Bryan Wynter

Riverbed

1959

Artist
Bryan Wynter 1915–1975
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Unconfirmed: 1524 x 1220 mm
frame: 1540 x 1235 x 38 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2003
Reference
T07991

Summary

Riverbed is an abstract painting on canvas by British artist Bryan Wynter. The painting features an irregular composition of brushstrokes applied in thin washes of paint, which overlap and run into each other. The background of the canvas appears to be light grey in tone, with a vertical yellow band towards the left-hand side. Layered over the top of the grey and yellow are brushstrokes of white, grey, blue and black that form various marks and shapes, including lines, dots, curves and circles. In contrast to the brushstrokes, there is a larger and more solid triangular reddish-brown shape with a black outline on the left-hand side, and two similar black shapes on the right-hand side.

Riverbed was made in Cornwall in 1959. Wynter was methodical in his working practice: when beginning a new painting he would start by applying a dense underpainting of strokes to the canvas. Once this was done he would simplify this all-over design, either by painting over certain areas with household undercoat or by applying a coloured glaze such as Indian yellow, which might suggest further possibilities for the addition of subsequent layers of larger or smaller brushstrokes. During this process, there could be gaps of weeks or months between Wynter completing one stage of the painting and beginning the next (Bird 2010, p.118).

Compared to earlier works such as Cornish Farm 1948 (Tate T14649), in which the contours of his Cornish landscapes are still visible, Riverbed is an example of Wynter’s abstract phase, which lasted from 1956 to 1964. This change in style saw Wynter beginning to approach his landscape subjects in terms of natural processes in their titles, forms and in his methods of making them (see also Seedtime 1958–9, Tate T00558). The paintings were designed to be built up in such a way as to mimic natural processes, for example that of sedimentation. This type of painting practice reflected what curator and art historian Chris Stephens has described as ‘an organicism [that] was increasingly evident in artistic production at that time’ among certain artists working in London and St Ives, which saw artists developing ‘forms and compositions of their work … in a way modelled on theories of natural growth’ (Stephens 1999, pp.48–9). In Wynter’s abstract works, such as Riverbed, the painting would grow organically, with each mark being made as a response to its predecessor. As the artist wrote in 1957: ‘Obviously it is I who have put into them what they contain but I have done so with as little conscious interference as possible, allowing them at every stage in their growth to dictate their own necessities.’ (Quoted in Stephens 1999, p.48.) Wynter has also expressed the essential connection he felt between environmental processes and his art: ‘My paintings are non-representational but linked to the products of nature in as much as they are developed according to the laws within themselves and are a static record of the processes that have brought them about.’ (Quoted in Bird 2015, pp.4–5.)

Although abstract, Riverbed seems to allude to the flow of water in a river. The more solid forms in the composition resemble rocks, while the paint marks echo the flow of water around these obstacles and the resultant interference and confluence that this causes. Wynter has described such natural processes as follows:

A stream finds its way over rocks. The force of the stream and the quality of the rocks determine the stream’s bed. This in turn modifies the course of the stream, channelling out new sluices and hollows. The stream erodes the rock, the rock deflects the stream, until at some high point, the stream bursts its banks and falls into a ravine. The dry stream bed, carved and hollowed, remains. Its form contains its history.
(Quoted in Bird 2015, pp.4–5.)

Wynter began studying at the Slade School of Art in London in 1938, but his course was interrupted by the Second World War. After the war ended Wynter moved to a remote area of St Ives in Cornwall, where the surrounding landscape became the focus of his creativity. During the 1950s and 1960s Wynter was widely regarded as a major figure in post-war British painting. His use of successive layers of smaller brushstrokes and longer, gestural marks placed him at the forefront of what art historian and museum director Alan Bowness identified as ‘the new British painting’ of the 1950s. Wynter, along with artists such as Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Roger Hilton, were seen by Bowness as having carved out a place on the international stage, alongside the French tachistes and American abstract expressionists (Bird 2015, p.1).

Further reading
Chris Stephens, Bryan Wynter: St Ives Artists, London 1999, pp.48–9, 58–9.
Michael Bird, Bryan Wynter, London 2010, p.118.
Michael Bird, ‘A Stream Finds Its Way: Painting and Process’, in Bryan Wynter: Deep Current High Country: Centenary Exhibition of Early Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Jonathan Clark Fine Art, London 2015, pp.1–5.

Emily Boyle
June 2018

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Display caption

Wynter made his paintings with hundreds of brushmarks intersecting and laid over one another. This approach related him to the art informel movement or tachisme then prevalent in France. These laid emphasis on the matter of paint itself and the gestural marks made in response to one another.
Wynter, who lived isolated on the moors of Cornwall, was fascinated by nature. His painting technique deliberately echoed natural processes of flow and erosion. Here the lighter brushstrokes seem to flow around larger areas like water around rocks – hence the work’s title.

Gallery label, November 2016

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