‘Wadsworth clearly managed to set himself apart through a combination of the particular polished surface effect achieved by tempera, the carefully judged balance of his compositions and the sharp-edged, clear-cut hyper realism with which oddly shaped objects presented from unusual angles were depicted’ (J. Black, Edward Wadsworth: Form, Feeling and Calculation, The Complete Paintings and Drawings, London, 2005, p. 67).
As in many of Wadsworth’s most successful works, Imaginary Harbour I is tinged with a sense of drama and unease. This is achieved through the artist’s careful manipulation and placement of forms, which he imbues with a weightlessness that echoes the practices of his Surrealist contemporaries. As seen in the present work, Wadsworth often played with scale and pictorial space, bringing his forms closer to the pictorial plane, or enlarging them, so that our sense of depth becomes warped and we are left with a heightened sense of drama. Jeremy Lewison reiterates that these distorted or decontextualized objects can often startle: ‘they assume almost human proportions and begin to threaten the viewer’s space in a manner normally associated with sculpture. Indeed they become invasive’ (J. Lewison (ed.), A Genius of Industrial England: Edward Wadsworth 1889-1949, Bradford 1990, p. 78). This sense of tension is highlighted by his palette, which commonly cool in tone, inspired, in part, by Italian primitive painting, is often interrupted with vibrant, saturated punctuations of colour, as seen here in the red tones.
Wadsworth was not only interested in the object in its own right but also as a means to create a particular atmosphere, which is seen to striking effect in the present work. He found beauty in the geometry and order of things, relishing in his control over the objects, in particular enjoying the interplay between the mechanical and natural. Lewison reiterates, ‘The correspondence of mechanical to natural forms and their respective perfect geometries must have been among Wadsworth’s principle interests’ (J. Lewison (ed.), A Genius of Industrial England: Edward Wadsworth 1889-1949, Bradford 1990, p. 75). This was echoed in writings of the time. Léonce Rosenberg wrote in his introduction to Wadsworth’s solo exhibition held and Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1929: ‘It is not enough that a work should be constructed according to accepted principles to be beautiful. It is in the degree in which humanity radiates through the material (matter)that a production is worthy of interest’ (Rosenberg, quoted in, J. Lewison (ed.), A Genius of Industrial England: Edward Wadsworth 1889-1949, Bradford 1990, p. 74).
Wadsworth’s propensity for the nautical can be seen as a point of consistency in the artist’s work, which embraces a succession of different interests and styles over the years. As early as 1918, when Wadsworth was working on ‘dazzle camouflage’ ships in Bristol and Liverpool, he created a series of prints and a large painting based on ships, which focused on the majesty and power of the object. This interest in the maritime was further fuelled by his sojourn to Italy and France with his wife and chauffeur Alfred ‘Nobby’ Clarke in April 1923. Here he was captivated by the bustling working harbours and ports he visited, in particular enjoying those of Marseilles and St Tropez, which he painted on a number of occasions from 1923 onwards. One of the most striking examples of this period is St Tropez I/Concepiton, 1925, where Wadsworth utilises the draped tarpaulin to frame his harbour scene, adding a sense of the theatrical to his paining. This sense of drama continued into his work of the 1930s but Wadsworth now employed a sparser and more rigorously ordered composition, as seen in Imaginary Harbour I, where an emphasis on classical proportion, fine design and purity of line became key.
The considered manipulation of form and perspective can also be seen in Wadsworth’s still lifes of the late 1920s and 1930s, where he created a series of paintings, which took real life nautical instruments and marine subjects and paired them in unexpected, obscure ways to create unusual compositionally configured works. This is exemplified in works such as Tomorrow Morning/Maine Perspective, 1929-44 and Perspectives of Idleness I, 1936, where precisely painted, exactly positioned objects, which seem to contradict each other temporally and geographically, are placed next to one another in a bid to test the concepts of time and distance. Jeremy Lewison explains, ‘By taking real objects from different areas of life and combining them in unexpected ways, Wadsworth achieved more than ‘realism’: he created a poetic fusion’ (J. Lewison (ed.), A Genius of Industrial England: Edward Wadsworth 1889-1949, Bradford 1990, p. 75). Indeed Wadsworth was known to have a collection of maritime equipment and other ephemera, which he would arrange in his studio to paint from, later inserting imaginary seascapes into the backgrounds. Louis Bouché described his experience of visiting Wadsworth’s studio at Maresfield, he recalled, ‘On one side, a huge glass-shelved case contains, in orderly arrangement, marine shells, laboratory test tubes, corks, a ship compass, nautical instruments and…beach combings of every conceivable description’ (Bouché, quoted in J. Black, Edward Wadsworth: Form, Feeling and Calculation, The Complete Paintings and Drawings, London, 2005, p. 92).
Imaginary Harbour I, 1934 and other works of this period show Wadsworth’s knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, prevalent European art movements, most notably Surrealism. Wadsworth enjoyed close associations with artists Pierre Roy, Jean Metzinger and in particular Giorgio de Chirico, who he greatly admired, and corresponded with in 1928 on the subject of tempera painting. He would have also no doubt have seen de Chirico’s one-man exhibition in autumn 1928 at Arthur Tooth & Sons, who was by this time representing Wadsworth. Like his Surrealist compatriots, Wadsworth laid particular emphasis on the isolation and aggrandisement of the object, paying great attention to the contrasting relative weights, texture and forms of his motifs. He also enjoyed playing with perspective and the sense of spatial distance, often depicting still life objects or nautical forms at close range granting them with a Surrealistic quality, making them seem larger than they really were. This is seen to dramatic effect in Imaginary Harbour I where the ships seem to float weightlessly on the water. While the unpeopled vessels and baron harbour scene create a strange sense of serenity and detachment, as the ships seem to drift and sail by themselves in some imaginary world, as is alluded to in Wadsworth’s title. Not only this but the careful placement of objects, the use of deep recessive space and strong lighting, create a powerful sense of intrigue and add an anthropomorphic quality to the work. This quality of Wadsworth’s was noted in 1933 by Waldemar George in his article Sélection – Chronique de la vie artistique, who wrote, ‘These objects exchange words. They act like actors in a drama. Talking objects, they force the attention of the spectator-medium, who is subject to their strange spell and who participates visually in the dramatic action of which they are emblems’ (George, quoted in, J. Lewison (ed.), A Genius of Industrial England: Edward Wadsworth 1889-1949, Bradford 1990, p. 70).
Although Wadsworth was inspired by the work of artists such as De Chirico and Leger, he never classed himself as a surrealist. Wadsworth was courted on many occasions by different international factions and was seen on the continent as being one of the leading practitioners in Modernism in Britain, having held successful shows internationally and been included in influential periodicals such as Sélection, of which one of their periodical cahiers was devoted to his work, an exceptional tribute, which very few English painters received. Although Wadsworth championed the break from the traditional conventions of painting in Britain and joined Abstraction-Création and Unit One in the early 1930s, Wadsworth’s work was never completely devoid of the naturalistic, with the artist’s work often oscillating between the figurative and the abstract over the years. Indeed he saw that these were not mutually exclusive. This view was shared by Edward Crankshaw, who in reaction to his 1933 show at Mayor Gallery wrote in the Weekend Review ‘…his paintings are not abstractions at all, but concentrations. Whereas by the term abstract painter we usually mean an artist who is concerned with abstracting concrete natural phenomena, Mr. Wadsworth reverses the order and makes the abstract concrete. The abstract painter works from the outside inwards, but Mr. Wadsworth is working from the inside outwards…he is a romantic concerned with the registration of his own personal feelings’ (Crankshaw, quoted in J. Black, Edward Wadsworth: Form, Feeling and Calculation, The Complete Paintings and Drawings, London, 2005, p. 89).