Graham Sutherland OM

Welsh Landscape with Roads


Not on display

Graham Sutherland OM 1903–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 610 × 914 mm
frame: 798 × 1107 × 85 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1946

Display caption

This work derived from the hills and valley near Porthclais on the outskirts of St David's, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland wrote that such paintings expressed the 'intellectual and emotional' essence of a place. He conjures up a sense of the landscape's ancient past through the inclusion of the animal skull and what may be standing stones in the distance. The unnaturalistic colouring, dramatic shaft of sunlight and minuscule fleeing figure create a threatening atmosphere. While the theme of a tiny man dwarfed by nature was common in eighteenth century painting, Sutherland's transformation of the landscape into a eerie, primordial scene is distinctly modern.

Gallery label, August 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

Welsh Landscape with Roads 1936


Oil on canvas 610 x 914 (24 x 36)

Inscribed in black paint ‘Graham Sutherland’ b.l.
Inscribed on back of canvas in pencil ‘Welsh Landscape’ running vertically at right, and on top selvage ‘Welsh Landscape’

Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1946

Purchased by the Contemporary Art Society from Rosenberg and Helft Ltd., London 1938

British Contemporary Art, Rosenberg and Helft Ltd., London, Jan.-Feb. 1937 (29, as ‘Welsh Landscape 36 x 26 in.’)
Recent Works by Graham Sutherland, Rosenberg and Helft Ltd., London, Sept.-Oct. 1938 (5, as ‘36 x 26 in.’)
First ABAC Exhibition: Paintings & Sculpture from England, Canada & America, American-British Art Center, New York, Jan.-Feb. 1941 (22)
Contemporary Art Society: A Selection from the Acquisitions of the Contemporary Art Society from its Foundation to the Present Day, Tate Gallery, London, Sept.-Oct. 1946 (78, as Welsh Landscape)
Summer Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 1948 (153)
Sutherland, Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna, Turin, Oct.-Nov. 1965 (5, repr. p.41)
Graham Sutherland, Kunsthalle, Basel, Feb.-March 1966 (7, as Welsh Landscape)
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 (52, repr. p.70)
Graham Sutherland, Tate Gallery, London, May-July 1982 (50, repr. p.75)
Graham Sutherland, Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Aug.-Sept. 1982 (50, repr. in col.)
Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1921-40, Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London, Oct.-Dec. 1986 (76, repr. in col. p.15)
British Art in the Twentieth Century: The Modern Movement, Royal Academy, London, Jan.-April 1987, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, May-Aug. (174, repr. in col. p.266)

Contemporary Art Society Report 1938-9, London 1940, pp.9,11
Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, p.12, pl.9a
Dennis Farr, ‘Book Review II: The Work of Graham Sutherland by Douglas Cooper’, Apollo, vol.76, no.3, May 1962, p.228
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, pp.703-4
John Hayes, The Art of Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1980, p.58, repr. p.59, no.17
Rosalind Thuiller, Graham Sutherland: Inspirations, Guildford 1982, pp.40-4
David Lee, ‘Graham Sutherland: The Early Years, Goldsmiths’ Gallery’, Arts Review, vol.38, no.23, 21 Nov. 1986, p.638
Nannette Aldred, Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1920-40, exh. cat., Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London 1988, p.22

Charles Harrison, English Art and Modernism 1900-39, London and Bloomington 1981, p.323, pl.157, rev. ed. London and New Haven 1994, p.323, pl.157 (col.)
Alan Bowness, British Contemporary Art 1910-90: Eighty Years of Collecting by the Contemporary Art Society, London 1991, p.54 (col.)

Sutherland’s first one-person painting exhibition in 1938 established the tenor of his subsequent work just as a short catalogue introduction, contributed anonymously by Kenneth Clark, initiated his portrayal as part of a romantic English tradition. Almost all of the works in that display were based on the landscape near the city of St David’s in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales and Welsh Landscape with Roads, 1936 was one of the earliest of such pieces.[1]

According to a map drawn by the artist in 1969, this composition derived from a site near the inlet and village of Porth Clais, south-west of St David’s.[2] It also indicates that a number of other works originated in various views from the same site, including the watercolour from which Black Landscape, 1939-40 (Tate Gallery T03085) was re-worked. Sutherland told the Tate Gallery that Welsh Landscape with Roads was the ‘final of several studies of the same subject’; all but one of these were drawings.[3] The other painting, also entitled Welsh Landscape with Roads, 1936 (private collection), [4] is considerably smaller and less complex: as well as being generally less worked, it does not include the animal skull that dominates the lower left hand section of the Tate’s work.

There has been some confusion over the precise dating of this painting. Although Sutherland suggested in 1953 that it had probably been made in 1937,[5] it was dated 1936 in the catalogue for the 1938 exhibition. This earlier dating is confirmed by a letter from the artist to Kenneth Clark regarding his contribution to a group exhibition at Rosenberg and Helft in early 1937.[6] ‘Would you help me’, he asked, ‘by saying whether I am wise in sending the ‘Welsh Landscape’ (oil) to the exhibition. I don’t suppose you remember it but it was the longish unfinished oil which I brought to Portland Place’.[7] An adjacent sketch demonstrates that the work under discussion was Welsh Landscape with Roads. That the painting had only recently been finished indicates that it was executed in London at the end of 1936, probably from studies made during a week-long stay at Solva, close to Porth Clais, in September that year. Several related sketches (inscribed with various, probably retrospective, dates) survive.

Sutherland’s 1969 map imposed a topographical interpretation on Welsh Landscape with Roads. This followed Clark’s assertion, when it was first exhibited, that the works were ‘painted from small, careful drawings done on the spot, squared for enlargement and followed most accurately. As a result Sutherland’s work is the reverse of abstract. Nor is it Sur-realist’.[8] However, it is probable that the composition was constructed, as the sketches reveal the artist experimenting with different motifs. It seems to derive from the upper section of a drawing inscribed ‘valley above Porthclais’, the dating of which to 1935 was probably applied later.[9] This sketch shows a landscape of considerably more depth dominated by a winding road and including a stone bridge, a square building and a prominent triangular form that may indicate a wall or megalith. At the top, a section of road, a group of standing stones or sheafs of corn and the linear description of a shaft of sunlight demonstrate the relationship to Welsh Landscape with Roads. A small pen and ink sketchbook study is very close - though not identical - to the lower section of the 1935 drawing, including a triangular form in conjunction with a similar bend in the road.[10] A drawing on an adjacent page shows the same scene but with the addition of a running male figure that relates it to Welsh Landscape with Roads.[11] Another, apparently earlier, sketchbook also includes drawings of a running man that echo the one in this painting.[12] It would thus appear that different motifs were brought together to formulate the composite landscape of the final composition.

The divergence from external reality is confirmed in a letter to Colin Anderson, a patron of the artist, in which Sutherland described this countryside and how he had developed a method of working from it after his first visit in 1934.

It seemed impossible here for me to sit down and make finished paintings ‘from nature’. Indeed, there were no ‘ready made’ subjects to paint. The spaces and concentrations of this clearly constructed land were stuff for storing in the mind. Their essence was intellectual and emotional, if I may say so. I found that I could express what I felt only by paraphrasing what I saw.[13]

The analogy of paraphrase would become a key term in the analysis of Sutherland’s imagery and its use is most clearly evident in those works in which found objects, such as branches or roots, are invested with a particular significance, as in Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods, 1940 (Tate Gallery N05139).

The implicit elaboration of the ‘intellectual and emotional’ aspects of the subject that such paraphrasing afforded might be thought to have dictated the colour as much as the form of Welsh Landscape with Roads. The predominance of strong hues - here mostly yellows, oranges, red and maroon - is characteristic of Sutherland’s work of this and subsequent periods. In his review of the 1938 exhibition, Raymond Mortimer described the ‘over-lapping and scrambling of opulent colours’ and suggested that ‘the artist’s vision has extracted from Welsh landscapes oranges and pinks as sumptuous as those that forced themselves upon Gauguin in tropical Tahiti’.[14] The difference between south Wales and the Pacific island would suggest that the critic’s point was a formal one, though the suggestion that Sutherland had drawn-out his colour while Gauguin’s was somehow necessary may be seen as a veiled criticism. In contrast to this tropical parallel, one may see the deep colouring of Welsh Landscape with Roads as contributing to a sinister tone that pervades Sutherland’s treatment of landscape. The artist’s own writings and the response of critics acknowledged a dark solemnity in his work for which his repeated recourse to the muted tones of sunset was appropriate.

Close inspection of the painting reveals several compositional changes: the middle section of road was larger before it was over-painted, a diagonal pale band in the bottom left hand corner may have been a river or a second road and something - possibly a figure - has been painted out of the central foreground. In places, Sutherland painted on to an underlying glaze which lends extra body to such sections as the maroon hills on the left which are painted over a viridian base. Colour was used for compositional effect: the mysterious shadows on the right-hand side create a progressive illusion of depth and the strokes of bright red in various places across the painting serve to enliven the picture surface. Considerable reworking and layering of the paint signals a lack of facility that may reflect the artist’s relative inexperience with oil paint.

Welsh Landscape with Roads was painted on a canvas that had been squared-up, presumably to aid in the translation of a smaller image. The pencil grid is numbered along the left-hand edge and, where the green glaze was applied over much of that side of the canvas, the pencil lines and digits have been re-drawn into the paint. It was usual for Sutherland to square-up many studies and most of his canvases, but such a practice need not have precluded improvisation during execution. The addition of the animal skull and inclusion of the apparently purely formal device of a dotted line beneath it may be seen as indications of that. Similarly, much of the original drawing was reinstated in black paint at a late stage, the composition’s dependence upon superimposed line being typical of Sutherland’s early work.

In his letter to Anderson, the artist acknowledged that, in addition to his attraction to a particular place, he was also ‘preoccupied with a particular aspect of landscape’.[15] He did not elaborate, but one may speculate on his own interpretation through the elements that make up this composition. As the title signals, the presence of the road was essential to Sutherland’s choice of subject which is one he returned to on numerous occasions, for example in Pembrokeshire Landscape, 1936 (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff).[16] For him, the road served as a signifier of the human presence in the landscape: in his description of Brimham Rock in Yorkshire, published in Myfanwy Evans’s The Painter’s Object, he wrote of a ‘primitive environment ... redeemed from emptiness by the road’.[17] Later he described the effect that a figure on a road in Wales had upon him:

The astonishing fertility of these valleys and the complexity of the roads running through them is a delight to the eye. The roads form strong and mysterious arabesques as they rise in terraces, in sight, hidden, turning and splitting as they finally disappear into the sky. To see a solitary human figure descending such a road at the solemn moment of sunset is to realize the enveloping quality of the earth, which can create, as it does here, a mysterious space limit - a womb-like enclosure - which gives the human form an extraordinary focus and significance.[18]

Apparently informed by psychoanalysis, such a humanised view of landscape was to be seen even more clearly in a number of works based upon places where the figure seems to be enveloped, such as Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate Gallery N06190). Despite this affirmative reading, Sutherland’s treatment of the figure in the landscape has been seen to embody a general tone of cultural pessimism. David Mellor has associated this ‘vivid, melancholy icon of human precariousness’ with Geoffrey Grigson’s identification of neo-romanticism’s tendency to ‘picture death in nature’.[19] Malcolm Yorke identified in the landscapes ‘something sinister and melancholy ... an impenetrable damp green gloom, strangeness, disquiet’.[20] He found this quality in Sutherland’s own description of the Welsh sea-shore - a ‘setting ... of darkness and light - of decay and life ... The mind wanders from contemplation of the living cattle to their ghosts. It is no uncommon sight to see a horse’s skull or horns of cattle lying bleached on the sand’.[21] In this way the melancholy insertion of the skull in the foreground of Welsh Landscape with Roads, an echo of the still lifes of Picasso and Braque, becomes a memento mori. The setting sun and deep colouring - typical of Sutherland’s landscape - adds to this sombre tone.

It has been suggested that Sutherland’s ‘figures recall the Romantic wraiths of painters like Caspar David Friedrich, who stood in for the sensibility of the artist/viewer or functioned as a mysterious presence in the work of de Chirico and Paul Nash’.[22] However, the most likely influence on the running man in Welsh Landscape with Roads is the work of William Blake, though its form is close to a Study for the Destruction of the Children of Niobe, c.1755-60 by Richard Wilson (British Museum).[23] The theme of the human figure in harmony with an uncultivated landscape, suggested by Sutherland, has also been identifed in Wilson’s depictions of Welsh mountains.[24] Sutherland had echoed Wilson in his resort to Wales and, in so doing, had fallen in with a tradition of internal tourism in which artists were attracted to Britain’s geographical periphery, in particular its ‘Celtic fringe’. He commented on the sense of difference that Wales offered: ‘I was visiting a country, a part of which, at least, spoke a foreign tongue, and it certainly seemed very foreign to me, though sufficiently accessible for me to feel that I could claim it as my own’.[25] It was such a sense of geographical and cultural distance, combined with a desire for wild, untamed landscapes, that had attracted the Romantic painters and writers to such areas as the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. The process was echoed between the two world wars by such artists as Ben Nicholson and John Piper, both of whom were associated with Sutherland, and especially by the neo-romantics of the 1940s.

Though they look a little like sheafs of corn, it is probable that the group of conical forms bathed in the rays of the setting sun in the background of Welsh Landscape with Roads are standing stones; such a group is marked on the Ordnance Survey map of the area. Their inclusion indicates a similar return to the themes of the Romantics and reflects a developing interest among British modernists in archaeology and prehistory. Megaliths were a major theme for Paul Nash in the mid-1930s, while, in 1937, Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture was compared with Neolithic menhirs,[26] her essay on sculpture was reproduced alongside an image of Stonehenge[27] and John Piper published an article on ‘Prehistory from the Air’.[28] Sutherland had, himself, painted the Men-an-Tol - a famous group of ancient stones in Cornwall - in 1933.[29] The inclusion of an animal’s skull similarly indicates a conception of the landscape as an embodiment of history in a manner that echoes Paul Nash’s illustration of a dinosaur on the cover of the Shell Guide to Dorset with the caption ‘Former Native’.[30] The recovery of Britain’s prehistoric past became a powerful element in neo-romanticism as British cultural identity was threatened by impending war and, from 1939, its final realisation. Ancient sites appeared in the series of Shell posters to which Sutherland had contributed (1932) and featured in the Pilgrim Trust’s Recording Britain project, initaited in 1940, that sought to counter the twin threat to Britain’s heritage from bombing and the more general processes of modernisation.

These themes allowed Sutherland and his work to be located within a specifically British artistic tradition, a process established by his patron Kenneth Clark in a text which insisted upon the naturalism of his approach.[31] There he was shown as the continuation of a tradition of poetic English painters that included William Blake and Samuel Palmer, artists whose influence Sutherland had already acknowledged. Mortimer concurred with Clark, describing Sutherland as a ‘highly romantic man’, but linked him primarily with Picasso’s recent work, seeing in both a ‘Recall to Vitality’.[32] The construction of the artist as both modern and essentially English helped to establish him as a figurehead for a younger generation of painters at a time of nationalistic revival and led to his official promotion abroad as a major British painter. Welsh Landscape with Roads was one of four works owned by the Contemporary Art Society that were taken to New York by John Rothenstein at the end of 1939 as potential acquisitions by the Museum of Modern Art, an institution then thought to define a narrative history of modernist art. The undertaking of such a mission by the Tate Gallery’s director at the beginning of the Second World War has particular, powerful resonances. Following its showing at the American-British Art Center, Welsh Landscape with Roads was stored by MoMA for the duration of the war and, in 1945, was added to a large consignment of British art that had toured North America and been stored at the Toledo Museum of Art, from where it was despatched to Britain in July 1945.[33]

Sutherland returned to Pembrokeshire in 1967 for the first time in over twenty years. From then on he would visit for part of every year, making paintings which drew upon the same sites that he had used between 1934 and 1946. That he was not simply inspired by the place itself is signalled, however, by a painting clearly based on the 1935 drawing from which Welsh Landscape with Roads derived: Road at Porthclais with Setting Sun, 1979 (private collection).[34]

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Graham Sutherland, letter to Tate Gallery, 11 April 1953, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[2] ‘Map of St David’s Head, Pembrokeshire’, repr. John Hayes, Graham Sutherland, Oxford 1982, p.18, fig.6
[3] Graham Sutherland, letter to Tate Gallery, 27 Oct. 1957, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[4] Sold Sotheby’s, London, Modern British and Irish Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 22 Nov. 1995 (66), repr. Douglas Cooper, The Work of Graham Sutherland, London 1961, pl.8f
[5] Sutherland, letter 11 April 1953
[6] British Contemporary Art, exh. cat., Rosenberg and Helft Ltd., London 1937
[7] Graham Sutherland, letter to Kenneth Clark, nd [Dec. 1936], Tate Gallery Archive 8812.1.3.3113
[8] Anon. [Kenneth Clark], Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Rosenberg and Helft, London 1938
[9] Solva Hills and Porth Clais, 1935, repr. Cooper 1961, pl.6a
[10] Sketchbook, c.1937, Tate Gallery Archive 812.2, p.10
[11] Ibid. p.12
[12] Sketchbook, c.1936, pp.11,35, Tate Gallery Archive 812.1
[13] Graham Sutherland, letter to Colin Anderson, published as ‘A Welsh Sketchbook’, Horizon, vol.5, no.28, 28 April 1942, pp.225-36, republished in Graham Sutherland, Correspondences: Selected Writings on Art, ed. Julian Andrews, Picton and Geneva 1982, p.52
[14] Raymond Mortimer, ‘An Arrival’, New Statesman and Nation, vol.16, no.397, 1 Oct. 1938, p.490
[15] Sutherland 1942/1982, p.50
[16] Repr. Cooper 1961, pl.7b
[17] Graham Sutherland, ‘An English Stone Landmark’ in Myfanwy Evans, The Painter’s Object, London 1937, republished in Sutherland 1982, p.36
[18] Sutherland 1942/1982, p.51
[19] David Mellor, ‘The Body and the Land’ in David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.72
[20] Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists, London 1988, p.117
[21] Sutherland 1942/1982, pp.51-2
[22] Nannette Aldred, Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1920-40, exh. cat., Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London 1986, p.12
[23] Repr. David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1982, p.199, no.85
[24] Ibid., p.224
[25] Sutherland 1942/1982, p.50
[26] J.D. Bernal, Barbara Hepworth, exh. cat., Lefevre Gallery, London 1937
[27] Barbara Hepworth, ‘Sculpture’ in J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo (eds.), Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London 1937, pp.113-116
[28] John Piper, ‘Prehistory from the Air’, Axis, no.8, early winter 1937, pp.4-9
[29] Graham Sutherland, Men an Tol, 1933, private collection, repr. Hayes 1982, p.57, pl.13 (col.)
[30] Paul Nash, Dorset: Shell Guide, London 1936
[31] Anon. [Kenneth Clark], Graham Sutherland, exh. cat., Rosenberg and Helft, London 1938
[32] Mortimer 1938, p.491
[33] Porter A. McCray, Museum of Modern Art, New York, letter to Tate Gallery, 29 Oct. 1957, Tate Gallery catalogue files
[34] Repr. Hayes 1982, p.174, pl.156 (col.)

You might like

In the shop