Christopher Wood (1901–30), billed as the great white hope of British Modernism, who perished by his own hand before his full potential could be explored. Friend of Ben Nicholson, with whom he supposedly ‘discovered’ the naïve painter Alfred Wallis in 1928, he was a Europeanised sophisticate who knew Picasso and Cocteau and dabbled in Cubism and Surrealism. He was a talented painter with a penchant for harbour scenes, but, as this fascinating exhibition suggests, his gifts have been exaggerated (no doubt because of his romantic life story), while the achievement of his older contemporary Cedric Morris (1889–1982) has been marginalised and largely ignored. Morris is pigeonholed as a charming if slightly artless flower painter and plantsman, a peripheral figure, whereas Wood is placed at the hub of English avant-garde art. In fact, the reverse is just as true, and the reality lies somewhere in between.
Morris, who had been visiting Cornwall since 1919, knew Wallis before he was recognised by Wood and Nicholson as the radical new direction for British Modernism. What Wood & co. made such a fuss about, Morris absorbed quite naturally. (And it should be noted in passing that the natural painter never makes such good art historical copy as the artist with an agenda.) This exhibition allows us to see for the first time how Morris anticipated Wood, and painted very similar subjects with equal, if not greater, panache. Actually, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition with an excellent selection of paintings by both artists, and a wall of drawings as an added bonus.
From the very beginning of the display, where the visitor is confronted by a pair of self-portraits, the tone of revisionism is established. Wood’s self-portrait offers him up as a florid-faced youth confronting the world with self-conscious bravado, his red-tipped paintbrush held between his legs like an extension of his masculinity.