Still life with Tulips is testament to Samuel John Peploe’s almost compulsive preoccupation with the floral still life. Through these works, we see his investigation into compositional design and innovative use of colour. Although they often share the same subjects, Peploe’s still lifes are, on closer inspection, each the unique result of meticulous compositional consideration. The repetitive rendering of the flower motif has established a series of paintings that have allowed the artist to move closer to what is, for Peploe, the perfect still life.
The present lot is painted on the cusp of a pivotal moment in the progression of what became Peploe’s identifying painting style. In France during the early 1900s, Peploe had been exposed to the French avant-garde movements and was immersed in a world of vibrant colours used liberally by the decorative methods of artists such as Henri Matisse. Financial pressures may have encouraged him to move back to Scotland, but he brought with him the pioneering modernism of colour theory and the considered, even mathematical, compositional structures that he had absorbed in France. Hindered from serving in the forces in the First World War by ill-health, Peploe’s artistic advancement was similarly impeded by the art market’s stagnation during the war years. Consequently, opportunities to exhibit were scarce. 'The war years had been a time of preparation, intensive study, and concentration on the problems of colour, form, and lighting. He was like a coiled spring awaiting merely the opportunity to expand' (S. Curtiser, Peploe, Edinburgh, 1947, p. 51). As the close of the war became palpable, so did the manifestation of Peploe’s creativity. By 1918, he had assumed the prestigious role as an associate for the Royal Scottish Academy and, atypical to his Scottish contemporaries, began to be able to use his art as a means of income.
He took inspiration from his time in France when bringing a vivid colour palette into his pictorial compositions. Peploe’s prowess as a painter of still lifes was perfected by a return to the floral motif, which almost became an obsession. Daily, Peploe left his home to select arrangements from the local florist, or to pick freshly cut flowers from the surrounding Scottish scenery. In parallel with the seasons, his still lifes of this period are pervaded with the mathematically composed yet vivid portrayal of tulips, roses and even vegetables. Peploe sought not only to capture the ephemerality of life but to refine his technique and explore the formal concerns of painting. He became preoccupied by their 'subtle nuance of colour and the delicacy of the form'. Through flowers and the colourful drapery around them, he manufactured a micro-environment that harnessed the chromatic intensity of his time in France as a relief from the greyness of Edinburgh.
'Flowers, how wonderful they are: I have a bunch of tulips, so gay, of so many colours: orange, pink, different pinks, a strange one – pure brick red – which is my favorite' (S.J. Peploe letter to F. Drummond, 31 January 1933, in G. Peploe, S.J. Peploe, Edinburgh, 2000, p. 60).
The present lot, however, is far from simply an impulsive expression of the visual stimulus he saw before him. Visible blue marks to the upper segment of the work elucidate Peploe’s carefully pre-meditated approach to compositional construction. In essence, Peploe has created a pictorial design that is imbued with an equally contrived use of colour. The canvas is masterfully divided into segments that communicate with each other through a balanced colour patterning. The large mass of the yellow of the tablecloth that dominates the scene is balanced by the repetition of the same colour in the tulips to the upper left and right of the composition. The subtle manipulation of the sense of perspective is made evident through the relationship between the props. The red cloth sets the bowl at an angle that, on closer inspection, does not lie in complete tandem with that of the table. In a similar vein, the angles of the corner of the table forces the viewer’s gaze towards the Chinese vase, the off-centre focal point of the composition, and leads the eye up the canvas and into the tulips that balance and stabilise the arrangement of objects.
Major Ion Harrison was the greatest supporter and collector of the Scottish Colourists, and expressed great admiration for Peploe’s still lifes of the 1920s. He recalled, 'Mr Peploe had an exhibition of mostly flower pictures, mostly, as far as I can remember, of tulips – red, yellow and white – painted against blue backgrounds with different coloured draperies. I had never seen anything in art similar to these pictures, and I did not understand them. They really startled me for, to my eyes, they were so ultra-modern. The formal ways in which the tulips were painted, and their brilliant colour against equally strong draperies, was at that time beyond my comprehension. A tulip picture of this phase of Peploe’s work is one of his pictures which I now cherish most highly' (Major Ion Harrison, quoted in, T. Honeyman, Three Scottish Colourists, London, 1950, p. 119).