Luminous Geometry

The Paintings of William Coldstream.

William Coldstream, Westminster | vi, 1977–8, oil on canvas, 29 x 24 in.

The first time I heard of William Coldstream was about fifteen years ago. I was teaching at a small fine arts college and was one day introduced to James McElhinney, who was visiting as a guest lecturer. Euan Uglow’s name came up, as it often did on campus, and James advised me to check out the work of Coldstream, who was Uglow’s teacher. Done, and soon thereafter I hunted up a slender catalogue, published for a retrospective at the Tate Gallery after Coldstream’s death. I preferred Uglow, whose paintings are cooler and clearer. Coldstream seemed to me a talented curiosity: dry, meticulous, influenced by Cézanne, and—though this is no debit—reliably irresolute. He worried his paintings through dozens of sessions without ever falling victim to a conventional standard of finish.

In the subsequent years the catalogue, and thoughts of Coldstream, remained mostly shelved, until I received an unexpected email this past February. It came from Scott Purdin, who, it turned out, is something of an Anglophile and who owns original works by Coldstream, Uglow, and other affiliated artists. He also sponsors art books, and told me he was backing the publication of a forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Coldstream, scheduled to coincide with an exhibition of his work in London. Alas, the show has passed without my getting there, but the book made it across the pond, much to my delight.

William Coldstream
William Coldstream, Reclining Nude | ii – Catherine Kessler, 1977–8, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

Coldstream attended the Slade School of Fine Art in London—he would later become the school’s principal. (A short biographical overview requires that a description of his painting life be interrupted by a listing of formal positions, which is appropriate, since Coldstream’s already halting output was further curtailed by these responsibilities: he cofounded the Euston Road School, was professor at The Camberwell School, Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education—which allowed him to reconfigure art education in Great Britain—Director of the Royal Opera House, Chairman of the British Film Institute and trustee of the National Gallery. He was also knighted.) Initially, painting was not a profitable venture, and in his late twenties Coldstream worked as a filmmaker. He met the right people: in 1937 alone, he painted intimate portraits of Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden, while also befriending Kenneth Clark, who would be an invaluable benefactor. His figural devotion was interspersed with forays in landscape; those depicting areas of London and sites in Italy during and after World War II are especially poetic, and possess an atmospheric quality that would give way to an increasingly graphic and flinty rendering of architectural subjects. A view of postwar London, St Giles’ Cripplegate, its bombed out and zigzagging foreground walls culminating in the church tower in the middle distance, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful landscape paintings of the twentieth century. As with his portraits and figures, Coldstream labored over the plein-air paintings—Casualty Reception Station, Capua, Italy, was painted mostly from a secluded rooftop during a five month period in 1944, in about seventy-six sessions. 

William Coldstream, Walter Brandt, 1962–3, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 in.

There was that famous and interminable measuring, a methodology that would be adopted by his best students, Uglow and Patrick George. Rather than relying on traditional linear perspective, Coldstream made a multitude of readings holding a brush in his outstretched hand. Perhaps the first major canvas in which the approach is obvious was Seated Nude (Miss Mond), painted in 1952–3 and peppered with calibrated dots and short, straight lines, what the catalogue’s author, Peter T. J. Rumley, refers to as “red dashes and crosses, almost nicks cut into the flesh like a surgeon’s knife.” Though Coldstream saw the painting as an attempt to present a purely objective aesthetic, there is a tenderness to his analysis, an inherently sympathetic view of his model. Not all of his nudes are so successful; they are often more stilted than sensuous, as is especially evident on those few occasions when he conjured a canvas with two figures. Partly this is a side effect of Coldstream’s prolonged campaigns. One of his models, Sarah Quill, wrote that “Bill’s first thought was that I should choose a natural and comfortable pose; obviously this is as important for the painter as for the sitter. Nothing can be worse than trying to paint a model who becomes uncomfortable and fidgets.” She goes on to describe his attention to exactitude: “At the first sitting, when the pose had been decided, Bill found a needle and thread and sewed stitch-marks round me on the sheet to mark the exact position. These marks in chalk were supplemented now and again with the aid of my lipstick. Marks in chalk were made on the wall and the door behind—sometimes dashes, sometimes circles surrounding a dot: many of these marks were reproduced in the finished picture.” What’s easily missed in focusing on the proportional marks and tightly structured compositions is the subtlety of tone and color. If one aspect of Coldstream’s work is characterized by obsessive control, it provided a framework upon which he could apply washes of pigment that appear spontaneous by comparison.

William Coldstream
William Coldstream, Lord Glenconner,
1961–2, oil on canvas, 44 x 33 in.

This pictorial rectitude informs and sometimes compromises his commissioned portraits, by which I mean that an already limited repertoire of conventional poses is further constrained by the need to keep a non-professional model comfortable over the course of dozens of sittings. A lot of Coldstream’s suit-and-tie figures sit with their hands in their laps and sport similarly bland expressions. The technique is more interesting than the subject; that’s a good thing, since boardroom portraiture is often where painting goes to die, and the vernacular in this country leans heavily on photographic finish and flattery. Portrait painting in England didn’t end after Sargent, but morphed into a more intimate genre—the excesses of Augustus John have held up far less well than the introspective canvases by his sister Gwen. In Great Britain an alternative to the Grand Manner could be traced back at least to Whistler and Degas, whose shared protégée was Walter Sickert. Sickert offered inspiration and a template not only for Coldstream, but for other gifted and largely forgotten painters like Lawrence Gowing and Ruskin Spear, as well as that hyper-tactile anomaly who dominates late twentieth-century figuration, Lucian Freud. (Freud gave Coldstream twenty-nine sittings for a portrait in 1976, and one of the treats of this well researched catalogue is the recollection of a then-young artist who eavesdropped on the sittings) One can’t easily imagine these artists flourishing as portrait painters here. Coldstream painted Lord Thomson of Fleet, a major newspaper publisher, as a quintessential square—his head and shoulders are insistently rectilinear—and erased his eyes behind the reflections on his glasses. Remarkably, the subject’s son commissioned a copy a dozen years later. 

Coldstream’s portraits avoid the mahogany-paneled pitfalls of the genre. One comes to appreciate the unfinished products, as well as the culture that accepted them. Commissioned subjects like Lord Glenconner and Walter Brandt, though sometimes martial to the point of imperiousness in bearing, were painted with a transparent touch. Artists who are this meticulous run the risk of boring us with seriousness. The laboriousness of Coldstream’s approach was mitigated by a delicate palette, his geometry writ luminously. 


The catalogue raisonné (link here) on William Coldstream has been published in conjunction with Browse & Darby, London.

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