The Space Behind Them

A contemporary of the British Pop Artists, Patrick Caulfield is at last coming into his own

Michael Prodger

Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) was the quiet man of late 20th-century British painting. He entered the Royal College of Art in 1960, a year after the likes of David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Allen Jones and Derek Boshier, but while they went on to become Sixties faces he kept a lower profile. Although he came to notice in the defining exhibitions of the decade — the Young Contemporaries shows and the The New Generation exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1964 that cemented the reputations of Patrick Procktor and Bridget Riley as well as his college peers — he was never a Pop Artist. 

While his work displayed many Pop Art characteristics — its fascination with mass culture and the techniques of commercial art, for example — he was too contemplative to fit in properly. His interest was less in modernity than in the continuation of Modernism. His artistic heroes were formal painters such as Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger: it was 1920s France that fascinated him rather than 1950s America. 

Now a retrospective at Tate Britain gives the opportunity to see just how distinctive Caulfield was, free of the radio interference generated by his contemporaries. 

Caulfield’s work concentrates above all on the quiet corners of the urban and domestic world. Using flat areas of colour and strong black outlines he pared down household objects (glasses, jugs, lamps, windows) and interiors into gently evocative mises-en-scène. He used a linear style — ”a very old tradition: it’s the simplest method of representation” — and domestic paints to remove the artist’s hand from the pictures and give them an air of objectivity. He was the anonymous observer who rarely portrayed the human figure but rather the spaces people had just vacated and the vacuums they leave behind. 

According to Howard Hodgkin, Caulfield’s pictures nevertheless contain “feelings about what it is to be an artist — about friendship and sociability. He was such a connoisseur of spaces where people gather for pleasure, such as restaurants and bars, and he managed to convey in his paintings the melancholy that can haunt such spaces — born of emptiness and artifice.” In this he not only continued the tradition of the Cubist still life but also reworks Edward Hopper as a painter of modern life whose pictures are detached, ironic and occasionally a little bit sad. 

Nevertheless he was also a technical artist in the sense that he was fascinated by the point at which two-dimensionality and three -dimensionality in painting meet and he was always looking at how simply he could portray his motifs. In the 1960s and 1970s the black outline was paramount but he then moved on to use lozenges of light and shade to suggest the rooms and objects around them. He would also add trompe-l’oeil elements to his interiors-a naturalistic painting or a mural-and unsettle the image.

Caulfield was also a distinguished printmaker and Alan Cristea, who worked with him for some 30 years, is holding a retrospective of his graphic work at his Cork Street gallery to complement the Tate show. Because he was a slow worker screenprinting was integral to Caulfield. His style needed no adjustment for printmaking and indeed some of his prints, such as the enigmatic suite illustrating the free verse of the 19th-century poet Jules Laforgue, are among his best works. 

Caulfield cited Gris as his inspiration because he painted “imagined reality, things remembered and formalised . . . Gris’s vision was highly individual, based on intense personal observation and interpretation.” This pair of exhibitions shows how Caulfield built an art from his own imagined reality. 

As a precursor of the stream of exhibitions starting next year that will mark the First World War, the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg: A Crisis of Brilliance, 1908-1922 looks at a group of young painters who were forced into artistic maturity by the outbreak of hostilities. All six were students together at the Slade School of Art and their generation of rare talent was dubbed by their tutor Henry Tonks as the school’s “second and last crisis of brilliance” (the first was the 1890s class that included Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Augustus John and Percy Wyndham Lewis).

As students the group forged links with the artistic avant-garde-the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Bloomsbury Group-but war did away with their theoretical chatter and concentrated the mind. Paul Nash and C.R.W. Nevinson in particular went on to become painting’s equivalents of Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. It was Nash from the frontline who expressed their role as witnesses: “I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”

Relations between the artists were not always smooth: Mark Gertler, for example, had a long and unrequited infatuation with Dora Carrington and fell out with his erstwhile best friend Nevinson when he too fell in love with her. Gertler would survive the war and become the model for Loerke in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love before committing suicide in 1939, partly due to depression induced by Carrington’s own suicide. The personal links between the painters are part of the exhibition, which includes letters and photographs as well as paintings such as Stanley Spencer’s Unveiling Cookham War Memorial (1922), which has not been on display for 25 years.

This is not, however, an exhibition of war art but rather of painters forced by circumstances into becoming war artists. Indeed the show is underpinned by a shared yearning for pastoral-Gertler’s The Fruit Sorters, Spencer’s Apple Gatherers, Carrington’s The River Pang, Nash’s The Sea Wall-that makes the out-of-frame presence of the war all the more menacing.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"