Ranunculus was painted in the early years of the 1920s, when Peploe's work took on a new direction and he began to paint vibrant still lifes. Moving away from the style of Manet of his earlier period, Peploe developed a way of painting more closely akin to the Fauves and Cézanne in particular (see figure 1): with tropical colour and delineated tone. It was during this period that his work progressed rapidly, placing him in the vanguard of British painters. Peploe's style however, concentrated less on texture and tone and more on making colour, form and symmetry. On 20 June 1918, Peploe wrote to Cadell that he was 'waiting a new development - what will it be I do not yet quite know' (letter from Peploe to Cadell, National Library of Scotland).
Since his return from France in 1913 Peploe had devoted himself almost exclusively to the study of colour, and in his determination to master it he had used colour at its highest pitch and with the greatest intensity he could secure in pigments. At first he painted bold colourful still lifes and landscapes in which primary tones were emphasised by strong black outlines. He then discovered the intensity and brilliance to be conveyed by varying the colour of the outline and by juxtaposing bright colours side by side.
Peploe favoured certain compositional devices which included sumptuous roses, different coloured drapes and a variety of blue-and-white pots and vases. The present work remarkably distinguishes itself from this period of his still lifes: whilst the fruit and blue and white porcelain recur in many of his compositions, the chosen flower is unusual. Ranunculus are traditionally small, delicate, papery flowers, markedly different and more complex to paint than Peploe's favoured roses and tulips. Nonetheless their heads remain, like his tulips and roses, areas of pure pigment; masses of colour. As Cursiter notes, 'in all these years the main impression gathered from his paintings is of colour, intense colour, and colour in its most colourful aspect. One is conscious of material selected for inclusion in still-life groups because of its colourful effect; reds, blues and yellows are unmistakably red, blue, and yellow: the neutrals are black and white' (S. Cursiter, Peploe, Edinburgh, 1947, p. 43).
The cloths dressing the table remain deep blue and green as in Still Life with Roses, yellow background (see lot 9). However, in the present work, Peploe has replaced the delicate white drapes in the background with a deep blue: almost black in tone. This profound colour acts as a framing device around the vase of flowers, serving to offset and contrast the vigour of the yellow of the central swatch. The juxtaposition allows the richness of the ochre tones to sing, themselves complemented by the blue porcelain and rich red flowers. The central focus is thus upon the most powerful tonal contrast in the picture, between the dark drapes and the intensity of the red flowers upon the yellow background. Bright vermillion and scarlet on the table are picked up in the flowers; the green cloth, in the stems.
Peploe's still lifes changed and developed throughout his career, and his desire for perfection in his work was obtained through his vigorous approach to the genre. Peploe said '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. Cursiter, op. cit., p. 73). It was his approach to the 'colours, forms, relation' that he was able to adapt and extend, developing his still lifes into more sophisticated and subtle works. Ranunculus exemplifies this: broadly applied paint expresses the forms of citrus fruit, flower blooms, vases and bowls as studies of shape and colour. The present work is remarkable for its bright, vivid colouring and bold composition, redolent of the modernism of the unfolding jazz-age.