree state’.[10] While the fact that the main form of Hydrant II clearly relates to one of the Studies of a Cut Tree 1953 (private collection)[11] reiterates this equivalence, Sutherland’s comment is striking for its corporeal terminology.

The structure of works such as this may reflect contemporary aesthetic debates. The relationship between the figure and ground within a painting was a primary focus for contemporary writers - most particularly Clement Greenberg in America and Patrick Heron in Britain - and may be considered within a continuing concern with the integrity of the flat picture plane in modernist painting. The spatial ambiguity of Sutherland’s work, especially during the 1950s, may reflect his concern with such considerations. The illusion of space created by the setting of the ‘hydrant’ on the suggestion of grass against a flat background is undermined by the band across the top and the panels in the top left and right hand corners which seem to float on the picture’s surface. They recall the use of Japanese prints in Post-Impressionist paintings and perform a similar formal function. Thus, like Bacon’s figure painting, Sutherland’s work may be seen to reflect both his own concerns - with an organic, human and mechanical correspondence - and dominant aesthetic discourse.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Golden Form against Black Background 1954, whereabouts unknown, repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.X (col.)
[2] Tate Gallery conservation files
[3] Cooper 1961, p.55
[4] Letter to Tate Gallery, 18 Aug. 1972, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[5] ‘Graham Sutherland explains his Art’, Illustrated London News, 19 Feb. 1966, republished in Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, Julian Andrews (ed.), Haverfordwest & Geneva 1982, p.95
[6] ‘Thoughts on Painting’, Listener, 6 Sept. 1951, republished in Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, 1982, p.74
[7] Cooper 1961, p.48
[8] Cooper 1961, p.55
[9] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.135
[10] To Edwin Mullins, Daily Telegraph Magazine, 3 Nov. 1967, quoted in Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982
[11] Repr. John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford, 1980, p.180, pl.99

You might like

In the shop