Christopher Wood

Christopher Wood, Self Portrait 1927.

Christopher Wood 1901-1930. Having left my old smoke-filled industrial town of Bolton in September 1965 I arrived at Trent Park College, North London. I thought I had landed on a completely different planet ! My inmates at Ludgrove Hall of Residence would by enlarge seldom surface from their beds on a Saturday morning before 12 noon. As for me…….filled with an air of exploration, I would board the tube train at Cockfosters and traverse the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square. Here, the world of Mayfair art galleries overwhelmed me with excitement and inspiration.

On Saturday 13th November 1965 I visited the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street, Mayfair. Yes the date is easily memorable as I kept a diary of my gallery visits. That day I was introduced to the art of Christopher Wood

My diary visit to the Redfern. Redfern, invitation to the opening of the exhibition (no I wasn’t invited !). Newspaper review of the exhibition, sorry it’s not easy to read.

Christopher Wood was born in Knowsley to Doctor Lucius and Clare Wood, Dr Wood was a doctor on the Knowsley Estate. Wood was educated at Freshfield Preparatory School, Formby before spending a term at Marlborough College, Wiltshire. A one-term sojourn at Malvern College, studying medicine, followed in 1918 before a transfer to Liverpool University studying architecture. He left Liverpool within his first year .

At Liverpool University, Wood met Augustus John who encouraged him to be a painter. In 1920 Wood took a job with a fruit importation company, here he met art collector Alphonse Kahn who invited him to Paris, initially living with Kahn on the Bois de Boulogne.

In the 1920s his father was running a general practice in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire, and Wood painted a series of canvases there including Cottage in BroadchalkeAnemones in a Window, Broadchalke, and The Red Cottage, Broadchalke.

Cottage in Broadchalke and The Red Cottage, Broadchalke.

J.A. Gandarillas by Christopher Wood 1926.

Wood was bisexual. In the early summer of 1921, Wood met José Antonio Gandarillas Huici, a Chilean diplomat. Gandarillas was a married homosexual fourteen years older than Wood, their relationship lasted through Wood’s life.

In 1922 Wood and Gandarillas travelled extensively in Europe and North Africa. Returning to Paris Wood moved into Gandarilla’s house at 60 La Montaigne although he kept his studio on the Rue des Sant Peres.

In 1922, less than a year after arriving in the French capital, he explained in a letter to his mother that most modern artists strove to interpret their subjects as though ‘through the eyes of the smallest child who sees nothing except that which would strike them as being the most important’. The published letters of Van Gogh also had a huge impact, in particular the comparison he made between the solitary struggle of the artist and the hard-worn existence of rural peasants, who he felt were closer to nature and therefore less morally corrupt. Reflecting on the purity of Van Gogh’s ideas, Wood commented to his mother  ‘He must have had such a beautiful mind, so broad nothing petty could have entered his head, otherwise he could never have painted.’  

In 1923 Wood and Gandarillas embarked on a motor tour of Scotland. Wood also visited an exhibition in London including works by Paul Nash, Matthew Smith and Walter Sickert, Wood regularly met with Augustus John. In 1925 Wood spent some time with Picasso who gave him advice on drawing. Returning to London, Wood begins creating designs for the Ballet Russes’s first English-themed ballet.

In 1926 Wood embarked on his first heterosexual affair with Jeanne Bourgoint, who poses for nude studies and portraits.

Christopher Wood ‘Jeanne Bourgoint’ – Woman With Fox’.  1929

In August 1926 Wood made his first trip to Cornwall travelling with Gandarillas, first to the Scilly Isles then on to St Ives in the September. He meets Ben and Winifrid Nicholson.  

In 1927 his plans to elope and marry heiress Meraud Guinness were frustrated by her parents whereupon he required emotional support from Winifred Nicholson. Meraud went on to marry Chilean painter Álvaro Guevara in 1929.  In 1928 Wood met Frosca Munster, a married Russian émigré wo eventually becomes his lover.

China Dogs.       The Harbour.     Loading Boat St Ives.    All 1926.

A growing relationship between Wood and the Nicholson’s saw them sharing exhibitions and subsequently painting together in Cumberland and Cornwall in 1928.  The Nicholson’s had acquired a stone house named Bankshead in Cumbria in 1923.  Wood arrived at Bankshead in the spring of 1928.  Suitably inspired Wood wrote “I am absolutely on the verge of the real thing after what I learnt and saw at Bankshead”.

Bankshead.       Cumberland Landscape.      Cumberland landscape (Northrigg Hill).     All 1928.

In August 1928 Wood and the Nicholson’s relocate back to St Ives. Wood is joined by Munster and they take a small cottage overlooking Porthmeor Beach. Wood forms a friendship with self trained artist and retired Seaman Alfred Wallis.

Wood had his first solo exhibition at Arthur Touth and Sons in London in April 1929 meeting future friend and patron Lucy Wertheim at a private view. Wertheim purchased a picture and soon became one of his biggest supporters, buying up his work. For his part Wood apparently appreciated the support, telling Wertheim at her birthday party that: “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 made his first visit to Brittany in July 1929 painting there until October. In May 1930 he had a largely unsuccessful exhibition with Nicholson in Paris. In June and July he made a second visit to Brittany to create new work. Later in July Wertheim travelled to meet Wood in Paris, to choose the paintings for a one-man show that would be the opening exhibition at her new Wertheim Gallery in October. While discussing the exhibition over lunch the day after her arrival, Wood issued her with an ultimatum: “I want you to promise to guarantee me twelve hundred pounds a year from the time of my exhibition, one hundred pounds a month being the least I can live on. If I can’t have this sum I’ve made up my mind to shoot myself”. When she complained, he begged her forgiveness, and they went to review the paintings again.

On Christmas Day 1929 Jeanne Bourgoint committed suicide, Wood painted his portrait of her earlier in the year.

Crab Boat, Treboul. 1929. Dancing Sailors 1930. La Page, Treboul. 1930.

In 1930 Wood was painting in Mousehole in Cornwall then went back to Treboul in the middle of June painting more than 40 paintings in less than six weeks. Painting frenetically in preparation for his Wertheim exhibition in London, Wood became psychotic and began carrying a revolver. Wood’s opium smoking, a long-standing habit had by 1930 become an addiction.

PZ 134. Newlyn. The Ship Inn, Mousehole. All 1930.

On 21st August he travelled to meet his mother and sister for lunch at ‘The County Hotel’ in Salisbury and to show them a selection of his latest paintings. After saying goodbye Wood walked onto the platform at Salisbury Railway Station, bought a book from a stall and sat down on a bench to read. He opened and shut the book several times but, unable to concentrate on the words, he began to pace up and down the platform. At 2.10, just as the train known as the Atlantic Coast Express was pulling into the station, Wood threw himself onto the tracks. He died instantly.

Ben Nicholson wrote, shortly after Wood’s death: “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.”

A final furry of painting in Paris in July and August 1930 shows the surrealist direction Wood might have travelled inspired by the work of Georgio de Chirico. His final painting was ‘Zebra and a Parachute’ a lonely, rather melancholic work possibly mirroring  his feelings.

Zebra and Parachute 1930 Christopher Wood

I feel privileged to have viewed Wood’s paintings of Brittany all those years ago. At the time I knew that he died young, I didn’t know the circumstances. Begs the question “What marvellous works could have been painted by such a gifted artist ?”

The Rug Seller, Treboul. 1930.

Graham Bennison 30th November 2020.

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