Christopher Wood (1901-1930) – A fatal Englishman

Christopher (Kit) Wood was a British artist who, with his friend Ben Nicholson, helped to launch the St Ives school of painting back in the 1930’s when they spent some time in the small Cornish town. There, in 1928, they discovered the self taught “naive” painter, Alfred Wallis who had a major influence on their work.

I’d seen a number of his paintings during recent visits to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. When I discovered that the author Sebastian Faulks had written about Christopher Wood in his book “The Fatal Englishman”, I thought I’d get hold of a copy as I was interested in finding out more about his life. The book isn’t just about Wood, it actually contains three brief “biographical sketches”, also covering the lives of Richard Hilary, a pilot who flew Spitfires during the Second World War  and Jeremy Wolfenden, who got mixed up in espionage in Russia during the 1950’s.

Christopher Wood was born in Huyton in 1901 where his father was working as a doctor. Today Huyton is part of the Liverpool sprawl and is probably best known as the centre of Harold Wilson’s constituency. At that time it was a town out in the countryside. He was sent to public school at Malvern College and then went on to study architecture at Liverpool University, but dropped out to devote himself to painting, apparently encouraged by Augustus John. He went to London to work for a fruit importer but soon ended up in Paris studying art, mixing with the likes of Picasso and Matisse.

I was curious to find out how  a middle class Englishman from the provinces ended up in Paris. Unfortunately Faulks’ narrative didn’t really enlighten me. He jumps from London to Paris within the space of a few sentences without any proper explanation. My personal view is that he got his opportunity via the artistic equivalent of the casting couch. He became friendly with Alphonse Kahn, a wealthy, homosexual art collector and patron, and ‘one of the best-connected men in the whole of the Paris art world’ who took him under his wing. Faulks’ view is that he didn’t have a sexual relationship with Kahn, but doesn’t provide any evidence in support of this view. But I find it hard to believe that Kahn would have plucked Wood out from obscurity out of pure philanthropy.

In Paris he became the lover of Antonio de Gandarillas, a Chilean Diplomat, who supported his artistic endeavours, enrolling him in art schools, building him a studio in London, and introducing him to opium. In Paris he met artists including Picasso and Jean Cocteau (with whom he may have had a sexual relationship). He was bisexual and also had relationships with women, including Meraud Guinness, from the aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, although the marriage was effectively scuppered by her mother.

He became friends with Ben Nicholson and his first wife Winifred. According to Faulks he had a particularly close relationship with Winifred. They painted together and Ben Nicholson encouraged him to paint more experimentally.

Reading through the book I found myself disliking Christopher Wood. He became sucked into a hedonistic lifestyle after he went to Paris, mixing with some decadent characters and becoming addicted to opium. He was living in a world very remote from his middle class provincial origins in Huyton. His death, killed by a train at Salisbury station after a meeting with his mother was probably suicide.

But disliking Wood as an individual doesn’t mean that I have to dislike his art. He was a talented painter and played an important role in helping to, establish Modern Art in the UK. He painted a large number of colourful paintings in the Celtic regions of England and France – Cornwall and Brittany. A good selection of his paintings can be viewed on the web here.

File:Constant Lambert by Christopher Wood.jpg

Portrait  of Constant Lambert 1926 Source: Wikipedia

P1040335

Building the boats 1930 at  Kettle’s Yard

His pictures are bright and colourful and many of them are of everyday scenes of working people and their environment by the coast in Cornwall and Brittany, but he also painted portraits, still lives and other subjects. I’m no expert on art but, to me, his style was influenced by the Post Impressionists and the Fauves but seems to be untouched by Picasso. He was also heavily influenced by the primitive style of Arthur Wallace. However, although taking these influences on board he clearly developed his own style. It’s a pity that he died so young as he had the potential to further develop and possibly become a more significant artist.

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