Essays by James Hyman

Twentieth Century British Figurative Painting

Twentieth Century British Figurative Painting


James Hyman
Exhibition of Twentieth Century British Figurative Painting


This October, Sotheby's London presents a selection of highlights from a major British Council exhibition, which opens in Jerusalem in November. James Hyman, the exhibition organizer, previews the show:

One of the delights of selecting a show such as this is the opportunity to discover little known paintings hidden away in private collections and to catch a glimpse of new pictures before they leave the artist's studio. From 11th November onwards, for three months, over 80 examples of the work of 20th-century British figurative painters will be on view at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Approximately 35 of the paintings are to be shown at Sotheby's London from 2nd to 11th October. Artists represented extend from Walter Sickert and Gwen John in the early part of the century, to young contemporary painters such as Tony Bevan and Celia Paul. Thanks to the generosity of the lenders - mostly private collectors - the exhibition mixes well-known masterpieces with less familiar paintings, many previously unexhibited.

Walter Sickert and Francis Bacon, two artists who have dominated British figurative painting in the first and the second halves of the century respectively, are represented by an little known Sickert, Theatre Scene (1922-24) and Bacon's early masterpiece Head VI (1949).

Taken as a whole, British figurative painting is remarkably diverse. One is impressed by strong individuals and a kaleidescope of achievements. Figuration in the first half of the century is illustrated by striking images by Gwen John, Stanley Spence William Roberts, Matthew Smith and Graham Sutherland, well as two remarkable paintings by L. S. Lowry, The Factory, Morning and The Factory, 5 o'clock, both of which are exhibited here for the first time.

The heart of the exhibition is the work of painters who emerged in the 1940s and 50s, among them artists sometimes described as constituting a "School of London", a group base around a core of Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff. The continuing vitality of these artists is suggested by a focus on recent paintings, mar shown for the first time. Among these are two fine Auerbach The Studios Under Snow (1991), a winter depiction of the entrance to the artist's studio, and the dynamic Portrait of Catherine Lampert 11 (1991), two portraits by Michael Andrews, new paintings by Howard Hodgkin including Reading in Bed (1990-91), and two Kossoffs, a poignant Head of Chaim (1989) and Outside Kilburn Underground (1985), a major depiction of Kossoff's favoured London subject. A contrast between early and later paintings by David Hockney provides an indication of the range of his interests, while Sun/Moon Cyclops (1990) by Maggi Hambling typifies her move from overt figuration towards veiled, increasingly private imagery.

Finally, the exhibition ends with younger names. The ambitious, iconic imagery of Tony Bevan is illustrated as are the large-scale domestic interiors by Celia Paul, which indicate the way she elevates the mundane into the epic. Above all, it is the strength of individual vision rather than the shared aims of groups or schools that impresses. On the one hand, British Figurative Painting of the 20th Century commemorates a century of achievement, on the other, it celebrates the ongoing vitality of such painting.

British Figurative Painting of the 20th Century
Sotheby's London, Colonnade Gallery
October 1992

Sothebys Preview, October 1992

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