William Menzies Coldstream was born in Belford, Northumberland, the youngest of five children of a doctor. The family moved to West Hampstead, London in 1910. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art after failing to matriculate from medical school. At the time the teaching at the Slade was very traditional and somewhat at odds with the modern artists – Cezanne, Degas and Sickert – whom Coldstream admired. Coldstream augmented his studies by attending lectures by Sickert and studying with a coach painter who painted lines with a long rigger brush (a thin brush with extremely long bristles). After art school Coldstream struggled to make a living as an artist. In 1934, joined the GPO Film Unit writing and directing films, painting at the weekends and in his spare time. He joined his friends Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore in establishing a new School of Drawing and painting in Fitzroy Street, the school later moved to the Euston Road where Graham Bell joined the teaching staff. The school promoted art in realist tradition that would be more readily accessible and understandable to a wider public.
During the war Coldstream was appointed an Official War Artist in the Middle East and Italy. In Egypt he had a studio close to the Pyramids and spent most of his time painting portraits of Indian soldiers. In Italy he was based in Capua and Rimini where his focus turned to recording damaged buildings and encampment. After being de-mobbed he took on a teaching job at Camberwell School of Art, where he was later appointed Head of Painting. In 1949 he was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art. Coldstream had a life long interest in art education and was the author of two Government reports (1960 and 1968). These led to the establishment of the foundation year course in art schools followed by three years of studio practice and complimentary studies leading to a Diploma in Art & Design (DipAD) which had the same status as university degree. His sense of public duty led to appointments as a Trustee of the Tate, Chair of the Art Panel of the Arts Council, a Director of the Royal Opera House and Chair of the British Film Institute. He was knighted in 1856. However it was his role as Slade Professor that he had the most immediate influence striving to make the school a centre for artistic excellence. He was a perceptive and generous teacher.
Coldstream was a slow and methodical painter who painted directly from nature ‘without much conscious selection except in the initial selection of the subject. I do not choose subjects in the first place because they strike me as exciting patterns or interesting shapes or colour. I choose them for the general interest – literary interest if you like… The object is to produce art’.(1) He exhibited widely in his life time and in 1990 the Tate mounted a major retrospective.
(1) from an interview by Rodrigo Moynihan 1964. Tate Gallery, London. 1991
The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-1987 .