Gerald Wilde

Fata Morgana


Not on display

Gerald Wilde 1905–1986
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1036 × 902 mm
frame: 1118 × 1250 × 76 mm
Purchased 1984

Display caption

It is often difficult to read Wilde’s paintings. Yet hidden figurative forms can sometimes be found within the apparent chaos of swirling paint. Here, a reclining woman is visible in the lower half of the picture. Next to her is a vase of flowers and a bird; in the background there is a landscape.

In mythology Fata Morgana is an enchantress. The name is also given to a mirage of a woman sometimes seen in the Straits of Messina. Why Wilde invoked this myth remains unknown, but it may refer to a fantasy of a woman appearing in a landscape.

Gallery label, September 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

Gerald Wilde 1905 - 1986

T03892 Fata Morgana 1949

Oil on canvas 1036 x 902 (40 3/4 x 35 1/2)
Inscribed ‘G. WILDE. 49.' b.r.
Purchased from October Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Joyce Cary (1888-1957); Tristram Cary; Doris Cary; purchased by October Gallery
Exh: ? Gerald Wilde, ICA, Sept.-Oct. 1955 (40 as ‘Green Seascape'); Britisk kunst 1900-1955, BC, Kunstforeningen I Kobenhavn, Copenhagen, April 1956 (94 as ‘Grön marine, Green Seascape'); Britisk Nåtidskunst, BC, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, May-June 1956 (94 as ‘Grönn marine'); Gerald Wilde, Summer Show 2, AC, Serpentine Gallery, May-June 1977 (23 as ‘Green Seascape'); Gerald Wilde, October Gallery, Feb.-March 1981 (28 as ‘Green Seascape'); Gerald Wilde, October Gallery, March-April 1984 (22 as ‘Green Seascape')
Lit: Joyce Cary, ‘Gerald Wilde', Nimbus, vol.3, no.2, 1955, p.54; J. MacLaren-Ross, Memoirs of the Forties, 1965, p.192; Dan Davin, Closing Times, 1975, p.103; Tim Hilton, ‘Gerald Wilde' in Gerald Wilde, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, 1977, p.3. Also repr: Gerald Wilde 1905-1986, exh. cat., October Gallery, 1988, pl. 28 (as ‘Fata Morgana [Green Seascapes]')

This painting is one of a group called, or at least referred to, by the straightforward title ‘Woman and Flowers'. It was known as ‘Fata Morgana' by the family of the novelist Joyce Cary (1888-1957), who first owned it, and this title may have originated with the artist. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery as ‘Green Seascape', clearly incorrectly as it shows a reclining female nude with a pot of flowers. This confusion seems to have arisen from another painting by Wilde of this title, which probably also belonged to Joyce Cary (he listed it with other paintings of his in his article published in Nimbus); one or other of these was exhibited in Wilde's retrospective at the ICA in 1955. It was certainly the Tate Gallery's painting which was then shown by the British Council in Scandinavia as ‘Green Seascape', since it still has their label (and the only other painting listed by Wilde was different).

The information for this entry is mostly taken from a letter written by Mrs Dan Davin to the Tate Gallery on 15 January 1988. Wilde at first stayed with Dan and Winifred Davin when he moved to Oxford in 1949, before taking lodgings in the house of Wendy Campbell-Purdie at 86 Woodstock Road. Mrs Davin wrote:

During the year (approximately) that Gerald stayed in the Woodstock Road, he painted many pictures. I think that about 8 to 10 of them were ‘Woman and Bird' or ‘Woman and Flowers'. The theme seemed to obsess him. I think that this (the Tate Gallery's) was the first of the whole series ... After one or two (or three?) ‘Woman and Flowers' versions the theme became ‘Woman and Bird'.

The ‘Woman and Bird' that I think was the first of 5 or 6 pictures with the same theme was one which is reproduced illustrating Joyce Cary's ‘The Paintings of Gerald Wilde' in Nimbus vol.3, number 2, following p.48, entitled ‘Rocky Landscape'. This picture also Joyce Cary bought from Gerald. It was often called ‘Mexican Afternoon'.

Several other versions of ‘Woman and Bird' have been published, including these: ‘Fata Morgana' (not dated, oil on canvas, 837 x 590, 33 x 23 1/4, collection of James O'Connor, exhibited October Gallery, Gerald Wilde, April-May 1988, no.68, repr. Christie's, 18 Feb. 1988, lot 108): the title is recorded in a list of works by Wilde made by John Best in 1955, when the painting belonged to W.A. Evill; ‘Rocky Landscape', 1969 (gouache on paper, 597 x 768, 23 1/2 x 30 1/4, collection of Tristram Cary and Doris Jukes, exhibited October Gallery, 1988, no. 50, repr. pl.26 in col.); and ‘Woman and Bird' (not dated, oil on board, 588 x 812, 23 x 32, collection of Roy Sackman, exhibited October Gallery, 1988, no.59, repr. pl.27 in col.).

In all of these the nude has the odd hunched pose of the Tate Gallery's painting - although in the gouache she lies closer to the ground - and each is set on a rocky plain with distant mountains. In some there is a third, abstract figure or shape, that seems to hover around the woman and the bird.

Wilde was apparently not concerned with the titles of his paintings, although both the Tate Gallery's and W.A. Evill's were evidently called ‘Fata Morgana' with at least his consent. In mythology ‘Fata Morgana' is either the sister of King Arthur, an enchantress, and painted by the Pre-Raphaelites and in one of David Jones's Arthurian subjects (N05316 ‘Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: The Four Queens Find Launcelot Sleeping' 1941) or else she is the mirage of a woman, visible in the Straits of Messina. Unless there is some unknown private reference to the theme of the temptress it is likely that Wilde was using the title in a fairly general sense to refer to the fantasy of a woman appearing in a landscape.

The bird of ‘Woman and Bird' has a long beak and tail, looking like either a parrot or a duck, although it differs in detail in each picture, and it also appears in earlier paintings of his. In ‘Two Birds' dated 1947 (photograph in the Witt Library), the birds occupy the foreground without any other animals or figures. An undated painting exhibited at the October Gallery in 1988 showed a man and the bird talking together in the foreground, with three horseman in a landscape behind them. This in turn resembles a small, undated gouache called ‘Mexican Scene' (gouache on paper, 202 x 254, 8 x 10, collection of Zika Ascher, exhibited October Gallery, 1988, no.44), which shows Mexican soldiers in a park. As Mrs Davin recalls that the ‘Rocky Landscape' listed above was also called ‘Mexican Afternoon' it seems likely that this whole group of paintings was intended to have a Mexican subject.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.294-5

You might like