Christopher Wood (1901-1930)
This lot will be removed to Christie’s Park Royal.… Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE BRITISH COLLECTION
Christopher Wood (1901-1930)

Beach Scene with Bathers, Pier and Ships

Christopher Wood (1901-1930)
Beach Scene with Bathers, Pier and Ships
signed and dated 'CHRISTOPHER WOOD/1925' (upper left)
oil on panel, in six parts
66 x 144 in. (167.6 x 365.8 cm.)
Purchased directly from the artist in 1925 for 60 guineas by Edward William Bootle-Wilbraham, 3rd Earl of Lathom, 4th Baron Skelmersdale, from whom purchased by Lady Emerald Cunard.
Private collection.
E. Newton, Christopher Wood 1901-1930, London, 1938, p. 66, no. 98.
R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood An English Painter, London, 1995, p. 6, pl. 5.
V. Button, Christopher Wood, London, 2003, p. 30, illustrated.
K. Norris, exhibition catalogue, Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive, London, Pallant House Gallery, 2016, pp. 67, 72, exhibition not numbered, pl. 58.
London, Redfern Gallery, New Burlington Galleries, Christopher Wood: Exhibition of Complete Works, March - April 1938, no. 331.
London, Redfern Gallery, Christopher Wood 1901-1930, November 1965, no. 82.
London, Pallant House Gallery, Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive, July - August 2016, exhibition not numbered.
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Sale room notice
Please note that the medium should read oil on canvas, in six parts and not as stated in the catalogue.

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Lot Essay

This was the most ambitious work of Wood’s career to date when he started it in 1925, and it remains both the largest and most complex painting that he ever made. It was a very conscious statement of his new-found artistic confidence, and it was deliberately intended to gain him critical and commercial attention. It emerged from a period of great personal harmony with his friend and lover Tony Gandarillas, and the creative stability which flowed from this. The picture was an immediate success on all levels - Wood sold it for rather more than the £50 he had originally envisaged, the first substantive money he earned as an artist; it was purchased by a society interior designer and sold on to a fashionable society hostess, Lady Emerald Cunard; and it was reproduced extensively, in the art journal Colour and then in the pages of Vogue as a backdrop to photographs of the socialite Edwina Mountbatten.

In its subject matter and temperament Wood demonstrated that he had his finger perfectly on the pulse of the moment. While the Great War continued to cast its long shadow, by 1925 England and France were beginning to emerge from a sombre period of mass mourning. The well-bred young of England - dubbed 'The Bright Young People' by the new tabloid press - tried to free themselves from the weight of this palpable sense of loss by devoting themselves purely to pleasure, through parties, nightclubs, sex, drugs and jazz-age hedonism, albeit in its self-consciousness and abandon possessing an almost elegiac character. Wood took as his inspiration the subject matter of two smash-hit Parisian productions by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Based on a treatment by Jean Cocteau with music by Darius Milhaud, the one-act ballet Le Train Bleu (1924) was a frivolous, deliciously effervescent concoction set on the Riviera which featured stylish flappers in swim suits designed by Coco Chanel and the handsome gigolos and playboys who pursued them. Diaghilev’s follow up the next season was the equally popular Les Matelots (1925) with music by Wood’s friend Georges Auric and costumes and sets by Pedro Pruna (who greatly admired Wood’s screen subsequently). This glorified the rugged, handsome sailors of the title and was a vehicle for homoerotic male beauty. Diaghilev’s productions both expressed the mood of the mid 1920s, and set its fashions. The impresario was known for choosing male dancers who were beautiful, athletic and strong, who radiated raw sexuality, and the ballets promoted a bohemian, hedonistic, sexually-fluid vision which perfectly articulated the contemporary mood.

Wood’s Screen synthesised the chic imagery of these chic productions and was fashionably up to the minute. But it was also intended as a message to Diaghilev. Wood was desperate to design for the Ballets Russes,and had the intention to propose a ballet of English rustic subjects to Diaghilev titled English Country Life. He appears to have approached variously William Walton, Lord Berners and Constant Lambert to discuss their writing the music, and Wood made extensive designs. But when they were eventually presented to Diaghilev he rejected the concept. Instead the impresario opted to produce a modern Romeo and Juliet scored by Lambert, and while in 1926 Wood was appointed and completed made designs, eventually he and Diaghilev fell out and left the project.

Wood’s principal artistic precedent for the Screen was the classical figure subjects produced by Picasso in the first half of the Twenties, and to some lesser extent Modigliani’s reclining nudes. Wood was on familiar terms with Picasso, both socially and in his knowledge of his art, a singular rarity among Englishmen of his generation. Picasso had designed the famous drop curtain for Le Train Bleu featuring two female figures running along a beach. More broadly Wood’s composition was in essence a witty modern reworking of Arcadian landscape prototypes by the Old Masters, which he would have been familiar with from the Louvre and National Gallery. And, lastly, there is a certain native debt to the vernacular ‘folk’ art of 19th Century naive painting and ship’s figure heads.

Wood described the picture in detail to his mother: 'On the left there are two women lying down in bathing costumes, one combing her hair and the second standing up against the bathing cabin in a bath gown. The sea is bright green. Three fishermen with brown bodies are pulling up a fishing net on to the shore where, at their feet is a still life of lobster (cooked!) and gaily coloured fish' (C. Wood, letter to his mother 1925, quoted in R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London, 1995, p. 111).

The picture was greatly admired. Wood was delighted by the approbation of Augustus John, whom he considered the most able painter in Britain, and his mentor, the sculptor Frank Dobson. He wrote to his mother: 'All who have seen and whose opinion I value are surprised with its beauty and the strength of its technique and [Augustus] John said that had it been finished he would have put it into the exhibition of French, English and American painting which is being held here in a beautiful new picture gallery' (C. Wood, letter to his mother, September 1925, Tate Archive 773.5).

Wood consciously produced paintings of simplicity and naivety without the artifice of traditional Academic principles. In Paris, visiting Picasso’s studio, he was not greatly enamoured of the theoretical complexities of Cubism or abstraction. Instead his sympathies lay with the more immediate lyricism and beauty of Post-Impressionism, and by a certain type of figurative modernism which simplified, distilled and refined pictorial imagery. He sought to express this latter character in his own work with paintings that have been described as naive or primitive, but in fact contain a deceptive degree of sophistication. The immediacy that such works could communicate was an element of modern Continental painting that Wood seized upon and it was through this lens that he sought to explain to his mother the character as he saw it of the modern movement: 'all the great modern painters, whom we may not quite understand through their pictures, are not trying to see things and paint them through the eyes of a man of forty or fifty or whatever they may be, but through the eyes of the smallest child who sees nothing except the things that would strike him as being the most important? To the childish drawing they add the beauty and refinement of their own experience - this is the explanation of modern painting' (C. Wood, letter to his mother, 28 July 1922, Tate Archive 773.2).

There is some uncertainty whether Wood’s painting was originally conceived as a screen or subsequently turned into one. The first owner of the painting was the Earl of Lathom - five years Wood’s senior, and who died the same year as him - who in addition to being a playwright and private picture dealer was a fashionable interior decorator who gave Syrie Maugham one of her first commissions. As his obituarist noted in The Ormskirk Advertiser: 'The Earl of Lathom had also a distinct leaning towards artistic decoration, and while still engaged in play-writing, made use of it by starting a business for the improvement of the internal embellishment of English houses. Travelling frequently on the continent and elsewhere, he collected all the best ideas and adapted them to the English home. One of his successful designers was Xenia Merison, a widow, whom he married in 1927' (13 February 1930).

It is possible that Lathom or his client Lady Cunard, who subsequently purchased the painting from him, adapted it into a screen to be used as part of a decorative scheme. Indeed, on the strength of her purchase, in 1926 Emerald Cunard invited Wood to prepare a ‘baroque’ decorative scheme with Osbert Sitwell for the dining room of number 7 Grosvenor Square, which she had recently bought and was redesigning. For this he was offered the considerable fee of £250, but the scheme remained unrealised when Wood discovered she reputedly had no money.

We are very grateful to Robert Upstone for preparing this catalogue entry. Robert Upstone is the author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Christopher Wood.

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