Carel Weight

Allegro Strepitoso


In Tate Liverpool

Carel Weight 1908–1997
Oil paint on plywood
Frame: 874 × 1087 × 90 mm
support: 699 × 921 mm
Purchased 1990

Display caption

During the 1930s Weight was interested in fairy stories and images which kindled the imagination. 'Allegro Strepitoso' was inspired by memories of childhood visits to London Zoo accompanied by his mother. A photograph of Weight's mother adopting a position of agitation provided the pose for the lady in red. Weight wanted to execute a comic painting and became fascinated with making the lion appear to spring out of the cage. The title of the painting was suggested by a musical friend of the artist after it had been completed. Allegro means 'merry' or 'lively', while strepitoso means 'noisily'. The theme of attack and escape is one that runs throughout Weight's work.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The oil painting was painted on a primed plywood panel over a period of about two months from preparatory drawings and an oil sketch. The artists' mother was the model for the two main characters.

The plywood panel is of unusual construction. It is formed from five laminated cross-ply veneers, the face veneer being considerably thicker than the other. This type of panel was recommended to the artist by Mr Screeton, a paint manufacturer in New Cross, South London, who also supplied him with the fast drying, titanium white paint Weight used to prime the board. The front of the board is primed with two layers of this paint, one applied with vertical and one with horizontal brushstrokes, probably over an initial animal glue sizing. The back of the panel was also sealed with a layer of white paint and diagonal cross-battens attached to it. These battens were removed some time ago and the panel has developed a complex warp across the horizontal grain of the dominant face veneer.

The primed panel was squared up and the design transferred from the preliminary sketches in graphite pencil which remains clearly visible in many areas. Alterations to the design were made during painting, for example, Weight remembered that, 'the branches of the tree were swept up more to enhance the leaping of the lion' (interview, 16 December 1991). He used artists' oil colours, probably from Rowney at this time, thinned with turpentine and sometimes a little oil for the passages he wished to keep thin and translucent. The thicker, opaque areas of colour retain sharply defined brushstrokes and in some areas he has used sgraffito effects, such as the combed marking of the lion's mane and whiskers, incised through the wet paint. Other areas, such as the tree trunk have been thinned by scraping and many were overlaid with retouching varnish before the final touches were added to the painting. No overall varnish was applied.

The general condition of the painting is good although there was some separation of paint layers and small losses from the lion's mane and around the edges as well as considerable surface dirt. The surface dirt was removed, paint secured, losses retouched and the panel supported in an accessory support tray on acquisition. The ornate, distressed gesso frame, not the choice of the artist, was also replaced by a new glazed frame of moulded and painted wood, consistent with other frames used by the artist.

Catalogue entry

Carel Weight 1908-1997

T05836 Allegro Strepitoso 1932

Oil on wood
699 x 921 (27 1/2 x 36 1/4)

Inscribed on back of panel in other hands 'Frame Damaged | when received | at Bradford', t.r. and 'D2853', bottom centre; inscribed on back of frame in white chalk, 'Carel Weight 25', left.
Inscribed label on back of panel in black ink and in another hand 'Carel Weight | c/o PHL | 56 Brook Street | "Lion Picture" ?50', top centre, last line subsequently covered by label inscribed in black ink 'TRAVELLING EXHIBITION | No. 2 | ALLEGRO STREPITOSO | CAREL WEIGHT RBA | 5 SHEPHERDS BUSH GREEN | LONDON W14'; badly damaged label inscribed in black ink 'CA[...]EIGHT | 5[...]pherds Bush Green W14 | [...]he [...]n | [...]scapes"' at right, subsequently covered by label for Arts Council exhibition British Art 1925-50 2nd Anthology, 1951; inscribed label 'CAREL WEIGHT | 5 Shepherds Bush Green | London W14' left centre; printed label 'City of Bradford | CORPORATION ART GALLERY | Cartwright Memorial Hall | Loan no.' inscribed in another hand in pencil '577', lower right; printed label on back of frame, partially torn, 'CHAS H. WEST[...] | 117 Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage NW1', inscribed in another hand in black ink 'No. 3 | 36 x 28 [...]| ?5[...] U.E.R.', left centre

Purchased at Sotheby's through the Bernard Jacobson Gallery 1990

Bt from the artist by F.G. 'Peter' Stone by 1947; Dr W.M. Hunter by inheritance from Peter Stone, 1985; anon. sale [W.M. Hunter] Sotheby's, London 7 Nov. 1990 (123, repr. in col.) bt Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London for Tate Gallery

42nd Spring Exhibition, Cartwright Memorial Hall, Corporation Art Gallery, Bradford, spring 1935 (400)
1937 Exhibition, Artists' International Association, 41 Grosvenor Square, London, April-May 1937 (164, as Lion Picture)
Exhibition of Work by Members of the AIA, tour to Municipal Galleries: York, Hanley, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (93), Brighton, Aug. 1939 (50), Kidderminster, Nov., Northampton, Carlisle, Hereford, Derby, Lincoln, Bradford, Middlesborough
Exhibition of Modern Paintings, Artists' International Association tour, Canteen of the Ministries of Shipping and Economic Warfare, London, April-May 1941, Canteen of the Ministry of Information, London, July 1941, St Paul's School, East Hampstead Park, Wokingham, Oct. 1941, Officers' Mess, 'a famous RAF station in the Home Counties', March-July 1942 (53)
Four Contemporary British Artists: Leonard Appelbee, Claude Rogers, Ruskin Spear, Carel Weight, Arts Council, London 1947 (25)
British Painting: 1925-50: 2nd Anthology, Arts Council, New Burlington Galleries, London, June-July 1951, Manchester City Art Gallery, July-Sept. (130)
Carel Weight, Museum and Art Gallery, Reading, Sept.-Oct. 1970 (4)
Carel Weight RA: A Retrospective Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, Jan.-Feb. 1982 and Arts Council tour: York City Art Gallery, Feb.-April, Rochdale Art Gallery, April-May, Newlyn Art Gallery, Penzance, May-June, New Metropole Arts Centre, Folkestone, July-Aug. (5, repr. in col.)

'The London Group', Times, 13 Nov. 1934, p.12
'Art and Artists', Observer, 18 Nov. 1934, p.16
New Statesman and Nation, 1 Jan. 1982, p.23, repr.
Roy Strong, 'Carel Weight', Financial Times, 26 Jan. 1982, p.17, repr. (detail)
Mervyn Levy, Carel Weight, London 1986, p.51, pl.42 (col.)
Linda Saunders, 'Carel Weight RA CBE', Green Book, no.3 vol.2, 1986, p.7
Peter Crookston, 'Getting the Measure of Carel Weight', Sunday Times Magazine, 4 June 1989, repr. pp.50-1 (col.)
'Etcetera', RA Magazine, Winter 1992, p.23 repr. (col.)
Tate Gallery Report, 1990-92, London 1992, repr. p.57
R.V. Weight, Carel Weight: A Haunted Imagination, London 1994, p.21 repr. (col.)
Martin Gayford, 'Wild Card', Telegraph Magazine, 23 July 1994, repr. p.44 (col.)

Cathy Courtney, 'Obituaries: Professor Carel Weight', Independent, 15 Aug. 1997, p.12

Allegro Strepitoso is an important early work, made while Carel Weight was at Goldsmiths' College in South London or shortly after. He discussed the techniques that he used in an interview with Tate Gallery conservators in 1991. The panel and the titanium white with which it was primed were bought from Mr Screeton, 'a paint manufacturer in New Cross', near Goldsmiths', and the translucency of the paint was achieved by thinning with turpentine, retouching varnish and perhaps Roberson's Parris' Marble Medium (Tate Gallery conservation files, 17 Dec.1991). The presence of titanium white primer and of retouching varnish has been confirmed by conservation analysis. The panel has warped considerably and some of the medium rich colours have contracted on drying. The relatively delicate paint surface has been consolidated following a small area of loss to the lion's head resulting from an accident just before the painting's arrival at the Gallery. The painting was inspected by the artist, who was satisfied with the result.

The use of delicate glazes of rich colour would become Weight's established approach. The pencil squaring-up on Allegro Strepitoso, used for the transfer of the composition from sketch to panel and visible in the tree trunk, also sets a precedent for the majority of his subsequent works. It belies the fluidity of the handling but, in the same interview, Weight explained the progressive stages of the composition: 'I may have used some preparatory drawings. The scene on the canvas [sic] was built up from a painted sketch and some squaring up, but alterations were made during the actual painting; for example, the branches of the tree were swept up more to enhance the leaping movement of the lion' (interview, Tate Gallery conservation files, 17 Dec.1991). He later added that it was necessary to work freely over the squared-up composition 'to get the liveliness' (conversation with the author, 8 Dec.1995).

The painted Sketch for Allegro Strepitoso (private collection) was reproduced in colour with Weight's article 'Imaginative Composition; Part 2. Perspective and Proportions; Decoration versus Realism' (Artist, vol.41, no.2, April 1951, p.39). Its dimensions were given there as 18 x 24 inches, and this indicates that it was about two thirds of the size of the final composition. In the earlier part of the article ('Imaginative Composition', Artist, vol.41, no.1, March 1951, pp.2-4), Weight discussed the role of sketches in general, recommending the exploration of the idea through 'rough scribbles', then the establishment of the composition in a number of small oil sketches. He emphasised the importance of squaring-up the selected study in order to sustain the impact of the composition, although no special reference was made to the sketch subsequently illustrated. The process was discussed by Weight in his interviews with Cathy Courtney ('Artists' Lives', National Life Story Collection, British Library National Sound Archive, 1991-2, Tate Gallery Archive, tape F2549 side B). There he revealed that, in general, he placed a sheet of transparent paper over the sketch so as to trace and then enlarge it; this may explain the absence of the gridding on the sketch otherwise required for squaring-up. Furthermore, he noted elsewhere that it was his practice to sell the preparatory sketches, 'as people liked to hang them on their walls' (conversation with the author, 8 Dec.1995), and this may have dissuaded him from marking up this particular sketch.

At the time of publication in 1951, the sketch was in the collection of 'Prof. and Mrs de Holden Stone'; in the same conversation, Weight identified the former as Jimmy de Holden Stone. He was a friend and commercial artist who had studied with him at both Hammersmith and Goldsmiths' Colleges, and Weight recalled that he became an editor of Vogue in the 1930s (Courtney, Tate Gallery Archive, tape F1901 side A,). He became a Professor at the Royal College during Weight's time there, but subsequently emigrated to Australia.

A surprising degree of background detail was already present in the sketch, from the light falling on the bars of the cages, to the baboons on the terraces in the distance. The treatment of the mane of the lion, by combing through the brown paint to the white below, was rehearsed in preparation for its more subtle use in the final work. However, the changes to the tree are clear, as the foliage in the sketch was much more dense and bore down from the left corner above the central figure. In general the features and poses of the figures in the sketch were cursory. In the final version, the background women escape under a yellow gateway marked in red paint over pencil 'MENS LAVITORIES' [sic]; in the sketch this was also marked 'TEAS' in red. The waitress or servant turns slightly less and, as her earlier gesture of prayer has been dropped, her right arm no longer cuts across her body. The central figure is more elegant and her movement more articulated. The play of the pastel colours of the clothing in the sketch, moving from apricot-orange through purple to violet-grey, also became more carefully balanced in relation to the stronger greens and yellows of the surroundings. More fundamental is the variation of the rather flat arrangement of foreground details in the sketch. By changing the positions of the people's legs, the illusion of their movement from left to right is secured.

The potential horror of the subject of Allegro Strepitoso is mitigated by the sense of comedy with which it is infused, and which the painter indicated as its main purpose. With the gates of his cage unlocked, the lion escapes to pounce on passers-by. It is one of the earliest examples of the themes of pursuit and defence which would run through much of Weight's subsequent work. The woman in the red coat is dwarfed by the bounding lion, her defiant gestures - as she defends herself with her matching umbrella - would appear pathetic were it not for the nature of the lion itself. At the time, the artist wrote to his companion Helen Roeder, claiming that this lion would make a friend 'jump' (R.V. Weight, Carel Weight: A Haunted Imagination, London 1994, p.21). Although he had visited the Regent's Park Zoo with his mother as a child, in conceiving this painting he 'did not look at real lions', as he explained to Courtney, 'because I wanted a comic lion and I thought that [the contrast] would be fraught with difficulties between realism and the lion' (Tate Gallery Archive, tape F1904 side B). Its elongated features, the combing in the paint of the mane and for the whiskers, as well as the soft ochre of its pelt, all confirm this.

The enhancement of the leaping movement of the lion by turning the branches of the tree upward helped Weight to capture this moment of drama. He has stressed the humour of this scene, and an early commentator, Jan Gordon, exhorted exhibition goers: 'Look at the comedy of Carel Weight's "Allegro Strepitoso". First class literature contains lots of good fun, and farce, but there is very little in painting' ('Preface', Exhibition of Modern Paintings, exh. cat., AIA, 1941). Most recently, the artist's namesake R.V. Weight (1994, p.22) has called the work: 'a bravura performance in the best tradition of pantomime'. This view must be balanced by the evidence of both versions of the composition, in which the lion's mouth and, surprisingly, his eyes are a bloody red. Furthermore, a rather realistic lioness, seen at the extreme left having pushed two bars apart with her paw, is ready to join the escape. It is this ambiguity which preserves the comic scene from becoming a cartoon. Ruskin Spear, a lifelong friend of Weight, in discussing Allegro Strepitoso commented: 'The theme of attack and escape runs through his work. Sometimes, if not always, it can be extremely funny, in spite of a vaguely sinister suggestion here and there' ('An Appreciation', in Carel Weight RA: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Royal Academy, London, 1982, p.5).

A measure of Weight's originality may be found in the subversion of more orthodox artistic themes. Allegro Strepitoso fell between the satirical panel The Musicians, 1932 (Guy Hills for Longman Group U.K., repr. R.V. Weight 1994, p.10) and The Amazing Aeronaut, 1933 (private collection, repr. ibid., p.23), a dream-inspired fantasy in which an early aeroplane swoops down a street and sends a horse bolting. With portraits, flower pieces and a number of other subjects, such as the more serious Symphonie Tragique, 1932-3 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; repr. exh. cat., Royal Academy, 1982, p.25, no.6), these works began to establish Weight's reputation. In the 1991 interview with Courtney, he drew attention to the inspiration of two Italian masters whose paintings lay behind these works and Allegro Strepitoso in particular. He admired Piero della Francesca, also a favourite of his Goldsmiths' tutor James Bateman, for his 'wonderful design and wonderful noble figures'. He has remarked on the similarity between the tree in Allegro Strepitoso and that in Piero's Baptism, c.1442, in the National Gallery (conversation with the author, 8 Dec.1995). He also recalled Vittore Carpaccio's less austere painting of a saint and a lion, which he thought might have influenced him, adding that 'you never think of saints walking along with a lion, very tame at his side' (ibid.). This description matches the painting of St Jerome and the Lion in the Convent, 1502 (Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice), in which the animal's presence, however docile, brings panic to the monks. It is notable that the triangular form of a fleeing monk immediately behind the lion may be the source for the background figures in Allegro Strepitoso. While drawing upon some aspects of these precedents, Weight would suggest that at the same time he had wanted 'to pull the leg of very serious art' (Courtney, Tate Gallery Archive, tape F1904 side B).

Weight confirmed to Courtney that his mother had posed for both of the foreground figures in the painting. He subsequently felt that this practice had been forced upon him by his tutors and he abandoned it after College, as he 'could invent figures better for his work than academic realistic figures' (ibid. tape F2546 side B). Significantly, he also revealed that he had been uncertain about the presence of the waitress or servant, commenting: 'I contemplated not having a figure there for a long time, but eventually I decided to have one' (ibid. tape F1904 side B). Photographs survive of Mrs Weight in the pose of the central figure (repr. exh. cat., Royal Academy, 1982, p.5) and that of the waitress (Peter Crookston, 'Getting the Measure of Carel Weight', Sunday Times Magazine, 4 June 1989, p.51), although in both she is seen from a slightly different angle to that used in the painting. To Martin Gayford the artist reported that 'his mother always wanted to wear the right clothes for every occasion. "I thought red would be appropriate for being eaten by a lion"' (Martin Gayford, 'Wild Card', Telegraph Magazine, 23 July 1994, p.44). This indicates that Weight continued to see something of his mother in the central figure, even though it was not a portrait of her.

If Renaissance paintings were instructive and suggestive targets, Weight was also aware of contemporary influences. The comic lion may be compared to the unconvincingly ferocious beasts of the Douanier Rousseau, whose Tropical Storm with Tiger, 1891 (National Gallery) Weight particularly admired, just as the atmosphere of farce recalls the slapstick of Chaplin and Harold Lloyd whose films he enjoyed (ibid. tapes F2548 side A, F1900 side A). However, it is to the painting of Stanley Spencer that Weight's work has most often been compared, both for their shared admiration for the early Italian masters - in technique, composition and colouring - and for the psychological intensity of the moment brought about by the introduction of unexpected disruptions into everyday lives. Weight was understandably wary of comparisons with the older artist; speaking to Norman Rosenthal of his work in general, he acknowledged: 'People talk about Stanley Spencer. I do find Spencer interesting for some sort of reason, but Munch seems to me to be closer than most people'. He added of An Episode in the Childhood of a Genius, 1933 (whereabouts unknown), another fantasy work closely related to Allegro Strepitoso: 'I think it does look a bit as though it was influenced by Stanley Spencer' (exh. cat., Royal Academy, 1982, pp.7, 11).

On more than one occasion, Weight remarked upon the importance of Allegro Strepitoso, both for his work at the time and subsequently. 'It was immediately successful', he recalled, 'I showed it at some gallery and the Selection committee clapped it. That was rather nice' (R.V. Weight 1994, p.22). This exhibition has not been identified with certainty. It is said to be on the strength of Allegro Strepitoso that Kenneth Clark recommended Weight to the War Artists Advisory Committee (Angela Weight, in Carel Weight: A War Retrospective, exh. cat., Imperial War Museum, London 1995, p.11) to paint the incident which resulted in the episodic The Escape of the Zebra from the Zoo during an Air Raid, 1941 (Manchester City Art Galleries). Although he may have seen it before, Clark certainly saw the earlier painting when he opened the AIA Canteen exhibition at the Ministry of Information that year. Despite this impact, the early history of the painting is complex and, on occasion, rather mysterious. This situation is complicated by the title.

The frantic but jolly atmosphere is well matched by the musical term 'allegro strepitoso', which means 'with noisy liveliness' or, as Weight himself described it: 'when the whole thing plays full out ... and everything is whizzing' (Courtney, Tate Gallery Archive, tape F1904 side B). It was suggested by an appropriately named Bohemian friend, Leo Pavia (ibid. Tape F1905 side B), whom Weight described as 'a musician, and infant prodigy' (Strange Happenings in the Common Place: A Retrospective Exhibition of the Work of Professor Carel Weight RA CBE, exh. cat., Newport Museum and Art Gallery, 1993, p.6). He painted a Portrait of Leo Pavia, c.1938 (artist's collection, repr. ibid. p.9, no.7) which he first showed under musical title derived from Debussy, L'Après-midi d'une faune ('Exhibitions', Studio, vol.115, no.542, May 1938, p.277), and which is also echoed in his choice of L'Après-midi d'une ouvrière as the title of a contemporary still life (Tate Gallery T07216). Like these titles Allegro Strepitoso may have had added appeal because of the painter's own brief early training as a singer.

The painting was also shown under a number of other titles. A composition under the whimsical title Poor Leo appeared in the London Group 32nd Exhibition (New Burlington Galleries, no.89) in November 1934, priced £15. An annotated copy of the catalogue (Tate Gallery Library) has comments paraphrased from the Times, followed, presumably after the writer had seen the show, by descriptions of the works. Against Poor Leo are two comments: 'Times; Zoo, good pictorial joke,' and, '89. woman beating on leaping lion'. The reviewer in The Times wrote: 'A feature of the exhibition is the generous welcome given to non-members. "Poor Leo", by Mr Carel Weight, may be a joke but it is a good joke pictorially, and its implications of an unusual taste in colour are realised in "Melon Caprice" by the same artist' (Times, 13 Nov. 1934). The joke was also seen by Jan Gordon, who wrote in The Observer (18 Nov. 1934): 'Carel Weight strikes a novel note in his amusing "Poor Leo" (89)'. At the Royal Society of British Artists a week later, the reviewer in The Times restated the qualities shown in the earlier exhibition: 'Mr Carel Weight, whose work at the London Group attracted attention by its exciting oppositions of colour, goes further here in a "baroque" composition of "Chrysanthemums" in an elaborate vase against a sepia-coloured curtain' (Times, 24 Nov. 1934). The identification of the theme is unmistakable, but the exhibited work was probably the large scale Sketch for Allegro Strepitoso rather than the final painting. This is suggested by the details of a painting offered by the painter to Nicolette Gray's scheme for supporting artists, launched in December 1934. The entry for Weight reads: 'Jan 15 [1935] C Weight, Poor Leo sketch for big picture £15 | Self portrait also' (Gray papers, on loan to Tate Gallery Archive). The coincidence of the title and price suggests that this sketch and the 'good pictorial joke' at the London Group were one and the same.

In the spring of 1935, as a label on the reverse indicates, Weight showed the painting itself at Bradford under its eventually definitive title, Allegro Strepitoso. This suggests a level of seriousness for even such a comic work, while the raising of the price to £95 may be a measure of the success of the sketch in London. Although the title subsequently became the norm, the painting appeared under the descriptive name Lion Picture at the 1937 Artists' International Association touring exhibition, where the price was set at £28.

A number of early labels on the reverse of the panel confirm the changes in names. A very badly damaged label survives, written in the artist's hand and giving the address of his Shepherd's Bush Green studio, which he occupied between 1929 and 1941. From traces of letters in addition to those clearly legible, it almost certainly read, 'The Lion Escapes'. This may be the earliest working title, but it was not used in any of the exhibitions that have been traced. A second label, although not in Weight's hand, gives his address as 'c/o PHL' and the title as Lion Picture, priced at £50. The initials stand for Picture Hire Ltd., with which he was associated between 1934 and 1939 (exh. cat., Royal Academy, 1982, p.20), and the label may be for the Artists' International Association exhibition in 1937. The replacement of this descriptive title by Allegro Strepitoso was given physical form when another label, with the final title written in the artist's hand, was pasted over the PHL label so as to conceal the line reading 'Lion Picture'. This third label, for a 'Travelling Exhibition No.2' appends the initials of the Royal Society of British Artists 'RBA', to which Weight was elected in 1934, and gives the Shepherd's Bush Green address. These details should link it to the AIA Travelling Exhibition No.2, organised and prefaced by Weight himself, in his capacity of Honorary Secretary to tour between February 1941 and June 1942. However, Allegro Strepitoso was not amongst his works in the catalogue (he showed Dream about a Flower and Lovers Interrupted by a Sprite), and its appearance in the exactly contemporary AIA Canteen show of April 1941 to July 1942 (priced £35) must have precluded its inclusion. In fact, the Travelling Exhibition No.2 label appears to relate to the 1939 AIA tour with the number relating to Weight's submissions rather than the exhibition; this is fortuitously confirmed by a similar label on the reverse of L'Après-midi d'une ouvrière (Tate Gallery T07216) which appeared alongside Allegro Strepitoso in that exhibition.

Thus, in the first five years, the painting underwent three changes of title. It is possible that it was called The Lion Escapes to distinguish it from the sketch exhibited as Poor Leo in late 1934. This was immediately superseded by Allegro Strepitoso in the spring of 1935. It was known by this title, except when labelled Lion Picture, significantly by another hand, by PHL perhaps for the AIA in 1937. The artist's ability to change the title and to exhibit the painting so widely is an indication that Allegro Strepitoso remained in his hands until he entered military service in early 1942. This was despite its reputed acclaim and modest (excepting the Bradford £90) price. He remembered that the painting was sold 'early on' to Peter Stone, the art critic of the Jewish Chronicle, but did not recall exactly when; however, it was in the latter's collection by 1947 and remained there for forty years. Because he considered it one of his most important and successful early works, Weight was especially pleased when it was purchased by the Tate Gallery.

Matthew Gale
July 1997

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