Harry Thubron

Barrel Staves on Door


Not on display

Harry Thubron 1915–1985
Wooden door, barrel staves and paint
Object: 550 × 566 × 65 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2018


Barrel Staves on Door 1960 is an off-square wooden assemblage made from what appears to be the top portion of a door (most likely a cupboard door). A thin wash of whiteish-grey paint has been applied to the side and top of the door frame, and a minimal streak of the wash to the bottom edge. At the top left edge of the door frame a small oval of the frame has been left unpainted. To the centre of the door structure Thubron attached vertically six slightly convex old and patinated barrel staves to describe an upright oblong.

Since the 1950s Thubron had made the activity of collage and assemblage the centre of his practice. Although his work might suggest a connection to the Merz collage of Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), the example of Paul Klee (1879–1940) was more apposite, described by Thubron’s colleague and friend, the critic and historian Norbert Lynton as: ‘Klee’s organic process, which involved letting a picture grow out of its constituents, mark by mark, texture by texture, abstract or with figurative reference, and not telling it what to be before the first seed was planted.’ (In Austin Desmond Fine Art 2007, unpaginated.) This quality – whereby the composition is subject to such intuitive growth and change – also provided the foundation for Thubron’s particular formulation of the Basic Design course that he ran as Head of Fine Art at Leeds College of Art between 1955 and 1964. Thubron’s course was, over that decade, subject to change and development, as he outlined in 1959, when he stated that such courses should ‘combine an increased sense of search and experiment … It must become a living and vital organic unit that is in continual change. Such courses will become increasingly concerned with a more analytical and scientific approach to colour-form, space and nature – and in complementary terms, with a more vital and free pursuit of the intuitive and instinctive mark.’ (Harry Thubron, ‘Possibilities in Art Teaching’, The Developing Process, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1959, p.4.) At the basis of Thurbon’s outlook, however, was a dual exploration, of form and material.

In terms of form, he described what he termed ‘Families of Form’ (Harry Thubron, ‘Families of Form – Their Development and Relationship’, in ibid., p.31) that were a collection of, or progressions between, generic figures – the most characteristic being between the square, the oval and the circle; these also became a more complex basis for collage, where the recognition of formal connections between materials and shapes could be suggestive of the collage’s meaning. Barrel Staves on Door not only engages with the notion of a family of form, between the oblong of the door frame and the oblong oval described by the upright staves of the door, but also presents a contrast of material, pointedly the aged texture of the staves against the newer door. It also exemplifies the way in which Thubron’s friend, the art theorist Anton Ehrenzweig, identified how ‘“Found” structure and “made” construction are often united in the same picture’ (Anton Ehrenzweig, ‘Introduction’, Lords Gallery 1964, unpaginated). Ehrenzweig wrote this in the catalogue accompanying Thubron’s first solo exhibition – at Lords Gallery, London in 1964, in which Barrel Staves on Door was included (catalogue no.27) – and he went on to link this duality with the outlook of a family of form, making specific reference to this work: ‘A central disk often represents the calm meditative core amidst a rougher accidental frame. But it is wrong – as I first thought – to interpret the resulting tension as juxtaposition of order and chaos. The series of these disk pictures begins with Barrel Staves on Door, a seemingly accidental combination of two found objects.’ (Ibid.) For Thubron, all ‘materials have their potential’, as Lynton recognised in his review of Thubron’s exhibition at Lords Gallery, and so he accommodated in his work a full range of materials, not limiting ‘himself to industrial materials … He is just as capable of working with rags and ancient barrel staves. He is not sentimentally attached either to the roughness of the old or the blandness of the new.’ (Norbert Lynton, review in the Yorkshire Post, 6 July 1964, cited in Serpentine Gallery 1976, unpaginated.)

Barrel Staves on Door was also included in Thubron’s Serpentine Gallery retrospective of 1976 (catalogue no.3), and then in other survey exhibitions at Peterloo Gallery, Manchester in 1977 (catalogue no.1) and Playhouse Gallery, Harlow in 1979 (catalogue no.1). It is known that the work remained in Thubron’s possession until at least 1979, and possibly until his death, and was considered by Ehrenzweig as a foundational work for Thubron.

Tate has other, later, reliefs in its collection, all constructed from found elements: Black Rose 1966 (Tate T06592), White Wood 1969 (Tate T06593) and Caracol 1981 (Tate T06594).

Further reading
Harry Thubron, exhibition catalogue, Lords Gallery, London 1964.
Harry Thubron, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1976, illustrated p.3.
Harry Thubron: Collages and Constructions 1972–1984, exhibition catalogue, Austin Desmond Fine Art, London 2007.

Andrew Wilson
September 2017

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