If William Coldstream (1909-87) was a dull painter, as he is sometimes thought to be, he was most certainly not a dull man. An artist who spent much of his life in a three-piece suit, an administrator with ‘an irresistible urge to turn a serious story into farce’, he was captivating in conversation, a natural entertainer whose slightly shrivelled charm reminded more than one person of Fred Astaire. Described by his friend W. H. Auden as one ‘whose tongue is the most malicious I know’, Coldstream was also self-effacing as a teacher, modest, inhibited, given to depression and nervous breakdown, intimidating to some, fascinating, kindly. A complicated man, he had a complicated (and rather unsatisfactory) love-life, handled by his biographer with an admirable balance between frankness and discretion.
If he was a dull painter it was deliberately so — he chose to be prosy — ‘anyone’, he said, ‘could get away with poetry’; but at his best, as Bruce Laughton puts it, the controlling mind worked in harmony with a lyric sensibility. Espousing throughout his career a kind of realist painting that was spectacularly out of kilter with the fashionable artistic preoccupations of the day (he admitted later that there was an element of snobbism in painting realistic pictures when so few were doing it), he nevertheless presided — ‘the prime minister of British art’ — over a particularly fruitful and innovative period of British artistic life, scrupulous in not imposing his own artistic views on others. He was head of the Slade from 1949-75, chaired the Coldstream Reports which re-organised art-school teaching in the 1960s, held innumerable trusteeships and exercised his quick-wittedness and diplomatic skills on innumerable committees. In between times he painted soldiers and bishops and captains of industry, very slowly.
Coldstream wanted to be a doctor like his father (who was also a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society and an excellent knitter), but although he went to a prep school so reverential about games that a boy was expelled for farting as he boxed, his formal education more or less ended when he caught rheumatic fever at the age of 11, and he did not pass the necessary exams.
As a student at the Slade Coldstream displayed no natural facility, as he recognised later, and was sent by the martinet Tonks to take lessons with a sign-painter. But he was a dashing figure, and exerted a strong attraction on his contemporaries. Having whizzed through a Matisse period and become a protégé of Roger Fry, he emerged in the Thirties with a social conscience, and, with doubts about the usefulness of the artist to society — especially in view of what he saw as the growing inaccessibility of art to the ‘ordinary person’ — he joined the GPO film unit and worked on several films, including Night Mail with Auden. In 1937, feeling that ‘ordinary realistic painting’ had been ‘completely discredited’, Coldstream, with Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore, started the Euston Road School of Painting and Drawing — a counterbalance to the self-expressve free-for-all of contemporary art. When ‘anything goes’ something will inevitably be lost: in this case the close and accurate observation of the material world that had been the mainstay of art for so long. They wanted to remedy this. Coldstream became an official war artist in 1943, following the Allied advance through Italy and, aware of what he called ‘the infectious enchantment of war’, producing some of his most beautiful — though notably unwarlike — landscapes.
David Sylvester ranked him with Bacon and Freud among ‘British Modernist Realists’; Adrian Stokes thought him ‘a great modern master’, as ‘extreme and isolated as Rothko’; Giacometti admired his concentration but found his vision ‘ordinaire’. Coldstream painted always from nature, landscapes and a few wonderful nudes, but said he particularly liked doing commissioned portraits because of ‘the feeling that someone really wants what you’re going to do’ and because it obliged him to turn up and paint. He devised a peculiar technique that involved obsessive measuring, the crosses and dashes of these ‘registration marks’, sometimes in vermilion, becoming progressively more conspicuous (the mild-looking Provost of University College is pinned in his chair by a particularly vicious measuring line under his chin) — curiously warring against the desire for correct and impersonal recording of observation that he strove for and found, he says, extraordinarily difficult. Like a Baudelairian dandy he eschewed the expression of emotion and ‘aspired to insensitivity’, hoping that some truth about the sitter might emerge through his rigorously objective process.
Bruce Laughton, a professor of art history in Canada, was a pupil of Coldstream’s at Camberwell in 1946, and although clearly under his spell keeps his partiality under control and has written a well- balanced study of the artist and his life that is blissfully free of academic jargon, well- designed (though some of the many illustrations are too small), and peppered with typographical errors on almost every page.