Christopher Wood

Untitled (Helford)


Not on display

Christopher Wood 1901–1930
Oil paint on plywood
Support: 329 × 409 mm
Presented by Sarah and Alan Bowness in honour of Nicholas Serota 2018


Untitled (Helford) c.1926 is a painting of Helford village, which lies on the Helford River, between Falmouth and the Lizard peninsula in south-west Cornwall. A riverside scene, it is painted in strong bold coloured oil paints applied heavily with a thick brush. The strength and darkness of colours are suited to the setting’s location as a creek surrounded by woodland. A prominent flagpole in the foreground with a red flag (possibly a sailing club ensign) locates the artist’s viewing position on the opposite bank to a cluster of village buildings. On the water and at the water’s edge are two moored boats and a large empty boathouse. A hill rises in the background and, towards the right edge, a single figure dressed in pink crosses a red bridge. The outlines of forms have been painted prominently in black, the boldness of which suggests strong shadows, as if this view was seen in the dark hours leading up to a storm or during the low evening light. Aside from the distant shape of the figure on the bridge, the village seems to be quiet and brought into the shade by clouds and the surrounding shape of the land.

Untitled (Helford) is representative of the intentionally simple and direct work made by Wood during his first visit to Cornwall in 1926. With its bold black outlines, it is a deliberately naïve and quiet representation, painted with increased freedom from rules of composition and technique that artists had traditionally been taught. Although he started the year in Paris, in 1926 Wood connected increasingly with artistic networks in London, where his work was starting to receive attention among contemporary artists and critics. That June he moved to London with his friend Tony Gandarillas, and his work was included in London Group exhibitions that year. In the summer Wood and Gandarillas visited Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, a trip possibly inspired by the Cornish connections of Wood’s contacts in London including Frank Dobson, Augustus John, Cedric Morris and Matthew Smith, and by Wood’s mother’s family having originated from the north coast of Cornwall. Although Gandarillas left after a month in September, Wood stayed alone in St Ives in order to work. He wrote from St Ives during this time: ‘I am absolutely mad about my work and sit and think about it and do nothing else all day’ (quoted in Ingleby 1995, p.134).

Towards the end of October, Wood returned to live in Chelsea with Gandarillas, where he finished off some of the work he had started in Cornwall. Although the arrangement of buildings in this work is still recognisable in Helford village today, it is possible that the work was worked up or completed from memory, a practice used by Wood throughout the 1920s. Inscriptions on the reverse of the painting show that Untitled (Helford) was in the collection of the artist Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) from at least the 1930s, while he was working in the Mall Studios, until 1958, when it passed to Sarah and Alan Bowness. It may have been one of a group of works that were received enthusiastically by Ben and Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981) towards the end of 1926, during the early days of their friendship with Wood. Winifred recalled that Wood ‘was showing us his summer’s work. It was the second time we had met. Crowded together in his small bedroom were an amazing array of canvases. He produced masterpiece upon masterpiece. The Red Dogs; the White Ship … a number of still and dark Cornish landstrips … we walked home in the high skies.’ (Quoted in Ingleby 1995, p.142.) Another such work that was also owned by Nicholson is Wood’s Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1928 (Tate T15119).

Further reading
Richard Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London 1995.
Katy Norris, Christopher Wood, London 2016.

Rachel Rose Smith
July 2018

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