John Wonnacott

The Norwich School of Art


Not on display

John Wonnacott born 1940
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1935 × 2648 mm
frame: 2080 × 2790 × 52 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1984

Display caption

This 'portrait' of the Art School in the city of Norwich celebrates the building and the people who worked in it during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Wonnacott taught life drawing there, at a time when the discipline was falling out of favour; he was dismissed the year after this painting was completed. Prophetically, he shows himself, and two colleagues who left at the same time, in the foreground of the painting, walking away from the building 'like an Expulsion from Paradise'

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

John Wonnacott born 1940

T03928 The Norwich School of Art 1982-4

Oil on canvas 1935 x 2648 (76 1/4 x 104 1/4)
Not inscribed
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1984
Prov: Purchased from Marlborough Fine Art by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1984
Exh: The Hard-Won Image, Tate Gallery, July-Sept. 1984 (146, repr. in earlier state); John Wonnacott, Marlborough Fine Art, March-April 1985 (1, repr); R.A., 1985 (1243)
Lit: ‘Artist's Statement' in John Wonnacott : Recent Work, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, London 1985, p.8; Marina Vaizey, ‘The Arduous Art of Being True to Life', Sunday Times, 10 March 1985, p.42; William Feaver, ‘John Wonnacott', Observer, 17 March 1985, p.23; Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.93 (col.). Also repr: RA Illustrated, 1985, p.10; Artists' Norwich, A Norwich Union Calendar for 1987, p.5 (col.)

This entry is based on the compiler's conversations with the artist on 3rd March and 25th May 1988 and also on one between Richard Morphet and the artist on 13th March 1985. All unattributed quotations are taken from these conversations.

T03928 was painted using the life room at Norwich School of Art as a studio. It was hung on one end wall of the life room while the artist's other large painting of overlapping date, ‘Norwich Cathedral' 1981-5 (the artist's collection, oil on canvas, 1677 x 2750, (66 x 108 1/4) repr. Marlborough Fine Art 1985, p.11 in col.), was hung and worked on at the opposite end. Wonnacott's painting of ‘The Life Room' 1977-80 (Castle Museum, Norwich, repr. John Wonnacott: First London Exhibition,, Marlborough Fine Art, 1981, p.13 in col.) depicts a view of this room looking from one end wall to the other. ‘Norwich School of Art' and ‘Norwich Cathedral' were moved around during their execution, so that both were worked on on both end walls. The artist likes to move his work around while it is in progress, to prevent it becoming ‘like a piece of furniture'. Wonnacott acknowledges what a challenge it was to paint both canvases in full view, in front of his students, and how valuable it was to train himself to work under the threat of constant interruption.

Wonnacott was a part-time Tutor in Fine Art at Norwich School of Art from September 1976 to June 1986. He was appointed by Edward Middleditch (1923-1987), then Head of the Department of Fine Art, and given a free rein to build up the life room. He began by excluding all extraneous activities from the large Life Room on the first floor in order to allow the development of a quiet and reflective atmosphere. He also had photographic reproductions of works of the great 19th century drawing masters pinned to the walls, works such as the early drawings of Seurat, late drawings by Degas and Van Gogh's graphic output from the 1880s. Wonnacott's part-time appointment was for three days a week and, in 1977, wishing to devote more of his time to painting and less to teaching, Wonnacott requested that his friend, the painter John Lessore, join him in teaching life drawing. Lessore began his appointment by bringing back into the life room the Victorian plaster casts of classical sculpture which had been scattered thoughout the art school. Three of these casts can be seen in Wonnacott's painting of ‘The Life Room'. In fact, both Wonnacott and Lessore painted large canvases of the Life Room at Norwich School of Art in each of which paintings the other painting is seen; Wonnacott's includes portraits of Lessore in the foreground and Middleditch in the background (both are repr. in col. in the Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1984, p.29).

After the appointment of Lessore in 1977 Wonnacott reduced his teaching to only two days a week at Norwich School of Art. In 1981 he began work on his large painting of ‘Norwich Cathedral', which gave him the idea of doing a series of paintings of large buildings. The painting ‘Norwich Cathedral' includes a large number of figures ranged across the middle-ground of the picture, who are characterised individually and all connected with the life of the building depicted; the same idea is followed in T03928 in relation to Norwich School of Art. The distribution of small figures ranged across a wide distance was inspired in part by 18th century English portraiture (eg. the work of Arthur Devis in the Tate Gallery collection), where people are seen small-scale in relation to houses and landscape. Individual figures ranged across the foreground space also form the subject of Wonnacott's painting ‘The Family' 1963-74 (the artist's collection, oil on board, 830 x 5182, 72 x 204, repr. John Wonnacott: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Rochdale Art Gallery, 1979, [pp.14-15] in col.). In the Rochdale catalogue, [p.4] the artist wrote of this painting: ‘What began in 1963 as an 8' x 6' garden painting grew to 17' x 6' and filled with people as members of my family passed through the garden summer by summer ... I came to relish the freedom that painting could give me of recording these moments side by side, of telling the story without the tyranny of linear time that must rule the writer or musician'. Wonnacott's painting of ‘Norwich Cathedral' was made as a celebration of a building and its personnel that had meant a lot to him during his teaching spell at Norwich School of Art; when he had time he would attend Evensong there. He described how the building and its services were ‘a source of deep aesthetic satisfaction to me in the nine years I have been visiting Norwich to teach Drawing at the Art School' (Marlborough Fine Art exh. cat. 1985, p.8).

A year after beginning ‘Norwich Cathedral', the artist started work on T03928. He describes T03928 in summary form (ibid.):

The red brick façade with which the Norwich School of Art fronts the river and St George Street forms the subject of my second large portrait of a Norwich building. From the hierarchy of Art School figures stretched between the pubs at either end of [St.] George Street, a double portrait of John Lessore and myself is seen walking, in parallel to the central figure of Edward Middleditch, out of the painting to the left. Lynda Morris and Colin Tester (subjects for my two small portraits) are in conversation to complete the foreground triangle, on the far right of the painting.

The red brick façade of which the artist writes is the north elevation of a building designed by W. Douglas Wiles (of Norwich City Engineer's Department) as the City of Norwich Municipal Technical Institute, which accommodated a School of Science and Art (Norwich School of Art having been founded in 1857, and originally sited on the top floor of Norwich Free Library). The foundation stone of the Technical Institute was laid in April 1899 and it opened in 1901. It is built of local red brick with terracotta details, and its plan is that of an L-shape, with the north elevation facing the river Wensum, the west elevation facing onto St George Street, and a tower at the corner. The plan is based on straight corridors providing access to studios and workrooms on the north elevation and the west elevation. The windows of the life room are the four windows seen directly to the left of the caped figure standing on the bridge in T03928.

When preparatory work started on T03928 the building occupied a larger share of the canvas with the tower cut off by the top of the composition. Wonnacott then decided to widen his angle of vision, so that more of the environs of the art school were seen on either side, and the top of the tower then came within the picture. He chose the widest possible viewpoint, giving the longest views to left and right and also upwards. As in his admiration for the west front of the Cathedral, he likes near-symmetry which is subtly off. Thus there are approximately equal gaps to the left and right of the representation of the main building. He wanted a view of the building that showed how it ‘grew straight out of the river' and that included the river, Blackfriars Bridge and the spire of Norwich Cathedral. As is the artist's usual practice, numerous drawings (in the artist's collection) led up to the choice of composition of T03928. In these preparatory drawings, only the landscape or architecture is sketched. Work on the figures came at a later stage. Wonnacott sat on top of the companion brick pier to the one seen at the left of the bridge in T03928 and made many free drawings of the scene before him, until he felt he had got the composition fixed. Because Blackfriars Bridge is normally busy with traffic, Wonnacott did a lot of drawings around 7am. He also used photographs as ancillary aids but persisted in drawing, for he believes ‘if you don't go out drawing you find yourself trapped in the photographs'. Once the composition was arrived at through the preparatory drawing stage, the next step for the artist was to take a sheet of clear glass, c. 12 inches square, and, holding it very close to his face, to trace through the main lines of the composition with an ink pen. Again, this procedure is normal practice.

Wonnacott's painting ‘The Family', with its very wide proportion in relation to its height, displayed anamorphic distortion at its edges. In his Rochdale catalogue [p.4] the artist wrote of his paintings which have a wide field of vision:

By this time [1974-6] I had analysed my wide angle paintings and found that obvious perspective distortion did not begin until my visual field extended over more than 100% and that painting within this angle produced an image with just that stretching at the edges that could change the reading speed of the eye and so form a natural limit to the painting surface. Most of my recent works have just been constructed on this basis.

The composition of T03928 comprises the Norwich School of Art building (which is no longer called the Technical Institute), squarely in the centre, with Blackfriars Bridge in front of it, leading into St George Street beyond. Blackfriars Bridge takes its name from the medieval foundation of Blackfriars Hall, a buttressed building seen on the left side of St George Street just beyond the School of Art. On the right hand side of St George Street is ‘The Red Lion' public house, a white washed building, much frequented by staff and students from the School of Art. The figures began to be added after the buildings and townscape were well sketched in. The principal figures, those nearest the front of the composition and especially the figure of Edward Middleditch, were placed in their pre-conceived positions from the start, but the secondary figures in the background came later. At the left, on the edge of Blackfriars Bridge, John Wonnacott pushes John Lessore in his wheelchair. John Lessore is depicted in characteristic pose, pointing out to Wonnacott ‘the colour of some brickwork' or a similar delight in some natural phenomenon. Lessore himself has painted a picture of the exterior of Norwich School of Art with himself and Wonnacott as small figures in the distance; the painting is entitled ‘The Garth' 1982-3 (private collection, London). In the gardens to the left of the bridge, the painter Michael Checketts (then a student at the School of Art and later the husband of Lynda Morris, see below) is seen sitting on the low wall. On the right hand side of the bridge, in the foreground, is the figure of Edward Middleditch. He is painted with a book in his hand, which Wonnacott employed to denote Middleditch's love of 17th century poetry, especially the work of John Donne. The initials JD appear on the front of the book. The figures immediately above Middleditch's head are, from left to right, Derrick Greaves, Ian Welch, Ian Chance, Mary Webb and Dick James, other members of the full-time teaching staff at Norwich School of Art. Wonnacott has arranged them to function ‘like a crown of thorns on Middleditch's head'. The two figures standing together in the middle of the bridge on the left side are the Hon. Robin Walpole, Chairman of the Governors, on the left, and Bill English, the Principal of Norwich School of Art, on the right. The two figures conversing on the middle of the bridge on the right hand pavement are Lynda Morris, art historian, critic and curator of the Norwich School of Art Gallery, and Colin Tester, technician at the school. Seen between them is Dr. Philip Evans, expert in anatomy. Dr. Evans is a professional doctor who works at Norwich Hospital. John Lessore persuaded him to offer a course in anatomy at the School of Art and he is the subject of two paintings by John Lessore both of which show him dissecting in front of students. These two paintings are reproduced in John Lessore: Recent Paintings, exh. cat., Stoppenbach and Delestre, 1985 [pp.8 and 9]. Another painting by Lessore ‘The Ageing Process' 1978-9 (L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice, California) depicts Evans conducting an anatomy class at the School of Art. Walking down the middle of the road of Blackfriars Bridge is the artist Nigel Henderson (1917-85). Behind him are governors and cleaners. In the entrance to the building are caretakers. Wonnacott has painted all the full-time staff of the Fine Art Department of the School of Art, except for one member of staff who taught sculpture. In the far distance Bill English, John Wonnacott and Colin Tester are all seen again, entering ‘The Red Lion' pub. Lynda Morris and Colin Tester had been the subjects of small individual portraits by Wonnacott in the period 1980-4 (both repr. Marlborough Fine Art exh. cat. 1985, p.18). Lynda Morris wrote about the experience of posing for her portrait in T03928: ‘I am a small distorted figure on the extreme right of the bridge. I posed for that figure for three lunch hours, about forty photographs, and a connecting session in front of a pane of glass' (ibid., p.7).

Although all the figures have a documentary aspect as a record of personnel related to Norwich School of Art, they are also part of a psychological drama. During the execution of T03928, the original conditions under which Wonnacott was employed to teach life drawing began to change. It was felt by some staff, though not by Middleditch himself, that life drawing was losing its relevance. Edward Middleditch retired in 1985, and went on to be Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, London. His place as Head of the Department of Fine Art was taken by the sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco. At the end of the academic year 1985-6 John Wonnacott and John Lessore were dismissed because the Fine Art Department was ‘changing its approach to the activities in the Life Room'. The three figures of Wonnacott, Lessore and Middleditch therefore are members of staff who have ceased to be employed by the Norwich School of Art since the execution of T03928, and they are the three in the extreme foreground who seem bent on leaving the composition. Wonnacott remarked that these three figures deliberately walk away from the School of Art ‘... like an Expulsion from Paradise'.

Lynda Morris described the nature of the execution of T03928: ‘At a late stage the entire picture was repainted harmonising the quality of light as the tone of the colour was greatly increased' (Marlborough Fine Art exh. cat. 1985, p.7). This is Wonnacott's usual practice; he keeps the whole of the composition in a loose sketchy state, with all parts worked to the same level. Thus the entire picture is repainted all the time, becoming more precise in its detailing and its focus as it progresses. An illustration of T03928 shortly before completion is reproduced in The Hard-Won Image exhibition catalogue, Tate 1984, p.71. As Lynda Morris reported, T03928 darkened in tone towards the end of its execution. When Wonnacott worked on T03928 in the life room at Norwich School of Art, being in Norwich for only two days each week, he painted for about six or seven hours per day on the canvas. He brought it back to his studio in Essex for a short spell in the summer of 1984, during which time the figure of Edward Middleditch was worked on.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.302-5

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