Graham Sutherland OM

The Scales


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1454 × 1232 mm
frame: 1578 × 1354 × 58 mm
Purchased 1962

Catalogue entry

Graham Sutherland 1903-80

The Scales 1961-2


Oil on canvas 1451 x 1292 (57 1/8 x 48 1/2)

Inscribed in grey and white paint ‘G.S. | 1961-1962’ b.r.
Inscribed on back of canvas in black paint ‘THE SCALES’ and in ink ‘SUTHERLAND’ on cross member of stretcher

Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art Ltd (Grant-in-Aid) 1962

Recent Paintings by Graham Sutherland, Marlborough Fine Art Ltd New London Gallery, London, June 1962 (14, repr. p.12)

Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.48
G.S. Whittet, ‘London Commentary: You Can’t Write Off the British’, Studio, vol.164, no.832, Aug. 1962, p.74
Tate Gallery Review 1953-63 and Report 1962-2, 1963, pp.60-1
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.710-11

Robert Wraight, ‘Sutherland at the Villa Blanche’, Studio, vol.164, no.832, Aug. 1962, p.53

In 1961, the year in which this painting was begun, Douglas Cooper observed: ‘Another theme which has occupied Sutherland greatly during the last few years involves equilibrium and a rotating or pendulum movement’.[1] This interest was demonstrated by a number of works depicting hanging or swinging forms, such as Hanging Form over Water 1959-60 (Southampton Art Gallery),[2] and scales, such as this

The Scales 1961-2 was the second treatment of the theme, being essentially a reworking of The Scales 1959 (Musée d’Amiens), then in the collection of Sutherland’s friend and patron Kenneth Clark.[3] Both works were preceded by Still Life with Apples and Scales 1957 (private collection).[4] In 1962 the artist told the Tate Gallery that its version ‘was started in early summer 1961 at my house in France ... I worked on it then over several days during the autumn of 1961 and completed it in April this year’.[5] He also asserted that he made both versions of The Scales ‘concurrently’, though the Tate’s was finished later. In fact he must have been mistaken as the other painting is dated ‘20.VII.59’ and was lent by Clark to the artist’s exhibition at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery, New York in November of that year. Drawings apparently made in relation to the Tate’s version show that Sutherland considered other variations, specifically he drew the scales on a variety of tables as seen from above, at an oblique angle.[6]

The two paintings are significantly different though they share several common features. In the first the scales are set upon a block which is absent in the second, though in both they sit on some sort of a metal frame. The block is orange and the rest of the earlier work is largely ochre or dark grey with a deep blue band across the bottom. In contrast, The Scales 1961-2 is brightly coloured, being predominantly an acidic yellow with touches of bright hue - red, orange, green, blue, purple. The dead sunflower in the Tate painting did not appear in the earlier version. Lean paint was applied to the unprimed face of a commercially prepared canvas, which had been squared-up. Several layers, of varying tone, were painted in different manners, ranging from the heavily brushmarked to areas so thin as to barely cover the ground; thick impasto additions were made later. Small holes in each corner show that the canvas was painted while pinned-up and tack holes and a black line across the top suggest that it has been restretched, and perhaps enlarged, at some point.[7]

The 1962 exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art was Sutherland’s first one-person show in London since his 1953 retrospective at the Tate Gallery. He had joined the new dealership in August 1959, and many of Britain’s leading artists (including Francis Bacon) were signed up around the same time. To an extent the long interval was a reflection of his status as it was partly the result of his preoccupation with the designs for the tapestry of Christ in Majesty behind the high altar of Coventry Cathedral, which was consecrated on 25 May 1962, shortly before the exhibition opened. The show’s reception was mixed and several critics commented on the artist’s use of colour. While William Gaunt in the Sunday Telegraph saw it as ‘one of Mr Sutherland’s great assets’, Terence Mullaly in the Daily Telegraph was more equivocal, describing ‘the colour [as] ... often strident, even crude’.[8] The variation between the two paintings and between them both and photographs of the actual subject show how the colour was clearly not literal. Earlier, the artist had explained how he used it in different ways for different ends: to be ‘evocative’ or ‘functional’, simply for ‘verisimilitude’ or to create ‘atmosphere’ (including sound, silence and smell).[9] Here, for example, the bright palette might serve to suggest the noon-day sun or his emotional response. Sutherland had cited Van Gogh as a model for his approach to colour and that suggests a useful point of comparison for The Scales.

The painting may be associated with a number of works in which the artist imbued man-made or invented objects with an anthropomorphic quality - Hydrant II (Tate Gallery T01217) for example - though few are as accurately representational as this. His work was becoming increasingly literal at that time, as demonstrated by a series of images based on a local village fountain, such as The Fountain 1965 (private collection).[10] The apparent disparity of size between the window and the scales suggests that they were exaggerated for dramatic effect. In fact, the window against which they were set was very small. In 1962 the painting was reproduced alongside a photograph of the actual scales set upon two flat stones which, themselves, sit on some sort of a metal rack with triangulated supports.[11] Despite the absence of the stones in the painting, the photograph shows how accurately the artist recorded the rack and the window with wire mesh instead of glass. A second photograph, showing Sutherland actually drawing the scales, clearly relates directly to this painting as it shows them with the weight in the left hand bowl and the dried sunflower on the right.[12] The striated shadow was borrowed from the 1959 version of the composition in which it is seen to derive from a slatted window shade. With the nails in the wall, this serves to create a sense of strong sun and to create a balance between light and shade which Cooper contrasted with the motion of the scales.[13] Several rough studies for this painting in the artist’s sketchbooks reveal his interest in the dramatic shadows cast by the scales and the rack on which they sit.[14]

It is possible that Sutherland chose his motif for its dramatic shapes which are extended by the addition of the dried-out flower. One sketchbook drawing (which the artist is seen making in the photograph mentioned above) includes two studies of this detail which recall the threatening aspect of his earlier paintings of thorns. There are further suggestions of more subtle or symbolic readings. Douglas Cooper identified in the paintings of scales and pendulums an interest in a ‘movement ... [which is] surrounded by mystery because the motivating force is never visible’.[15] Both versions of The Scales are animated by the use of pictorial contrast. In the first, half of the background is in shadow, imbuing the painting with foreboding and dramatising the sense of mystery. In the Tate’s, the shadow is less dramatic but one is struck by the balancing of the weight and the dead flower. The latter - which recalls the frequent appearance of sunflowers in the work of Van Gogh and Paul Nash - might be thought to be a symbol of death, of natural cycles and perhaps the end of summer, or of the day with which the long shadows might accord. The conjunction of the scales with death invokes the image of the weighing of souls in Renaissance representations of The Last Judgement. These conjectures are strengthened by the fact that the presence of death in nature had been a long-running theme in Sutherland’s work.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.48
[2] Repr. Ronald Alley, Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.125
[3] Repr. ibid. p.49 (col.)
[4] Repr. ibid. pl.148
[5] Letter to Tate Gallery, 14 Aug. 1962, Tate Gallery cataloguing files
[6] Sketchbook c.1961, TGA 812.28, p.28, 812.31, pp.23, 96
[7] Tate Gallery conservation files
[8] Quoted Roger Berthoud, Graham Sutherland: A Biography, London 1982, p.248
[9] Manuscript ‘Notes on Robert [Melville]’s text’, n.d. [c.1950], Tate Gallery Archive TAM 66/17
[10] Repr. John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.153, pl.125 (col.)
[11] Robert Wraight, ‘Sutherland at the Villa Blanche’, Studio, vol.164, no.832, Aug. 1962, pp.52 and 53
[12] Berthoud 1982, back of dust jacket (col.)
[13] Cooper 1961, p.48
[14] Sketchbook, Tate Gallery Archive 812.31
[15] Cooper 1961, p.48

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