Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Peculiar Greatness of Christopher Wood

Christopher Wood, Breton Woman at Prayer, 1930 (Southampton City AG)
A new travelling exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum looks anew at the life and work of Christopher Wood (1901-1930) by hanging his pictures alongside those of his friend Cedric Morris (1889-1982). Their lives were a study in contrast. Wood was charismatic, flawed, driven and something of a genius; an opium addict, he died at the age of 29 when he fell under a train at Salisbury station. It is altogether in keeping with the contradictory nature of his life and career that no-one can be sure whether he jumped or fell. Morris, on the other hand, lived to a ripe old age and was a highly respected teacher. Lucien Freud painted his portrait. He was a good painter, but lacked the mysterious something that separates the great from the good.

Christopher Wood, Church at Treboul, 1930 (Tate)
This greatness is something you feel (and it's subjective, of course). Sometimes when you read a story, watch a film or look at a picture you sense that there is something going on beneath or beyond the surface, and you keep coming back to experience that feeling again or in an effort to understand it better. Novels come larded with notes to help you understand imagery, hidden themes, structural tricks, etc; these may help you understand the techniques in use, without explaining why this particular story has such emotional power over you.

Cedric Morris, Breton Landscape, 1927 (Kirklees Museums and Galleries)
I've read some books ('The Great Gatsby', 'The English Patient', 'Le Grand Meaulnes') over and over, with new excitement each time. And the same goes for pictures. I could stand all day looking at Gainsborough's portrait of his daughters chasing a butterfly (a painting the artist apparently didn't rate very highly). Paul Nash's 'Event on the Downs' is always somewhere in the back of my mind. One or two of Peter Doig's pictures keep me awake at night...

When Christopher Wood died he was about two years into his career as a painter of vision. Two years! Between 1928 and 1930 he painted like a man possessed, producing the famous pictures of Cornish fishing boats and Breton churches, and those other strange coastal paintings of sleeping sailors and sunbathers and drying fishing nets; there were other, more disturbing pictures too, such as 'The Yellow Man', which I think he painted in Paris.

Christopher Wood, The Yellow Man

Unfortunately his life story has become tangled up with that of Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, so that we tend to see him through the filter of that 1928 meeting in St Ives and dwell on questions of influence that detract from the real story. He may have borrowed Wallis's dark dark seas (the naive style he had already), but what he found in the Cornish and Breton fishing villages was something deeper. Sometimes he made his thoughts and feelings visible - in the skeletal timbers of a half-built boat, for instance - but on other occasions they are more elusive. In one picture a woman is mending a fishing net; another shows a woman praying in a simple church. The style is a bit heavy-handed, even clumsy (Morris was more technically skilled), yet there is in these pictures sadness and beauty, serenity and strangeness.

Christopher Wood, Pony and Trap, 1930
Some artists who die young seem already to have given us everything, artistically speaking, that they have. Christopher Wood, by contrast, was just getting started.

'Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood: a Forgotten Friendship' is at the Norwich Castle Museum until New Year's Eve, before touring to the Mascalls Gallery and the Falmouth Art Gallery. It is a Mascalls Gallery touring show, curated by Nathaniel Hepburn.


  1. I know just what you mean about getting more out of books each time you read them. I keeping picking up my Penguin edition of John Cowper Powys' Wolf Solent (with a Nash on the cover), but need someone to tell me why.

  2. I agree. I have just been to the small Norwich Exhibition.Kit Wood has always been one of my truly favourite painters and of course I enjoyed seeing them . Compared to Cedric Morris they just sing! The WOW factor indeed. There is a lovely one belonging to Prince Charles -given to him when a child hoping to get him interested in collecting paintings-but not all the ones you have reproduced here & I feel some just chosen just because Wood & Morris had chosen similar places.I wonder how Norwich chose the ones they did-I suppose they had a wish list!I would have chosen some different ones on mine.
    Personally I would have been happy with just Christopher Wood but Museums nowadays always have to continually contrast & compare -and I suppose Norwich wanted the East Anglian connection.It isn't that I disliked the Cedric Morris I just feel they are lessened by the comparison.

  3. Thanks for your comments - I'm hoping to get to Norwich soon...

  4. Did make it to Norwich and thoroughly enjoyed the show, which is more extensive than I'd imagined - and more varied, not just the fishing boats. Some lovely work by Cedric Morris, but Wood steals the scene. The exhibition is now (Jan 2013) at Mascall's in Kent...

  5. W.J.HOPKINS22 January, 2013

    For the last forty years I have lived with the work of both artists & know their work well. I also have a copy of the Redfern Gallery's (attempted) illustrated compilation of all of Wood's paintings numbering 331. Of this number about fifty or sixty are the works of the last two years, for which he is remembered & which the painter also considered to be new & significant achievements. Much of Wood's previous work can be seen as part of a necessary apprenticeship to becoming a painter of the first rank, and I believe it is possible to say that at the time of his death he was indeed firmly on his way to becoming what one might term "a premier league painter" (of which there are very few). Whilst for a short time Wood walked upon the mountains Morris, for the whole of his life, meandered along the foothills. From an early age he developed a technique from which he hardly ever deviated, producing from time to time some lovely work, with a voice of its own. However neither painter had much influence on the other & their lives only overlapped for a short while - as they were bound to do in the miniscule world of (London) painting of the 1920's. Apart from a struggle to sell their work the two painters had little in common: if the best of Wood's work is shewn alongside some nice paintings by Morris then, to use a rather common expression, it's a no brainer......

    One final observation, on the premise that Wood's "proper" output consists of no more than, say, sixty paintings: difficulties always exist for the curator of a Wood exhibition. A good number of the top sixty works are unavailable for public exhibition so even if a few generous lenders (of the "usual" paintings) can be found a Wood exhibition nearly always has to be padded-out with lesser earlier works. Whilst some of these may be perfectly pleasing to the eye I believe that Wood himself would have preferred not to have mixed the later work with his earlier output because the effect is to dilute the true stature he had achieved at the time of his death.