CHRISTOPHER WOOD (British,1901-1930)
Pill Creek, Feock, Cornwall
Oil on canvas. August 1928.
This is the only known painting by KW of Pill Creek. It was painted at a significant time when KW joined Ben & Winifred Nicholson who were staying at Haylands in Feock near their friends Marcus and Irene Brumwell; Marcus was head of the Stuart Advertising Agency and a keen collector of Ben Nicholson’s work. All three artists painted together in the same spirit, ‘ we all three painted and thought of nothing else. Inspiration ran high and flew backwards and forwards from one to the other’ WN. KW wrote to his mother, describing St Feock as ‘…a very beautiful place, a little creek with pine woods and white yachts at the end of a large inlet’. Wood’s description of the creek is exactly as Winifred painted it, several times describing it as ‘..a sleeping beauty countryside’.
REFERENCE : Whit Library, Christopher Wood files. There is a black & white photograph of this picture mis-identified as a Cumberland Landscape, noting it is in the Collection of Winifred Nicholson. (Harrison, 2 Milner Place, NW1, neg 390/24/7). This photograph was taken by Charles Harrison, which he took as part of his preparatory work for the time of the Ben Nicholson Tate (1969) retrospective in about 1967.
RELATED TO : Ben Nicholson : Pill Creek Moonlight, 1928. Ben Nicholson : Pill Creek, 1928. Winifred Nicholson : Pill Creek 1928 Government Art Collection 11680. The subject of the painting Church at St Feock,1928, EN294, is now known to be a church on the outskirts of St Ives and it is therefore not related.
Pill Creek was painted at the time that KW’s work achieved a true individualism and maturity, ‘his style could be said to be formed… and he knew the atmosphere in which he could do his best work’. As with many of KW’s best paintings, this work is at the same time radiant and faintly sinister. There is an unclouded purity, almost a rapture, created in his depiction of the creek with the colourful oyster boats, a couple under sail, and the almost illuminous reflection of light on the water at the head of the creek by the beach and the Brumwell’s house. ‘But there is also a thunderstorm somewhere in the neighbourhood’; here it is created by the leaden sky full of the thick clouds which you can almost feel moving quickly in the wind and the cluster of trees at the top of the hill straining in the breeze and the reflective dark green waters towards the mouth of the creek which set the mood
‘Colour is not colour unless it is properly chosen’. KW’s use of colour in this work is arresting with an almost impenetrable intensity. The colours establish the mood of the work, the combination of brutal and delicate tones appeals to the senses of the viewer. His colour perceptions are sharpened to a razor edge by the possession of a personal sense of beauty.
KW painted swifly and without hesitation. Pill Creek is painted with a happy ease, almost insouciance, despite the passionate, the almost desperate intensity of its mood, the work of a man on such intimate terms with his craft that he finds it no longer a problem. A good conversationalist uses words so easily that they seem to flow unbidden. KW as shown here used paint in this way, and the painting becomes the mood itself, a melody made visible.
Christopher Wood is best known for his poetic landscapes of Cornwall and Brittany, places where his spirit found liberation and his paintings become a reflection of his mood, a melody made visible. Wood’s mother’s family came from Cornwall and, perhaps it was his mother’s Cornish ancestry, or perhaps his own temperament that drew him to the sea and made the interpretation of its moods his supreme achievement. ‘I love Cornwall, it feels very familiar to me .. I seem to live on the very edge of the world, but what an edge it is. I love this place and could stay here for ever if I had those around me for whom I care”
‘One must be content with saying that Christopher Wood possessed the gift of making everyday things both magical and mystical, and of performing the miracle effortlessly. The ingredients of his magic are things available to us all – boats, white houses, stone walls, fishing nets – but, since the essence if magic is that it is inexplicable, all that can or need be said is that out of these simple ingredients Christopher Wood evolved a series of uniquely lyrical paintings. He is a lyrical poet of the first rank. His Cornish and Breton seas are fretted with a foam that can only be seen through magic casements…These pictures short-circuit straight to the emotions like music’ (EN)
Eric Newton writes in 1938, ‘It is too early to see KW in true perspective. No one knows whether he will prove to have been a giant among the English painters of this century, or merely an artist with an exceptionally attractive lyrical gift. I myself believe that his stature will grow as he recedes from us, for he combines with his lyricism a quality that is even rarer, namely a strength of design that is found in all enduring work. To the construction of a painting his approach is the classical approach. He can build-up a composition, in such a way that it becomes a self-contained world.’
And again in 1958 Newton writes ‘ In 1938 KW’s stature was a comparatively recent discovery. The note of lyrical innocence .. is today just as potent as it was..we can now more easily see KW in perspective, against the background of his generation. The work of his maturity, I am convinced, has a timeless value that makes it a genuine and an important contribution to the mainstream of European art. Once I suspected that behind his delicate, sensitive romanticism was a solid classicism, a gift for formal organisation which gave him true greatness. Today, I am sure of it. KW is an artist with a Keatsian vein of haunted magic. And the firm structure of his paintings is, to me, more impressive now that it was when it first struck me as the backbone of his art. He was not only an inspired mouthpiece of the 1920’s but he laid foundations for the art of the 1950’s. Moreover he had the touch of genius that freed him from the bondages to either.
KW doubtless owes his vein of naïve but impassioned lyricism to the country of his birth. England has never lacked poets. But she has lacked poet painters – poets who could find a nataural mode of expression in the free, untrammelled use of the paintbrush. The cross-currents of his continental life set his art free. His last pictures are painted with a happy ease, almost an insouciance, despite the passionate, almost desperate intensity of their mood, they are the work of a man on such intimate terms with his craft that he finds it no longer a problem. A good conversationalist uses words so easily that they seem to flow unbidden, they are not even vehicles for this thoughts, they are at one with it. KW used paint in this way.’
Friendship with the Nicholsons
The major turning point in CW finding true consistency of style and vision was his friendship with Ben and Winifred Nicholson which had an almost cathartic effect on his life and career. He longed for the kind of mutually supportive relationship he perceived in the Nicholson’s marriage. WN’s deep appreciation of KW’s poetic sensibility nurtured this aspect of his personality, which is strongly expressed in his letters to her, and created an intimate bond between them.
KW first met the Nicholsons towards the end of 1926. Six years his senior, their recognition of his talent was immediate, ‘Crowded together in his small bedroom were an amazing array of canvases. He produced masterpiece upon masterpiece. The Red Dogs, the White Ship, the portrait of Tony, a nude, a number of still and dark Cornish landstrips..we walked home in the high skies. Here was England’s first painter. His vision is true, his grasp is real, his power is life itself.’WN
WN whose rapport with KW was more personal, saw in his work something akin to her own poetic approach. KW soon began to imagine a relationship with a woman such as WN who, though not his physical type, offered tremendous support and inspiration. ‘This is not a declaration of love but Ben will understand so well what I mean when I say you are a real woman and it is just such a friend that I so badly need to make my life complete. He (TG) gives me nearly everything except energy to work…he is the greatest gentleman in the real sense of the word that ever lived….I owe him so much. This last is the reason why I don’t come straight to Cumberland to work ‘alongside you’..I hope you will always be a friend to me, there are so women built on your lines these days.’
For her part WN was instantly obsessed by KW, her relationship based on a passion intensified by chastity. WN was deeply affected by what she saw as KW’s ‘spiritual innocence’. KW perceived in the Nicholsons’ mutually supportive and apparently uncomplicated lifestyle an alternative to his life in Paris with TG. ‘If you knew what it would mean for me to be with you, two real friends at the moment you would pity me for not being able to do so. I have never worked so hard before and am really having a life and death struggle with it never as I knew before. Perhaps it means I am trying new and difficult things and perhaps making a progress…You are lucky being in that lovely county where you are, the cold fresh sunny morning with the first Spring flowers showing up, the delicious feeling of early Spring. What can be more of an inspiration to create beautiful things. Somehow Paris is a little too shut in and unfresh…My brain, life, work, everything is a maelstrom at the moment..I strive and strive to live a completely cut off life from all tiresome worldly things.’
In Winifred’s work colour assumed an alternative expression of the spiritual, and it was this unspoken use of colour and a sense of the genius loci which she identified with in Wood. Wood’s professional life was, in practice and in the writing of its history, to be aligned with Ben Nicholson, whereas his work actually lay closer in spirit and form to Winifred’s. WN’s influence is most clearly seen in the works of 1928 and 1929, where great similarity can be found between some of their brushstrokes, They also both used short rhythmical, background notations in portraits and landscapes. It was KW who introduced the use of a white gesso ground (coverine) which all three would overlay and scrape down or incise to stress surface and texture and show the working processes.
The cross influences between BN’s broad and honest background brushstroke and approach to the facture of the painted surface can be seen in pictures like Cumberland Landscape (EN325) & Pill Creek. In accordance with the search for the primitive and its consequent spiritual purity the emphasis of the brushstroke and the actual material support of the work openly declared the pictures’s representational status. It was the painterly equivalent of the emerging sculptural ethic of ‘truth to materials’ as practised by Moore and to some extent Dobson. The treatment of the surface was in direct opposition to that used by Wood in his Vence landscapes the previous year, which show a fuller, denser, more sophisticated and modelled brushstroke. BN’s work of the same period displays and interest in pictorial structure more carefully schooled by the precepts of Synthetic Cubsim that that of Wood, which like WN’s was looser and openly evoked a sense of place.
On 21st August 1930, aged 29, CW’s life ended tragically under the wheels of a train at Salisbury station, and WN lost the artist she felt closest to. WN believed that KW’s ambition had rendered him indifferent to the consequences of opium abuse. All that mattered was the realisation of his artistic vision. ‘I consider, you know, that he practically gave his life for those pictures. He put everything he knew and every force he possessed into them and then had nothing to battle with his opium difficulty..Anyone who has painted knows that such work can only be done at great cost – incalculable cost’.
Towards the end of her life, Kit’s identity as a poetic visionary was as strong for WN as ever. In 1979 she wrote ‘Is he to us, in this day, the sailor riding out to sea not only round the coasts of Cornwall but into those dark depths of the oceans of the mind?.. he is an individual – he is unique – his work is only cared for (and maybe understood) by people like myself who enjoy the regions between poetry and art’.
This post was written by joecollinson