Christopher Wood

Douarnenez, Brittany


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Christopher Wood 1901–1930
Oil paint on board
Support: 330 × 460 mm
frame: 415 × 545 × 37 mm
Bequeathed by Alberta, Countess of Sandwich 1962

Catalogue entry

Christopher Wood (1900-30)

Douarnenez, Brittany 1930


Oil on cardboard 330 x 460 (13 x 18)

Inscribed on back in another hand:

Bequeathed by Alberta, Countess of Sandwich, 1962

Douarnenez, Brittany is in a vulnerable state because it was painted on thin (2.5mm) cardboard which has delaminated in places. This is especially the case along the top edge, which was trimmed after the application to the front of the heavily brushed white oil ground. Some attempt was made to stabilise the card by painting size on the back. This is characteristic of the painter's own preparations. The texture of the ground intruded on that of the paint surface, which is briskly applied in places and for which a commercial Ripolin type of paint was used. In the sky, a horizontal band of blue appears to ooze over the lower band of white; both have discoloured. The forms were outlined first in pencil, which is visible in a number of places. The paint was scratched through to reveal the white ground in order to lighten the tone and enhance the texture in the street and in places the scratching has penetrated to the card. Most noticeable is the scratching of the spokes of the cart wheel to expose the underdrawing; this shows that the wheel has been moved to the right. The main building, where scratching provides the texture of the stone, may also have been moved to the right, as its right-hand chimney is only sketched in and replaces an earlier more central version. The ridge of the roof of this building was also adjusted to establish its dominant frontality.

The fragility of the paint surface and support reflect the urgency of Wood's productivity in Brittany in June and July 1930. Already quite early in his stay in Tréboul he wrote to his mother:

I am so tired when I finish my work I cannot face the effort. I think there is nothing so tiring as painting at least the way I do as I like to finish my picture before the end of the day. I was always called hasty but I can't work otherwise, and it nearly kills me the effort to get it done. I love it though, and am beginning to see the results at last.
(1 July 1930, TGA 773.10)

The ambition to complete a work a day is indicative of the pressure which he placed upon himself, and helps to explain the relatively small works and their hurried execution.

As with Church at Tréboul (q.v.), Douarnenez, Brittany was probably painted in Wood's hotel room studio. Nevertheless, it shows a scene in the centre of Douarnenez with which the painter must have been familiar. The square has been identified by Sophie Barthelemy (letter to the compiler 12 March 1996) as the triangular place Sainte-Croix (now the place Gabriel Peri), with the Grande Rue (now rue Anatole France) on the left and the rue Saint-Héléne on the right. The latter leads to the Grand Port to the east of the town. The five-sided clock tower in the square was built in 1888 but removed after World War II. From the position taken by the artist, the public fountain ('le Bolomig') complete with an Egyptian statue, was hidden behind the clock.

Although the painting shows the square at just after 4 o'clock in the afternoon, there is little incident around the clock tower. In common with many of the painter's other works, the emphasis is on people going about their daily routine which was associated with the perceived simplicity of local life. The carts bring people into town, while others in local costume (men in blue smocks, women in white bonnets) chat in the street. The only peculiarity is the figure on the right, which is vastly out of scale for its position on a level with the central couple. This discrepancy may be associated with the execution of the painting away from the scene. Wood probably relied upon drawings for the details, or may even have used a post card as a starting point. This is a practice which he acknowledged in a letter to Winifred Nicholson: 'I am very amused by everything I see and find the post cards of this country very helpful.' (July [?] 1930 TGA 8618.1.3.) It has also been shown by Richard Ingleby that a closely related composition, at present known as Street in Tréboul, 1930 (Newton 1938, no.412, Hill Samuel Plc), is based upon a postcard of people in the rue Sainte-Héléne (Ingleby 1995, nos.44, 46 repr.). A comparison of that painting and Douarnenez, Brittany shows that Wood set dark figures against sunlit houses in a way similar to the simplification resulting from the photographic exposure. More generally, it confirms that he sought to evoke the cobbles of the streets and the stones of the buildings through the scratching technique and the rough texture of his paint surface.

According to Rex de C. Nan Kivell (letter to the Tate, dated 29 October 1962), Douarnenez, Brittany was the only work personally owned by Dr Lucius Wood, the artist's father. This contrasts sharply with the doting support offered by the artist's mother. However, Dr Wood did lend the painting to the official British display at the Venice Biennale in 1938, where his son's work gained wider recognition.

Purchased from Dr Lucius Wood, the artist's father, by Rex de C. Nan Kivell for the Redfern Gallery (after 1938)
Purchased from Redfern Gallery by Lord Sandwich 1947

Christopher Wood, Alex Reid and Lefevre Galleries, April 1932 (possibly no.30 as Town Square and Clock)
Christopher Wood, New Burlington Galleries, March-April 1938 (47)
British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 1938 (77)
Christopher Wood, Redfern Gallery, May 1947 (66, repr. in col.)
Christopher Wood, Redfern Gallery, April-May 1959 (5); Personal Choice 2, City Art Gallery, Wakefield, May-June 1961 (126)
Christopher Wood, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, July-Aug. 1974 (26)
Christopher Wood: The Last Years 1928-1930, Newlyn Art Gallery, Penzance, Oct.-Nov. 1989, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, Dec. 1989 - Jan. 1990, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, Jan.-March 1990, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, March-April 1990 (67)
Christopher Wood: A Painter between Two Cornwalls, Tate Gallery St Ives, Nov. 1996 - April. 1997, Musée des beaux arts, Quimper, May - Aug. 1997 (19, repr. in col. p.41)

Newton 1938, p.74 no.388, dated 1930, repr. in col. p.79
Chamot, Farr and Butlin II, 1965, pp.779-80
Christopher Wood: A Painter between Two Cornwalls, Tate Gallery St Ives, Nov. 1996 - April. 1997, Musée des beaux arts, Quimper, May - Aug. 1997 (11, repr. in col. p.35)
Francois Steel-Coquet, 'Postcards and Painting: The Case of Christopher Wood', Christopher Wood: A Painter between Two Cornwalls, exh. cat. Tate Gallery St Ives, Musée des beaux arts, Quimper, 1996 p.24
S[ophie] B[artelemy], 'Douarnenez, Brittany', Christopher Wood: A Painter between Two Cornwalls, exh. cat. Tate Gallery St Ives, Musée des beaux arts, Quimper, 1996 p.41, repr. (col)

Also reproduced:
G.S. Whittet, 'A Gallery of Art Dealers 2: The Redfern Gallery', Studio, May 1951, vol.141, no.698, p.130
Eric Newton, Christopher Wood, 1959, p.79, pl.19 (col.)

Matthew Gale
April 1996

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