I’ve been going over a little information on the painter Sir William Coldstream( 1908-1987) for some of my classes next week. Traditionally artists have used many systems of measurement as an aid to accuracy, Coldstream is one of only two examples of artist’s I can think of who not only measured every last, tiny detail in their paintings (Euan Uglow, one of his pupils is the other) but also left the construction marks dotted around over the finished picture for all to see.  The critic David Sylvester likened them to the dots in a painting by Seurat, the implication of which rather horrified Coldstream who preferred to describe them as being the equivalent of not having tucked ones shirt in properly, ( Back in the days before that was a fashion statement!)   After that, he tended to cover them up.  The two paintings that I’ve reproduced here took 2 years to do and given what I know about his method I don’t doubt that they took a lot of work. His word for it was ” prosey” ( “Anyone could get away with poetry”) the idea being that by a careful measurement of reality a sense of the marvellous is bound to come through.  I’d hesitate to say reproduction of reality because they’re not photographs and there are many artists with more of a photographic style that would, I imagine, measure less obsessively.

Obsessiveness can still be interesting however. The following is a quote from “The Artist at Work” by Colin St John Wilson.  This book describes the authors experiences of sitting for portraits by William Coldstream and another English painter, Michael Andrews.

“There were, it seems, three kinds of measurement being sort.  Firstly (and not so frequent), a direct check of accurate correspondence between what is registered by a thumbline in the cone of vision and what is marked on the canvas.  Secondly a comparison between significant measurements of this kind (“I get intense pleasure when I’m painting in just saying that this is two-thirds that or that is one sixteenth more than that”.) Thirdly, the comparing of dimensions in which the acts of measurement went in pairs–seeking out and stressing simmilarities. ‘if you get a number of measurements, both on the surface of a canvas and then imagined measurements to some extent in depth working together, then it gives you a kind of kick…And then this system builds up and you build on it…it is a kind of play acting at sums, in a way, which gives one pleasure.’

He was one of the founders , along with Claude Rogers, Victor Passmore and Graham Bell of a private art school at Fitzroy street in 1938 which later became known as the Euston Rd school. This was devoted  to the depiction of urban subjects in a realist way, partly as a reaction against some of the avant garde art of the time.(The paintings here are from a much later period.)  He went on to be a hugely influential figure in English art education.  To quote the art critic David Sylvester”He has sat on, in many cases chaired, advisory committees and boards of trustees–so many of them that the list of the honorary official positions he has held reads like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan” and “so he has become not just a pillar but a veritable collonade of the Establishment.  What with quietly running, besides the Slade, practically the whole art world in this country, he has had little time for the practise of art.” ( Coldstream was the head of the Slade School of Art from 1949-75 and chair of the Coldstream reports which reorganised art school teaching in the 1960s.)  It’s probably because of this that when I think of the observational drawing I was sometimes encouraged to do at art college during the eighties that I think of his work, which was a pity as it put me off measuring of any kind for years afterwards!  How is it possible that someone could spend two years on a painting like “Seated Nude” carefully measuring all the time and not notice that the head is too big for the rest of the body?

Which was a pity. The whole business of making observational drawings, as I now realise, can be so fraught with difficulty that some kind of measuring is nearly always essential. It’s certainly more of a confidence boost to be able to find your own mistakes than have somebody else point them out to you.  What seems right at the time is not always right later on and there’s certainly no reason why one can’t be loose but still keep a little accuracy. The one doesn’t exclude the other.

I’ll finish with a scan of a “Coldstreamesque” student life drawing by David Hockney from the 1950’s.

Hockney life drawing