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

Still Life with Tulips

Samuel John Peploe, R.S.A. (1871-1935)
Still Life with Tulips
signed 'Peploe' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1919.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, 29 August 1975, lot 363.
with Fine Art Society, London, 1977.
Private collection.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Hopetoun House, 24 April 2006, lot 126, where purchased by the present owner.
R. Billcliffe, The Scottish Colourists: Cadell, Fergusson, Hunter, Peploe, London, 1989, p. 166, no. 70, illustrated.
A. Strang, E. Cumming and F. Fowle, exhibition catalogue, S.J. Peploe, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2012, n.p., exhibition not numbered, pl. 67.
G. Peploe, S.J. Peploe, Farnham, 2012, pp. 121-123, no. 129, illustrated.
Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, S.J. Peploe, November 2012 - June 2013, exhibition not numbered,

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William Porter

Lot Essay

‘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, 1929, quoted in S. Cursiter, Peploe: An intimate memoir of an artist and of his work, Edinburgh, 1947, p. 73).

Still Life with Tulips was painted at the close of a pivotal decade for Peploe, a time marking a period of great change in the life of the artist. Born and raised in Scotland, he was part of a group of painters posthumously known as the ‘Scottish Colourists’ for their attentive detail to tone, bold use of pigment, and open brushstrokes. A master of colour balance, for his first one-man show in 1903 Peploe even insisted that the colour of the walls at The Scottish Gallery were painted according to his instructions. Both within this circle of painters and further afield, Peploe was known for his almost obsessive variations on still life scenes, creating similar compositions afresh in new lights and with keen attention to the subtle changes of the scene. Considering his oeuvre chronologically reveals pockets of focus akin to chapters in a book: between 1914 and 1919, it was tulips that most captured his attention for the rhythm they brought to the composition of an image. In the years to follow he turned to roses, wild landscapes, and fruit.

Still Life with Tulips is one of Peploe’s later tulip paintings, and shows his prolonged interest in this motif. Their shape, with bending stems, allowed a certain amount of movement and life into his still life compositions, interrupting the more regular solid shapes that often occupy a still life. The static vases, sugar pots and oranges could not stretch into the compositional space in the same way as an arching tulip, whose very lifespan was visible through the curvature of its stem. Peploe was also very interested in the sense of rhythm created by the opening and closing of tulip heads, giving a sense of movement to the scene and character to the individual flowers: to reflect the open hearts of some flowers, and draw attention to the guarded nature of others.

In the present work, the central closed tulip looks defiantly upwards, the stems pushing the viewer’s gaze outwards from the centre of the canvas and towards the strong blocks of colour: the emerald cloth, the red chair and the rich blue backdrop. The composition of this work is an interesting departure from his more traditional still life works in that the flowers spring not only from the vase, but from different areas around the canvas. A hint of a vase hides just out of frame to the right; on the bottom left of the work are the fallen flowers around the table. Working all the time from nature, Peploe’s flower pictures followed the seasons: he painted tulips in spring, roses in summer, and fruit and vegetables in winter.

During the time of painting Still Life of Tulips, Peploe was once more living in Edinburgh. Financial pressures had sent Peploe back to Scotland from Paris in 1912, where he began a period of experimentation in composition. Paris, and his time in Cassis with fellow artist John Duncan Fergusson, had a strong effect on the development of Peploe’s style that can be clearly seen in the works of this period. Peploe had been immersed in the vibrant European avant-garde, bearing witness to the radical artistic developments forged by artists such as Henri Matisse, as well as gaining inspiration from revered Post-Impressionist masters, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne. Witnessing the ways in which these artists liberated colour from its conventionally descriptive role, using it to create boldly expressionistic and radical works, Peploe began to infuse his own painting with saturated, bold colour, which can be seen in full force in Still Life with Tulips, with a palette arranged around red-oranges and blues.

By 1918 he had become an elected Associate of the R.S.A., a highly-acclaimed position that he had been put forward for unsuccessfully at least once before. He was reportedly pleased to be accepted at this time, whilst also feeling tied to a set of expectations, membership and establishment that must have felt strange to a man as private as Peploe. Unusually among his peers, Peploe was soon able to make money from his paintings whilst in Edinburgh: often from a few regular patrons. He was also the only Scottish colourist to become a teacher, running lectures at Edinburgh College of Art in the last 18 months of his life. It was this relative financial comfort that allowed him to take time experimenting: approaching similar motifs time and time again, pushing them further and exploring the forms in new ways. As his grandson, Guy Peploe writes, ‘no matter how brilliant and “unnatural” the palette and dazzling the application of the paint, like a circus performer, Peploe stays on the tightrope, guyed by his dexterity and acuity of colour sense. Like any performer when he risks most he achieves most’ (G. Peploe in S.J. Peploe (1871-1935), reprinted in exhibition catalogue, The Scottish Colourists, New York, Beadleston Gallery, 1998). The life he established for himself in Edinburgh made such artistic risk-taking possible. Thus Still Life with Tulips is the result of many years spent refining and exploring floral motifs.

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