Christopher Wood (1901-1930)
Christopher Wood (1901-1930)

Flowers in a White Mug

Christopher Wood (1901-1930)
Flowers in a White Mug
oil on canvas
16 x 13 in. (40.6 x 33 cm.)
Painted in 1927.
with Redfern Gallery, London, 1947.
Sir Lawrence E. Jones.
Mrs. Vivien Asquith.
Her sale; Christie’s, London, 12 July 1974, lot 339.
Anonymous sale; Bonham’s, Knightsbridge, 1 April 1993, lot 23.
with Jonathan Clark Gallery, London, where purchased by the present owner.
E. Newton (intro.), Christopher Wood 1901-1930, London, 1938, p. 69, no. 195.
London, New Burlington Galleries, Christopher Wood: Exhibition of Complete Works, March - April 1938, no. 208.
London, Redfern Gallery, Christopher Wood: 1901-1930, May - June 1947, no. 22.

Brought to you by

Louise Simpson
Louise Simpson

Lot Essay

The credit for nurturing Christopher Wood’s artistic talent belongs to the financier and art collector Alphonse Kahn (1870-1948), who, in 1920 invited Wood to Paris. Enrolling him at the Académie Julian, Khan became Wood’s benefactor, visiting galleries, dealers, studios and wild bohemian parties to encourage the young artist. Immersed in this Parisian world, Wood moved in fashionable circles, befriending the likes of Picasso and Jean Cocteau, and it was here, caught up in this whirl that Wood found his place as an artist. He viewed both Picasso and Cocteau as fathers of modern art, encapsulated by the naïve simplicity of their work and sought to push his own work to greater explorations of purity. However, by 1927 when Wood painted Flowers in a White Mug the spectacular magic of Paris was beginning to wane. Katy Norris describes that Wood ‘found the sophisticated trappings of the Parisian avant-garde increasingly at odds with the purity that he sought in his own painting’ (K. Norris, Christopher Wood, London, 2016, p. 46). Although Paris had brought him inspiration, Wood was feeling artistically stagnant, his ultimate focus, blurred by hedonism and the haze of opium use.

In search of this artistic purity, Wood looked to Van Gogh, attracted by the simplicity of his life and work. Kathy Norris explains that although Wood’s ‘early flower paintings were heavily indebted to the Post-Impressionist’s intense colour contrasts, [his] later paintings reveal a more subtle understanding of [Van Gogh’s] particular style of Japonisme’ (K. Norris, Christopher Wood, London, 2016, p. 45). Van Gogh seemed to symbolise absolute artistic freedom: creating expressive, pure paintings that Wood greatly admired. The stylised forms of Van Gogh’s Japanese Vase with Roses and Anemones (1890) swap formal ideas of perspective for a flattened plane, typical of the Japanese ukiyo-e style of painting. In the present work these delicate blooms have been painted with impasto pastel tones and enhanced outlines, lending the present work an air of naïvety. Wood, however, does not simply recreate Van Gogh’s work, but absorbs and diffuses his essence. In Flowers in a White Mug he takes lessons in purity from Van Gogh’s Japanese style, rejecting his formal training by flattening the image as much as possible, applying his paint in liberal impasto strokes to create refreshingly simple, earthy textures, which highlights the organic and natural elements of his subject.

Instead of Van Gogh’s vivid colours however, Wood uses a soft, fresh palette in the present work that bears a closer resemblance in tone to Winifred Nicholson’s work. Richard Ingleby believes that as firm friends, 'Winifred's link to Wood was colour ... Their paintings came closest in their depiction of flowers … they were both at their best with bunches of wild flowers arranged haphazardly in a mug, jug or a glass’ (R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London, 1995, p. 184). Flowers in a White Mug utilizes Nicholson’s harmonious tones, merging into the dusty background of blue and white, emphasising the unconstrained fragility of the calligraphic sprigs in a way that Van Gogh’s strong outlines do not. Colour relationships are carefully orchestrated; the buttery yellow intensifying rather than detracting from the violet, and the heavy green stems complementing the blush of the carnation. It is Wood’s ability to paint with this nuanced simplicity of colour that is why his still-life paintings are amongst his best known and most celebrated works.

At the beginning of 1927, just before this work was likely painted, Wood was struck by illness that left him convalescing for weeks. Flowers in a White Mug, fits with this period of the artist’s life, its mellow colours of grey and pale blue are particularly fresh and peaceful and are imbued with a feeling of harmony. The background of spongy clouds suggests a view from an open window, hinting at the vast, tantalising world that awaits after his recovery; the flowers too - perhaps brought by a visitor with good wishes - are a promise of health: the delicate buds are preparing to flourish, just as he also hopes to. The picture is not as cheerful and bright as it first appears however. Just like Jan Van Kessel The Elder’s A Still Life of Irises, Peonies, Narcissi, a Tulip and Other Flowers in a Blue and White Porcelain Vase with Insects Beside (1652), this work appears to be a splendid display of natural beauty but conceals a reminder of mortality - a memento mori - in the decaying petals. What first appeared to be a calming, peaceful colour palette seems faded and weak. The flowers too, are not as fresh as first thought. The bouquet hovers between life and death, yellow anemone buds ready to burst into life, whilst the purple flowers are nearing their end, petals drying into skeletal twists. Wood composed more than 150 pictures, many of which were still life, floral compositions between 1925 and 1928. Having experienced the trauma of illness, Flowers in a White Mug, becomes a vanitas symbol, representing the shortness and fragility of life. This bright image has sinister undertones, worryingly foreshadowing the last years of Wood’s tragically short life.

More from Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale

View All
View All