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Christopher Wood - Biography and Legacy

English Painter

Christopher Wood Photo
Movements and Styles: Primitivism in Art, Post-Impressionism

Born: April 7, 1901 - Knowsley, Liverpool, England

Died: August 21, 1930 - Salisbury, Wiltshire, England

Biography

Childhood

Christopher (also known as Kit) Wood was born John Christopher Wood on April 7, 1901 in Knowsley, near Liverpool. He was born to parents Clare and Lucius Wood; his father was a medical doctor who worked as a general practitioner.

At the age of fourteen, during his school days at Marlborough College, following an accident while playing football, Wood contracted septicemia. It was whilst recovering from this illness that he started to draw, greatly encouraged by his mother.

Following brief thoughts of pursuing a medical career, Wood instead started to study architecture at Liverpool University from 1918. It was here he met the renowned and successful British painter, Augustus John, and it was said to be John who encouraged Wood to become a painter.

Early Training and Work

Wood left his architectural studies at Liverpool University after only one year. Upon the invitation of Alphonse Kahn, an art collector based in Paris, the young aspiring artist moved to France and began to study drawing at the highly reputable Académie Julian. At the age of 20, and shortly after arriving in Paris, Wood excitedly wrote to his mother reassuring her that he had found his vocation. "Dearest Mother", he wrote, "I have decided to try and be the greatest painter that has ever lived."

Paris proved to be a liberation for Wood, not only because of the vibrant community of artists searching for a new direction after the devastation of the First World War, but also because of the promiscuous sexual emancipation of Paris in the 1920s which allowed Wood the freedom to explore his own ambiguous sexuality.

In Paris he soon met the Chilean Diplomat, Antonio de Gandarillas, his first male lover, with whom he lived, and with whom he was able to come to terms with his bisexuality. Gandarillas, married, himself bisexual, supported Wood financially while Wood went about establishing himself in the art world. Even after their sexual relationship had ended, the two men remained close friends throughout Wood's life.

Gandarillas introduced Wood to Pablo Picasso, Serge Diaghilev, and Jean Cocteau. Jean Cocteau, a fellow-homosexual and with whom Wood began to share a studio and a lover - Jean Bourgoint, the hero Paul in Cocteau's novel Les Enfants Terribles - was to prove to be an important early influence on his work. Cocteau's encouragement proved invaluable, as did his love for Wood's work. Cocteau praised the immediacy of Wood's early paintings of which he went on to describe, "Before the canvases you don't think, you live. No subtle problem poses itself here. A bunch of flowers is a bunch of flowers, smell it. A street is a street, walk down it." As a more negative aspect of his influence, Cocteau is the friend of Wood credited with introducing him to using opium. Believed to have a liberating effect and to heighten artistic creativity, the drug was used by many artists at the time. Unfortunately for Wood however, he became addicted to the substance and his overuse of opium is likely to have contributed to the development of serious psychosis.

Wood spent the following two years traveling around Europe and North Africa with Gandarillas, returning to England in 1924. His father's medical practice was now based in Broad Chalke in Wiltshire, and it was there, whilst visiting, that Wood completed his first major works on canvas.

Portrait of Constant Lambert by Christopher Wood, Oil on Canvas (1926), National Portrait Gallery, London

As an early measure of his success, in 1926 Wood received a commission to create designs for Constant Lambert, a young twenty-year old English composer who had been commissioned to write a ballet for Romeo and Juliet by Diaghilev. Wood's commission was secured despite competition with a selection of more established older English artists, including Wyndham Lewis and Augustus John. Sadly, however, over a dispute with Diaghilev and Wood's refusal to compromise, his designs were never used.

Mature Period

Wood returned to London in 1926 where he met the English Painter, Ben Nicholson. Nicholson had recently taken over the Seven and Five Society (seven painters and five sculptors), a group of artists formed in opposition to the growing influence of European art in England. The society hadn't been very successful since its formation in the early 1920s. However, within a year of Ben Nicholson's leadership and Wood's involvement and paintings placed at the heart of its revival, the society was soon hailed by the art critic, Frank Rutter, as "the most important group of young artists with advanced ideas."

Ben Nicholson and his wife Winifred, also an artist, soon became life-long friends. It was Ben who encouraged Wood to be more daring in his work, which would lead him to develop his own distinctive naïve style. While Ben became an inspiration for his painting (although stylistically he appears to share more in common with Winifred), Winifred became a great personal friend and confidant, becoming a vital support for Wood during a failed love affair with Meraud Guinness. Meraud was an English painter who had had an enviable early training; she studied at the Slade with Henry Tonks, with Alexander Archipenko in New York, and later under the tutor ledge of Francis Picabia at the Académie Julian in Paris. Furthermore, as an heiress to a large fortune and member of the Guinness family, Wood, noted for his romantic idealism, had hoped to elope with her. Bowing to family disapproval and pressure to end the relationship, Meraud dashed all Wood's hopes. She went on to marry the Chilean artist Álvaro Guevara in 1929, although she separated from him a year later after the birth of their daughter.

In 1927 Wood exhibited work alongside Ben Nicholson at the prestigious Beaux Arts Gallery in London with noted critical success all round. Feeling encouraged, Wood went on to become a member of The London Group, a group formed in 1913 by artists including Walter Sickert, Jacob Epstein, and Wyndham Lewis. Membership of the group was important, not only for the prestige it gave Wood within the London art scene, but also for providing the chance of becoming part of an artistic movement, the aim of which was to counter what had previously been traditional institutional dominance over art in England.

It was also in 1927 that Nicholson introduced Wood to art collector and enthusiast, Jim Ede, who became a great friend and collector of Wood's work. Ede went on to house his great collection of Wood's work and that of other St Ives artists, including Ben and Winifred Nicholson, at his famous Kettle's Yard Gallery, now part of the University of Cambridge.

In 1928, Wood and Nicholson went on a painting expedition to Cumberland and to St Ives. It was in St Ives that they met and became ardent fans of Alfred Wallis, a primitive painter and retired fisherman based close by, whose naïve style had an important influence on Wood's work. Wallis was untrained as an artist and had started to paint in his seventies following the death of his wife. With heartfelt poignancy, he became a painter, he told Jim Ede, "for company."

As well as feeling home with his new entourage of English artist friends, Wood fell in love with the Cornish landscape, and in particular with the fishing village of St Ives. Wood always said that he had Cornish ancestry on his mother's side, and believed that it was from these genetic roots from where he inherited his great and ever enduring love of the sea and of boats.

Portrait of <i>Frosca Munster</i> by Christopher Wood (also known as <i>The Blue Necklace</i>), Oil on Canvas (1928)

In 1928, upon returning to Paris, Wood met Frosca Munster, a Russian émigré. Even though she was married, the two started an affair, which continued until Wood's death. The couple met whenever they could, with meetings in London and Paris. Munster also stayed with Wood in St Ives whilst with Ben and Winifred Nicholson. The Tate owns a large archive of the couple's love letters and telegrams sent from Wood to Frosca, as well as other ephemera including exchanged love tokens. Frosca aptly called her lover "Kit of the Woods" paying respect to his untamable, performative, and larger than life character.

Late Period

Having by this point established a mature and developed primitive style aided by his contact with Wallis, by 1929 Wood was preparing for a solo show to be held at the Tooth's Gallery in April of that year. At the private view he met the collector and gallery owner, Lucy Wertheim. Wertheim would go on to collect a number of Wood's works as well as becoming an important champion of his work in the London art world. He acknowledged her support, commenting, "I know that my future as a painter from now on will be bound up with your own, and I shall become great through you!"

Wood then spent the rest of 1929 traveling around Brittany. In May 1930, he showed his work alongside new work by Ben Nicholson at the Galerie Bernheim in Paris. Although this exhibition proved to be less of a commercial success than the artist friends had hoped, Wood remained full of energy and immediately following the exhibition went on a second trip to Brittany where he spent the next two months painting prolifically in order to create a collection of new work for another solo show with Lucy Wertheim. In July, Wertheim traveled to Paris to meet Wood and to choose paintings for the show intended to be the inaugural exhibition at her new Wertheim Gallery in London due to open in October. And although he later apologized, Wood complicated this meeting by asking for more money than Wertheim could reasonably provide.

Sadly, and likely the reason for his quarrel with his gallerist, by this time, Wood had begun to suffer from acute paranoia and psychosis; he carried a revolver with him at all times. He returned to England with his paintings in August and late in the month he traveled to Salisbury to meet his mother and sister for lunch, and to show them his new work. After lunch, whilst waiting at Salisbury railway station for his train back to London, Wood tragically and purposely threw himself onto the tracks just as the train was pulling into the station. He died instantly. In deference to his mother's wishes his death was reported as an accident. The jury at the inquest, however, returned a verdict of "suicide while of unsound mind." The Coroner prosaically remarked, "the man was clearly out of his senses".

Ben and Winfred Nicholson were bereft and engaged a private detective to piece together the last few days of Wood's life to find out what had led to his suicide. After receiving the private detective's first report they abandoned their investigation. Shortly after Wood's death Ben Nicholson wrote, "When you walk in the country with Christopher Wood, the fields become a much more intense green and in London the buses a much more pungent red... I miss him more than I can say. I could have parted with almost anyone but him."

Most have speculated that opium was his downfall and the direct cause of his emotionally instability and paranoia. As he so eloquently wrote of his executioner in a letter to Lucy Wertheim, opium is "the only resource of quietness which takes my mind out of that awful turmoil of ideas and colors that go on in my busy head." It is said that shortly before his death he had been hallucinating and tormented by demons who were following him around; despite being a sensitive character from the beginning, such enhanced negative experiences were the direct result of his out of control addiction which ultimately caused excruciating anxiety and in turn a sudden preference to die rather than to live on.

Following his death, the exhibition planned at the Wertheim Gallery for October was cancelled. A memorial exhibition for Wood was then held at the gallery in February of the following year. In 1936, a major retrospective was held at the Redfern Gallery at the New Burlington Galleries in London, and in 1938 Wood's paintings were shown at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Christopher Wood was buried at All Saints Church in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire. His gravestone was carved by the artist and sculptor Eric Gill.

Legacy

Christopher Wood, Photograph by Peter North (1930)

Christopher Wood's legacy is born of a combination of his prodigious talent and the romance of his short life lived during the crucial 1920s, at the heart of a post war revolution in modern art. Having met and made friends with many of the great artists of the period, including Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Wyndham Lewis, Augustus John and Ben Nicholson, Wood made his own special contribution to the quintessential history of English art at this time.

His ambition, which he articulated with the naïve certainty of youth when writing home to his mother, stating that he was to become the "greatest painter that ever lived". This single-minded determinism inspired an attitude of hard work and in turn resulted in his original primitive style. Alongside Winifred Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, he achieved what was a new way of looking at the world through a glass tinted with great simplicity and humility. Having absorbed what he saw in Paris in the 1920s, Wood then added to his art a particularly English lyricism, stating "the Bankshead (home to the Nicholsons) life is the painter's life". He preferred a certain basic everyday existence spent immersed in rugged landscape, rather than being sheltered by the charmed existence of Paris.

Wood was never part of a mainstream art movement, although it is arguable that the St Ives Group, with whom he worked closely, are now recorded by history as being just that. Eclectic in his style, Wood gleaned inspiration from various other figurative painters including, most importantly Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso. Overall, he created a very individual style, which the writer Sebastian Faulks, in an interesting non-fiction account of Wood's life called The Fatal Englishman (1996), called "modernism in an English idiom, the exhilaration of something bright and joyful achieved in a mysterious and oddly menacing way." Wood's legacy is perfectly aligned to that of a cult hero. His promise, of which there was much in its intensity and dedication, is disappointing cut short by the self-destructive nature of an addict. Some may in this case long for more, but the canvases that he leaves behind provide in many respects limitless food for thought.

Most Important Art

Quotes

"Dearest mother, you ask me what I am going to do: I have decided to try and be the greatest painter that has ever lived"
"I want to paint everything which touches the human being."
"I am absolutely on the verge of the real thing after what I saw & learnt at Banks Head [Ben and Winifred Nicholson's house]."
"I am not surprised that no one likes [Alfred] Wallis, no one liked Van Gogh for a long time, did they?"
"I seem to live on the edge of the world. But what a world it is, I love this place [St Ives] and could stay here for ever if I had those around me for whom I care."
"Opium is the only resource of quietness which takes my mind out of that awful turmoil of ideas and colours that go on in my busy head."

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