Young man in a hurry
CHRISTOPHER WOOD: AN ENGLISH PAINTER by Richard Ingleby Allison & Busby, .£25, pp. 295 In this biography of Christopher Wood, Richard Ingleby starts off with an account of his first sight of a disconcertingly brilliant painting by the artist, the telling of which struck me as so gripping it recalled an experience of my own of a similarly startling kind. Looking at i.e Corbusier's buildings at the end of the war, I was horri- fied to find that his Villa Savoye near Paris, one of his most influential works, had been a Nazi HQ during the occupation and was now derelict and used for storing hay. Yet it was then, standing on its first-floor sun-deck, that I had the further shock of realising I was on the very spot of Christo- pher Wood's last and most mysterious painting, 'Zebra and Parachute', and that he was, moreover, the only artist to adopt an example of modern architecture as a setting.
Mystery surrounded almost everything connected with this enigmatic genius, from the moment of his arrival (more or„less by chance, it seems) on the Paris art scene early in 1921, when still only 19, until his horrific suicide nine years later. Neverthe- less, Mr Ingleby, so intrigued by both the painting he'd seen and by the brevity of the artist's life that he wanted to find out more, has, with painstaking research, filled in a great deal of the jigsaw: that he was brought up in Liverpool, had a convention- al enough background, a doctor father, a wealthy mother with Cornish links, keen on games and showing no interest in art until a serious leg injury while playing football at Marlborough in 1915 laid him up at home for two years.
After some attempts at drawing and watercolours during this, and having a go (unsuccessfully) at architecture at Liver- pool University, a sudden impulse to be an artist took hold. The scene cuts to London, a menial job there, finding the way into well-connected artistic circles around Soho pubs (haunts of Augustus John and his cronies) and Chelsea. And then to Paris — another mystery: he met Alphonse Kahn (an 'old friend', he claims in the first of scores of letters to his mother), an immensely rich man right at the centre of the avant-garde who put Wood up in his huge house on the edge of the Bois. All in all, this sounds like a very young man with an eye to the main chance; if so, it could also be said that he saw friends in high places as essential to his future as an artist, and about that he was absolutely serious. He enrolled at the Academic Julian imme- diately to take a course in life-drawing (a fundamental, he believed, to painting) and rented a studio from some well-to-do English people in Montmartre. And, within months of his arrival, he was introduced to Antonio de Gandarillas, another wealthy man, with whom he shared much of the next seven years of his tragically short life. It makes an extraordinary story.
Wood could have had a premonition about his early death: he did everything at a rush — whether meeting everyone of note from Picasso and Cocteau (who turned on his opium addiction) to Max Jacob, travelling around the continent with Gandarillas, and finding his bearings as an artist under the influence of masterpieces by Van Gogh and azanne, Picasso and Matisse. However, the view that he only really found himself as a painter when he left Paris for St Ives in 1926 overlooks some remarkable earlier works like 'La Foire de Neuilly' (1923) and 'The Bather' (1925) that fully confirm his potential: both have favourite rhymes and rhythms that convince one he was an exquisite designer with the eye of a poet.
All the same, the sensational 'China Dogs in a St Ives Window' (where the Godrevy lighthouse pokes up like the white funnel of a ship puffing out clouds of smoke) and (not shown here) 'Ship Leaving a Cornish Harbour' show that he had made an astonishing leap forward: the influences of others had gone: his paintings and intense colours could be by nobody but Christopher Wood.
The fine display of colour reproductions (in addition to many in black and white) clearly trace his development. During his time in Cornwall, he met Ben and Winifred Nicholson and was duly taken up by them — they went overboard for his imagination, for his genius that enabled him to seize on something commonplace — a girl sun- bathing, perhaps, or a simple country scene — and transform it into an idea entirely of his own. When he went, for example, to Cumbria to stay with them, he rushed off 'The Bridge, Westmoreland' (1928) where the hills metamorphose as giant nudes in this exceptionally emotional work; but it captured at once the atmosphere of the place. Or back in London for the final phase, we have the strange 'Yellow Man': the setting is Bury Walk, a little street in Chelsea (he had a house Gandarillas had given him round the corner), and a fairly exact picture of the end with Sydney Street Church in the back- ground is turned into a dream scene by the yellow man.
But it is with his sudden return to France, this time to Treboul in Brittany, that his art took another, somewhat alarm- ing turn. He was working at fever pitch now and 40 paintings came in as many days. With churches appearing in many, one picture in particular, 'Church at Tre- boul', is quite frightening: is that to do with the horizon's inexplicable change in level? And why is 'Zebra and Parachute' as threatening as Van Gogh's 'The Field'? Since the zebra suits the white and sandy setting, it must be the dead figure hanging from the coloured parachute which chills the heart. This was painted after the amaz- ing burst of energy in Treboul. That month, August, he left for London to arrange his first important exhibition at Lucy Wertheim's gallery. On the way he went to see his mother in Salisbury and then, for no known reason, threw himself under the London train.
'Zebra and Parachute' by Christopher Wood, 1930