Denton Welch



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Not on display

Denton Welch 1915–1948
Oil paint on board
Support: 910 × 1222 mm
Presented by Betty Swanwick 1987

Catalogue entry

T04946 Harvest c.1940

Oil on hardboard 910 × 1222 (35 7/8 × 48 1/8)

Not inscribed
Presented by Betty Swanwick 1987
Prov: Inherited from the artist by Eric Oliver 1948; lent to Goldsmith's School of Art 1949; given to Betty Swanwick 1958
Exh: Denton Welch (1915–48): An Exhibition of Pictures, Leicester Galleries, May–June 1954 (38)
Lit: G.S. Whitter, ‘London Commentary’, Studio,vol.148, Aug.1954, p.59

At the centre of ‘Harvest’ is a dancing male youth, wearing an apparently antique costume. To the right a buxom female figure in classical or neo-classical dress stands on a garlanded plinth. Her head is obscured by a branch of a tree and she holds a cornucopia of fruit and foliage. Another male figure, again partly obscured by the tree, also wears antique costume. A large brown horse stands at front left. The figures and animal are set in the countryside, in front of a field of corn, two trees and rounded hills in the distance. The corn has been partly harvested.

T04946 is not signed or dated, and it is not certain that its current title was chosen by the artist. Betty Swanwick, the donor, told the compiler in 1987 that it did not have a title when it came into her possession in 1958: she simply called it ‘Mythological Scene’ for convenience. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery in 1987 with this title. It appears that in 1954 T04946 was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries as ‘Harvest’, having been lent to this posthumous retrospective of Welch's work by the artist Clive Gardiner (1891–1960), who was Headmaster of Goldsmith's School of Art. Swanwick told the compiler that Gardiner only ever had one painting in his possession by Welch and the catalogue reveals that the only painting loaned by Gardiner to that exhibition was titled ‘Harvest’. It has therefore been decided to use this title.

It is difficult to ascribe an exact date to T04946. Betty Swanwick gave a likely date of c.1936 when she presented the work to the Tate Gallery. From 1933 to 1936 Welch attended Goldsmith's School of Art where he made friends with fellow students Carel Weight, Helen Roeder, Gerald Leet and Betty Swanwick. Swanwick believed that because T04946 was a large and ambitious work in Welch's oeuvre, it could well date from his last year at Goldsmith's. However, when a photograph of ‘Harvest’ was shown in 1988 by James Methuen-Campbell (author of a forthcoming book on Welch) to Gerald Leet, he replied that it was quite definitely not painted before 1938, since Welch, who showed him all his paintings, did not work on such a large scale prior to that date. Leet thought that the painting was executed when Welch lived at The Hop Garden, Borough Green, Kent, between January and December 1940. In a letter dated 5 July 1989 Molly Ure, now Mrs Paul Townsend, a friend of Welch at this time, wrote to James Methuen-Campbell that she remembered seeing T04946 at Welch's home, The Hop Garden. ‘What I clearly remember’, she wrote, ‘was a picture (a little like de Chirico) of figures dominated by a lady without a head. I much disliked it and wrote him a poem which had as a refrain “O horrible headless woman with hideous breasts” and he said I wasn't the only one who'd been moved to write about it, but the picture was too strong to be ignored’. She believed the painting had been recently completed.

It is possible that there is a reference to T04946 in an undated, letter by Welch to Helen Roeder. He told Roeder that he had been to the framers Green and Stone in Chelsea to see if they had any pictures by him as one seemed to have been mislaid. Welch wrote: ‘They say they've only had my Harvester.’ As the reference is to a painting entitled ‘Harvester’ not ‘Harvest’, and as it is not known whether the artist painted one or more works with a harvest theme, it is not clear that Welch meant T04946. However, Methuen-Campbell writes:

In the letter, which was written as a note accompanying a parcel, Welch makes reference to pictures of his that might be in Beryl Sinclair's flat. I believe that his connection with Beryl Sinclair was through CEMA [Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts]. On September 17th 1942 he wrote in his Journal: ‘Yesterday was a day of miracles. I had four letters. One was to say that CEMA wanted to hire a picture for £5 a year to send round the countryside in a travelling exhibition’. It seems likely to me that the undated letter [to Roeder] can therefore be dated around the end of 1942. If this is correct then the picture ‘Harvest’ was completed and framed by this date.

He continued: ‘Knowing Denton Welch's approach to getting his work exhibited, I would say that because he had it framed in London at Green & Stone's, he definitely intended it to go to a particular exhibition he had in mind. Whether or not it was exhibited [in the artist's lifetime], I have been unable to find out.’ The compiler has been unable to find out details of the CEMA travelling show mentioned in Welch's journal in 1942. The framers Green and Stone still occupy the same premises, 259 Kings Road, Chelsea, as they did in Welch's time. However, they only have records at the shop dating back to 1970 and were not able to provide any evidence about when Welch's work came to them for framing. Welch exhibited small paintings, such as flowerpieces, from c.1939–41 at the Redfern and Leger Galleries, and during the 1940s at the Leicester Galleries. He also exhibited some works locally in Kent, in venues such as public houses and town halls.

The catalogue to Welch's 1954 Leicester Galleries exhibition contained a preface by Jocelyn Brooke. This gave an account of Welch's life and work, and described the nature of his paintings:

it is often the small and trivial things of life which chiefly fascinate him - eighteenth-century knick-knacks, bits of chinoiserie, dolls houses, paper-weights... This attitude is reflected, I think, in his pictures, where small objects - often placed in incongruous juxtaposition - seem to acquire a haunting and somewhat macabre significance. Often, too, he becomes obsessed with details of the country scene - fallen leaves, toadstools, small animals - and these, again, take on a disquieting and sometimes sinister quality, as though the object itself were invested, by association, with the terrors of some private nightmare.

(Leicester Galleries exh. cat., 1954, pp.4–5)

In his review of this exhibition G.S. Whittet also drew attention to the disquiet that could be found in Welch's painting:

Denton Welch was one of those ill-starred men of talent whose very sensitive perceptions seem intensified by the shortness of time in which they are allowed to be used. At the age of twenty he suffered a spinal injury that affected him for the remaining fourteen years of his life - nearly all spent in writing and painting... At the Leicester Galleries, an exhibition of paintings and drawings established very quickly the impression of a personal vision. These carefully painted canvases seem full of a sometimes overwrought symbolism composed of many details, stated with an equivalence of emphasis that embraces one's attention with insidious persistence. And in ‘Harvest’ there is a strange kind of primitive surrealism in which the human body takes on a deliberate distortion of its proportions that recalls the paintings of the Mexican Jesus Galvan. Even in ‘57 Hadlow Road, Tonbrige’ the unremarkable urban vista takes on the significance of a de Chirico prospect. It is not often a first exhibition creates such a feeling of exciting disquiet.

(Whittet 1954, p.59)

The Mexican Surrealist Jesus Guerrero Galvan (born 1910) began his professional painting career in Mexico City in the early 1930s and produced work that has been described as dreamlike and mystical. During the 1930s and 1940s he exhibited his work in North and South America, but not in Europe. There is no evidence in Welch's published journals that he was aware of the work of Galvan.

Welch's friends have reported that his greatest activity as an artist was from summer 1936 to summer 1942. He usually wrote in the morning and painted in the afternoon. He did not travel abroad because of his disability, but made efforts to visit exhibitions in London from his home in Kent. He also kept in touch with current trends in painting through reading art magazines, which were lent by friends. The work of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico does seem to bear an affinity to T04946 and de Chirico certainly showed recent work in London quite frequently in the inter-war years. De Chirico had his first one-man exhibition of paintings in London at Arthur Tooth's Gallery in 1928. This was followed by further solo painting exhibitions: Recent Paintings at Arthur Tooth's Gallery in 1931; Eleven Tableaux Metaphysics at the London Gallery in 1936; and New Paintings at Alex. Reid & Lefevre in 1938. In the latter show de Chirico exhibited at least fifteen paintings featuring figures and horses in antique costume. De Chirico often used figures in classical dress, statues on plinths, people holding strange poses, and horses with wind-blown manes and tails. Welch may well have been influenced by de Chirico, but he was something of a magpie, consciously making pastiches, with incongruous items borrowed from a wide variety of sources.

Welch's fascination with classicism is described by Charles Sprawson, drawing, it seems, on Welch's journals and novels:

It was his mother who awakened his passion for Greek and Roman sculpture, when she showed him a collection of photographs she had formed when at school in a Florence convent. In a book of Greek myths she once gave him he comes across a picture of Prometheus spreadeagled on the mountainside, being devoured by the eagle. He reacts with a mixture of shame and admiration, and closes the book quickly. He now began to feel he was an Ancient Greek, ‘free and fierce and like a clever animal’. He wanted to appear naked in public. In later life he was to transfer to his swimmers this early admiration for the heroic figures and nudity of Greek sculpture, when they stood in the shallows like ‘truncated statues fixed to a base in the bowl of a fountain’, or after pulling their shirts over their heads seemed to be a ‘white pillar of marble growing out of the tree trunk of their trousers’ as if involved in the gradual metamorphosis of an Ovidian myth. Welch even admires himself when after swimming once in his clothes, he looked with interest at the ‘Greek sculpture effect’ caused by the thin wet shirt clinging to his ribs and chest.

(Charles Sprawson, Haunts of the Black Masseur:
The Swimmer as Hero, 1992, p.169)

Friends relate that Welch visited the National Gallery as often as he could, and suggest that he may have drawn motifs for his work from the Old Masters. He was particularly fond of the works of Giotto and Poussin. Although not necessarily a direct source, Poussin's mythological landscape ‘The Four Seasons: Summer (Ruth and Boaz)’, 1660–64 (repr. Anthony Blunt, Nicholas Poussin, 1958, pl.243) contains iconographic similarities to ‘Harvest’, namely, fields of corn, horses with flowing manes, toga-clad reapers, distant hills and a tree which dominates the right of the painting. Five paintings in the National Gallery's collection contain horses which bear some resemblance to the one given prominence in T04946: Vincenzo Foppa's ‘The Adoration of the Kings’, n.d., ‘The Horses of Achilles’, n.d., described as style of van Dyck, Rubens's ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’, 1630s, Rosa Bonheur's ‘The Horse Fair’, 1850s and Delacroix's ‘Ovid Among the Scythians’, 1859. The compiler, however, has been unable to find direct sources for the various elements in the picture.

In his letter to the compiler James Methuen-Campbell wrote about the often obscure nature of Welch's sources and themes:

Regarding the title and content I think that the picture has strong mythological and allegorical associations, although I have been unable to link this with a particular tale. It is quite possible that Denton Welch was toying with a symbolic content that was in his own mind undefined. Many of his pictures convey this obscurity of origin. However, there are many other pictures that contain allusions to the same world: the Texas Collection at Austin [Harry Ransome Humanities Research Collection at the University of Austin] has a painting of a centra with a strange human creature on its back; a pencil drawing of a centra was in the [1984] Abbot & Holder show; I have a pencil drawing of Fortuna and her Wheel; the Abbott & Holder show also had some figures picnicking with a date palm and a horned antelope (or whatever) grazing, which also has a strongly mythological flavour.

Welch's oeuvre is difficult to survey because it has not been exhibited or reproduced. The largest holdings of his writings, drawings and paintings is in the Iconography Department, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Collection, University of Texas at Austin. Exhibition catalogues from the 1940s reveal that the majority of his paintings and drawings depicted flowers and animals. He was especially fond of painting cats, as the titles of several works bear witness: ‘A Cat Brooding’, ‘Cat Patting Bluebells’, ‘Cat Waiting for its Master’, and ‘Fantastic Portrait with Cat’. Some flower-pieces have titles that suggest a narrative content, for example, ‘Spirits above a Flower’ or ‘Flowers and a Demon’. There are relatively few works with titles indicating an interest in the antique flavour so prominent in T04946: ‘The Bust and the Toadstools’, ‘A Cherub Wood’, ‘Centaur’, and ‘Figures in a Classical Landscape’ are the most notable examples of this type. Although there are some landscapes, Welch was not a great copyist after nature, preferring to find his imagery from within his own imagination. In his journal for 20 August 1942 he wrote:

I loathe nature lovers! My thoughts are never on nature though I go out to roam for hours in the fields every day. My thoughts always go to history, to what has happened century after century on each spot of earth. To lovers lying on the banks, young men that are dead.

(Michael de-la-Noy, ed., The Journals of Denton Welch, 1984, p.5)

Occasionally, Welch made preparatory drawings from life or from nature when working out the composition of a larger work. On the evidence of their titles, two drawings in the Harry Ransom Collection may have some kind of connection with T04946. Item 66.72.26 is a pencil and watercolour drawing, 264 × 372 mm, titled ‘Neptune's Horses and Youths’, while item 66.72.8 is ‘Truncated Woman’, pencil and ink, 177 × 89 mm. The conservation report on ‘Harvest’ shows that Welch squared up the hardboard support before painting it, using the twanged string method. There are pinholes along the sides of the hardboard, set out at three-inch intervals. This would imply that Welch had done some preparatory drawings which then were transferred by the squaring-up method to the hardboard.

Whether or not T04946 was exhibited in Welch's lifetime, it remained unsold, and was part of his belongings at time of his early death. Within three months of Welch's death, Eric Oliver, his friend and companion who inherited all his goods, lent it to Goldsmiths' College of Art to be hung in memory of the artist. Early in 1949 Clive Gardiner, Headmaster of Goldsmiths' College and Welch's tutor, together with Betty Swanwick drove to Welch's home at Crouch in Kent to collect the picture. Oliver had selected T04946 from among Welch's paintings because it was the largest work and he thought it most suitable for hanging in an institution. Gardiner and Swanwick agreed with his choice. T04946 hung in Gardiner's office at Goldsmiths' College from 1949 until his retirement in December 1957. After this, the painting was no longer required by the college and T04946 was given to Betty Swanwick.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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