Samuel John Peploe, R.S.A. (1871-1935)
Samuel John Peploe, R.S.A. (1871-1935)

Still Life of Summer Flowers in a Chinese Blue and White Vase

Samuel John Peploe, R.S.A. (1871-1935)
Still Life of Summer Flowers in a Chinese Blue and White Vase
signed 'Peploe' (lower left)
oil on canvas
20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.5 cm.)
Painted in the 1920s.
with W.B. Simpson, Glasgow, where purchased by Major Herbert J. Dunsmuir, and thence by descent.

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Lot Essay

The motif of the still life provided Peploe with the ideal way in which to develop and challenge his art. Throughout his career, Peploe explored his interpretation of the subject and his technique but he never faltered in his objective to capture the perfect still life composition. In 1929, he wrote of his life-long interest in the genre: ‘There is so much in mere objects, flowers, leaves, jugs, what not – colours, forms, relation – I can never see mystery coming to an end’ (S.J. Peploe, quoted in S. Cursiter, Peploe, London, 1947, p. 73). It is this continual pursuit to solve the ‘mystery’ of still life and to paint ‘the ideal’ that is so wonderfully encapsulated within Still Life of Summer Flowers in a Chinese Blue and White Vase.

In 1918 Peploe moved from Queen Street to a new studio at Shandwick Place in Edinburgh. This proved to be extremely influential to his artistic creativity and marked the beginning of a period of burgeoning success. With its spacious interior, white washed walls and large windows, Peploe was provided with much inspiration as his fascination with the still life genre continued to grow and deepen. The war years had been a time of intensive preparation and study for him as he grappled with the difficulties of representing form, colour and light. Stanley Cursiter explained: ‘he was like a coiled spring awaiting merely the opportunity to expand’ (S. Cursiter, Peploe, Edinburgh, 1947, p. 51). Immediately after the war, Peploe wrote to Cadell that he was 'waiting a new development – what it will be I do not yet quite know’ (letter from Peploe to Cadell, 20 June 1918, National Library of Scotland). Painted within the precincts of his studio, Still Life of Summer Flowers in a Chinese Blue and White Vase exemplifies the still lifes of the 1920s which embody a newfound confidence. Peploe has abandoned his earlier Manetesque fluid style that concentrated on texture and in which primary tones were emphasised by pronounced black outlines. Instead, he has embraced a fervent, sophisticated and intellectual exploration of pure colour, form and symmetry.

Peploe’s introverted and diligent nature perfectly leant itself to the development of his artistic practice. The thoughtful approach and vigorous analysis he gave to each composition is summarised by his brother-in-law, Frederick Porter, in the following account: ‘All of his still life(s) were carefully arranged and considered before he put them on canvas. When this was done – it often took several days to accomplish – he seemed to have absorbed everything necessary for transmitting them to canvas. The result was a canvas covered without any apparent effort. If a certain touch was wrong it was soon obliterated by the palette knife. The whole canvas has to be finished in one painting so as to preserve complete continuity. If, in his judgement, it was not right then the whole painting was scraped out and painted again’ (F. Porter, quoted in P. Long with E. Cumming, The Scottish Colourists 1900-1930, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, 2000, p. 16). The everyday props within this composition may appear to be an informal disarray at first glance, but Peploe has arranged them with painstaking attention so that each object is boldly executed and fully articulated. Rhythmic in its arrangement, Still Life of Summer Flowers in a Chinese Blue and White Vase epitomises Peploe’s total command of his compositions.

Peploe’s central motif takes the form of a blue and white porcelain vase bursting with a bunch of brightly coloured summer flowers, each defined by vibrant and broadly applied brushstrokes. The voluptuous contours of the vase, the dish with its blue rim and the soft curves of the oranges are adeptly juxtaposed by the angles of the books, the edge of the yellow tablecloth, as well as the fan with its jet-black ribbon as it weaves its way across the foreground drawing the viewer’s eye across it. Further pictorial interest is provided by the bold blue-black forms within the backdrop, which punctuate the arrangement and provide a striking contrast to the white and green drapes bathed in light and shadow.

Painted on an absorbent white gesso ground, as is typical of Peploe’s canvases of this period, the arrangement is a harmony of colour and flooded with light. Each element is a striking vignette of creative exploration. The richness in colour and bold handling of paint is greatly inspired by the Post-Impressionists and in particular the work of Cézanne, a reproduction of whose art Peploe kept pinned up in his studio. Like Peploe, Cézanne was a solitary and methodical artist who chose still life as a vehicle for aesthetic investigation and a means in which to explore his fascination with the act of seeing. He too meticulously arranged his compositions, as he strove to record his ‘sensations’ with a masterly fusion of colour and form. As Cézanne recalled: ‘In an orange, an apple, a ball, a head, there’s a culminating point; and this point is always – dispute the tremendous effect: light and shadow, colour sensations – closest to our eye; the edges of objects flee towards a centre placed on our horizon’ (letter to Emile Bernard, 25 July 1904, quoted in J. Rewald (ed.), Letters, New York, 1976.)

As with all of his best compositions, Still Life of Summer Flowers in a Chinese Blue and White Vase is an essay in harmony and balance. Each object has been beautifully formed through a series of colour contrasts, a mastery of light and form and an evidently self-assured handling. The painting is one of the finest works of the 1920s which typifies Peploe’s refined approach to the genre and emphasises why his still life compositions place him in the vanguard of British painters.

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