© Courtesy of the artist's estate/ The Bridgeman Art Library


Sir William Coldstream (1906 – 1987)


50.8 X 61 CM
Accession number


After a brilliant, prize-winning career at the Slade School of Art, William Coldstream graduated in the year of a recession. “Through making money much harder to come by”, his generation was forced by the economic slump that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash “to be interested in economics and then in politics.”[1] “I had sort of social realist ideas”, he remembered, “in a sense that I would like to paint a sort of portrait which most people who might not know an enormous amount about painting would find interesting.”[2]

Between 1934 and 1937, he abandoned painting to work General Post Office film unit, collaborating with W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. It was “a great change from being shut up in a studio and knowing only artists”,[3] and brought him to the conclusion that, to paint popularly, it would have been necessary to possess

“a very big visual vocabulary , that is to say a power to supply the imagination immediately – with some kind of formula, you see? And the power to illustrate, in fact, an illustrative power, which I was singularly lacking in.”[4]

Film, though, wasn’t the replacement for painting he’d imagined, and he began again, teaching at the ‘Euston Road’ School of Painting and Drawing, with its promise “particular emphasis will be laid on training the observation”.[5] The school closed on the outbreak of war.

On 10th May 1941, this building, St Nicholas Cole Abbey in the City of London, was reduced to a shell by the heaviest night of bombing in the London Blitz. Coldstream was then employed as a camouflage officer with the Royal Engineers; that was still in England, but in 1943 a commission as a War Artist took him abroad, where he painted proud, often doomed Indian soldiers in Egypt and desolate, shattered buildings in Pisa and Rimini. On being demobbed in 1945, he took up a teaching post at the Camberwell College of Art alongside the another ex-Euston Road teacher Victor Pasmore. Elsewhere in the battered city, he began Cripplegate (1946-8), and this painting, “echoing”, according to his Euston Road pupil Lawrence Gowing , his Italian city landscapes.[6] He still clearly harboured doubts about how, and if he should be painting.

“Painted on the church this morning. Yesterday I came to realise its wretchedness & just became bored & next in an effort to rescue the situation scraped the whole of the upper part with a razor. […]Anyway I went back & tried to study very hard the appearance & to put down without prejudice what I saw. It ended up possibly a little better.”[7]

Rather than an intentional feature, Coldstream insisted the visible pencil lines on his works were “really like having one’s shirt hanging out”, and began to paint them over when he realised critics were making a point of them.[8] They are, however, symptomatic of a carefully-observed pictorial construction that would be obvious even if the lines weren’t. It is a nice, but probably unintentional side-effect that here, they suggest both the scaffolding of slow, hopeful post-war reconstruction, and Coldstream with one eye closed, squinting at a pencil at arm’s length – perhaps poking out a tongue – to get a measurement.

Tom Overton, 2010.

[1] William Coldstream, ‘Why I Paint’, in R. S. Lambert, ed., Art in England (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1938), p.99 – 104; p.101.
[2] David Sylvester & Lawrence Gowing, eds., The Paintings of William Coldstream, 1908–1987 [exh. cat.], (London, Tate, 1990), p.29.
[3] ‘Why I Paint’, p.102.
[4] David Sylvester, ‘An Unpublished Interview, 1962’, Paintings, p.29.
[5] School Prospectus, repr. Bruce Laughton, The Euston Road School (Aldershot: Scolar, 1986).
[6] PaintingsM, p.88.
[7] Caroline Cuthbert, ‘From William Coldstream’s Notebooks’, Paintings, p.36.
[8] Colin St John Wilson, ‘On William Coldstream’s Method’, Ibid, p.48.