Patrick Symons

Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)


Not on display

Patrick Symons 1925–1993
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 892 × 795 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

Patrick Symons brought a rigorous approach to his paintings. He made numerous preliminary drawings and continually corrected his compositions, which can be analysed on many levels. He paid close attention to their geometry but also to their specific content. He was a keen botanist and this is reflected in the precision of his landscape paintings. Symons frequently worked on one subject over a long period and this is one of an extended series of intensely observed paintings of Wimbledon Common, which he first painted in 1967. The artist described the clearing in this painting as having been the site of much activity, with walkers and horses passing through. Symons himself is seen, sitting working under a tree.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03552 Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common) 1977–81

Oil on canvas 35 1/8 × 31 1/4 (892 × 795)
Inscribed ‘Symons '77–81’ b.r., and various mathematical calculations on right hand canvas turnover
Purchased from Browse & Darby (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: Patrick Symons recent paintings & drawings, Browse & Darby, November–December 1982 (6, repr. in black and white; a detail, showing the self-portrait, repr. in col. on the cover); The Hard-Won Image, Tate Gallery, July–September 1984 (136, repr. in col. p.47)

Wimbledon Common is in south-west London. The image of a figure towards lower left, sitting on the ground near a tree trunk while drawing, is a selfportrait. Apart from the final sentence, which Symons added later, all the quotations in this entry are from a letter from the artist dated 19 March 1986, sent in reply to questions from the compiler.

Before beginning a painting Symons usually makes a drawing of the motif (to discover a proportional idea for the picture), which he describes as a ‘scribble’. He writes of the drawing for this painting (private collection) that:

the ‘scribble’ best describes the area of the picture which consists of two horizontal rectangles one above the other, of which the centres were both deliberately used as focal points. The lower part, to do with the ground, is a double square (its diagonal measurement is the height of the whole picture). The upper part, more extended to do with looking up into the branches, is a golden rectangle. This idea would have been discovered in the ‘scribble’ but used deliberately from the start of the painting and frequently re-stated - for example to accommodate the self portrait and other incidents.

The artist has explained that he has been painting at Wimbledon Common, mostly in June and July, since 1967:

moving progressively into the Oak wood just to the west of the Windmill car park. Some students, originally from Chelsea foundation course, still return from various schools or later and my former colleague Trevor Felcey brings others from the Byam Shaw and Wimbledon schools.

His first Wimbledon drawing, outside the wood, was ‘Wimbledon Oaks’ 1967, and this was followed by ‘Wimbledon Oaks’ 1968 (charcoal; Museum and Art Gallery, Doncaster), in which the view is down the path from the entrance. Around 1971:

I painted the small Sycamore tree in the hollow over to the right. In 1972 I moved further down the path and made a drawing for ‘Holly under Oak’ which I painted from 1973–5 and which was bought by someone I think from Germany after being shown by William Darby and at the Royal Academy.

In 1976, the year of the drought, I moved further into the previous picture where I have been working ever since, and started ‘Oak Arch Sunny’ [repr. in catalogue of Tolly Cobbold Eastern Arts, Fourth National Exhibition, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, April–May 1983 and tour, p.34]. It took quite a long time to settle on the oak arch and to find a place to look at it from. I very much liked the arch formed by these two trees and the movement of the ground towards them, but was worried at first that it looked a bit too much like one of my pictures already. However, struggling to make sense of all those particular trees and the ever changing patches of sunlight soon took care of all that.

In 1977, which was much less sunny, I started your picture ‘Oak Arch Grey’. Standing about five yards nearer and to the right, I found a quite different view to do with looking up into the branches above the arch as well as across the ground. It is a more complex space but I hoped to make the leaves more clearly about the growth of each branch uncomplicated by sunlight. Also, because of the even light, I was more aware of the movement of passers by and many different incidents have come and gone in the picture, including two horses, but I could not get them sufficiently settled without more than one sight of them. A student did pose for me briefly once or twice carrying his picture out of the wood on the left of the picture as I had originally seen him by chance.

The self-portrait began to appear in the third year I think. One particularly glorious sunny morning, that was hopeless for both the paintings, I had made an entirely separate empathy drawing about myself situated under that tree, and the delight of just being there. The drawing was a very slight one but I enjoyed the experience and began to like the idea of my own presence in the picture. But I could not combine the imagined space of the drawing with the observed and measured space of the painting; so the whole thing had to become a great deal more literal. I made measured marks off myself on the ground and on the tree and I set up my clothes and the drawing on sticks. I got one student to pose for me wearing my clothes on one occasion, but the figure was always unsatisfactory and I was accused of being sentimental.

In the last year of the painting I almost gave up in despair. I pruned the small holly tree (it grows a lot each year) beyond the figure very carefully in the hope of making its presence intense enough to replace the figure and after much deliberation came back from the country in August to paint the figure out, which I did, but later that entirely sleepless night found it unbearable and cleaned off all the new paint. By now several other people posed for me in my clothes and I made drawings at home of the back of my head in mirrors, but I never painted on the picture at all in the studio and I continued to work off the figure into the top of the picture, particularly in the right top corner, all the time.

(I also used the drawing of myself, with cast shadows from mistletoe, in a Christmas card that year, and a sculptor called Karel Zuvac made an amusing empathy drawing of himself posing as me and being painted by me.)

The main trees are all English oaks and holly. I avoid Turkey oaks and birches which seem to me more feathery and less powerful. There is a small shrub of Alder Buckthorn on the right of the small path leading to the Arch which I painted specially with different pigments not used elsewhere. The branches in the foreground are pruned each year. Both the Oak Arch pictures were finished in 1981 and since 1982 I have been working on a third picture of the oak arch from even closer and further to the right on sunny mornings. The painting is about the same width as ‘Oak Arch Grey’ and about four inches higher. I have also been working on a very long horizontal drawing (about 16" × 42") of the whole place including the Oak Arch and all the paintings (or models of them) I have painted there (including ‘Holly under Oak’) set up on easels in their places. I am not prepared to make photographs of these before they are finished. The painting is bound to take at least two more years but there is a chance the drawing might be done in 1986.

The figures on the back of your picture probably refer to scales of measurement between sight size (measurements made on a ruler held at arm's length), the scribble, and the painting.

I think the most conscious precedents in earlier art are probably to do with Theodore Rousseau (like the one in the Wallace collection or another in the Louvre) in which a forest picture is an unpopulated stage set, into which I have tried to introduce incidents of sunlight and of figures. I haven't seen the Wilson Steer but the photograph reminds me a bit of Monet - I find the Rousseau more particular. [The works referred to in this paragraph are Theodore Rousseau, ‘Sortie de Forêt à Fontainebleau, Soleil Couchant’, exh. 1850 (Louvre, Paris) and ‘The Forest of Fontainebleau: Morning’ c.1848–50 (Wallace Collection); and P.W. Steer, ‘An Oak Avenue’ 1897, repr. Bruce Laughton, Philip Wilson Steer, Oxford, 1971, pl.157.]

The frame is really just a coloured mount, the proportions of which are deliberate extensions of the geometry of the picture. (I've forgotten how but know I had several goes to find an idea that also looked right.) So that I do think of it as an extension of the painting. I have not been able to think of a properly separate frame that would contain the picture without imposing a style nor can I find any satisfactory way of framing the mount. It is painted with a complicatedly adjusted mixture of acrylic white (yellow ochre, ultramarine and Indian red) pigments and matt Liquitex.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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