Red Tree, 1936 by Graham Sutherland
Oil on canvas
56.5 x 92 cm
Signed; titled on reverse
Zwemmer Gallery, London.
Marlborough Fine Art, London.
Collection of British Petroleum Company, London (acquired in 1965).
Private collection, UK.
1937, An Exhibition of Paintings, London, Thomas Agnew & Sons, London, cat. no.30 (as Tree no.2, lent by Zwemmer Gallery, London).
1951, Contemporary British Painting: A Festival of Britain Exhibition, City Art Gallery, Bristol, cat. no.73.
1965, Sutherland, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Turin, Italy, cat.no.1, ill. p.33 (lent by British Petroleum Company Collection, London).
1982, Graham Sutherland, Tate, London, cat. no.53, ill. p.77, with tour to Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt, Germany.
1986, Graham Sutherland: The Early Years 1921-40, Goldsmith's Gallery, London, cat. no.82 (lent by British Petroleum Company Collection, London).
1987, British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, cat. no.173, ill. p.262 (lent by British Petroleum Company Collection, London).
2005, Graham Sutherland Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-50, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, cat. no.18, ill.p.77 and toured to Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham.
2013, Exultant Strangeness: Graham Sutherland Landscapes, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, ill.p.23 and toured to Crane Kalman Gallery, London.
Myfanwy EVANS (ed.). The Painter's Object, Curwen Press, London, 1937, p.37 (as Painting).
John HAYES. The Art of Graham Sutherland, Phaidon, Oxford, 1980, ill. pl.25.
Roger BERTHOUD. Graham Sutherland. A Biography, Faber & Faber, London, 1982, p.89.
Surrealism helped me to realise that forms which interested me existed already in nature, and were waiting for me to find them...
Graham Sutherland, quoted in Andrew Causey, 'Graham Sutherland Explains His Art', Illustrated London News CCXVIII, 19th February 1966, p.30.
In 1936, the year he exhibited at the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, Graham Sutherland produced two highly important paintings which bear the title Red Tree. The inspiration came from a newly discovered Surrealist appreciation of the natural, organic found object: 'The one field in which the Surrealists helped me to widen my range was in their propagation of the idea that there was worthy subject matter for painting in objects the painter would never have looked at before' (Sutherland quoted in Andrew Causey, 'Graham Sutherland Explains His Art', Illustrated London News CCXVIII, 19th February 1966, p.30). These two oils are among Sutherland’s earliest major paintings; prior to this his output had predominantly consisted of finely engraved Romantic rural scenes (lot 15), and Modernist re-interpretations of the British landscape tradition as represented by the likes of Samuel Palmer.
Herbert Read surmised: ‘A Nation which has produced two superrealists as William Blake and Lewis Carroll is to the manner born. Because our art and literature is the most romantic in the world, it is likely to become the most superrealistic. The English contribution to this exhibition is comparatively tentative, but our poets and our painters have scarcely become conscious of this international movement. Now that it has been revealed in all its range and irrationality, they may recover, shall we say, the courage of their instincts’ (Herbert Read, International Surrealist Exhibition (exhibition catalogue), London, New Burlington Galleries, July 1936).
The arrival of the Surrealist movement in Britain evidently had a profound effect upon Sutherland: the organic forms perhaps being indebted to Yves Tanguy, the radical use of form to Picasso. Of particular note is the judicious application of black pigment, which serves to heighten the warm red ground, and would become a trademark of Sutherland’s painting. For Kenneth Clark, who owned the pendant to this work, Sutherland had a rare and astute ability to combine the British Romantic tradition with the poetry of Surrealism: ‘Poetical painting should come naturally to the English; actually, it is rare…Graham Sutherland does so. His colour and design are a joy to the eye, but they exist and acquire their force through his magical vision of nature’ (Kenneth Clark quoted in Recent Works of Graham Sutherland (exhibition catalogue Rosenberg and Helft, London, 1938).
Red Treemarks the beginning of the art for which Sutherland is renowned: dramatic renderings of natural forms, from thorns to branches and hills, which stand alongside the poetry of Dylan Thomas and, later, paintings such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon (circa 1944, Tate, London, fig.1) as important, powerful and often brutal symbols in the revival of the Romantic tradition in Modern Britain. The imagery which Sutherland developed in these early oils run in parallel to those of Henry Moore, and would exert a strong influence on Francis Bacon. Sutherland had first met the young Bacon in the early 1940s and much has been written about their relationship (see Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland Patterns of Affinity in British Culture of the 1940s, Yale University Press, 2005). They worked especially closely on the theme of crucifixion in the mid-1940s, with Sutherland working on a commission for St Matthew's church in Northampton and Bacon producing his aforementioned masterpiece. Bacon's work from that same period of collaboration is certainly indebted to the anthropomorphic forms of the present work. Sutherland was keen to help the young Bacon to make the right introductions in the art world and he famously arranged for Bacon to meet Lucian Freud in 1945 on a train platform at Victoria on their way to stay with Sutherland in Pembrokeshire.
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