Monday, November 07, 2011

Christopher Wood, English Painter

The recent BBC film Page Eight, starring Bill Nighy, was a dismal, boring affair but it did introduce me to the work of Christopher Wood – Nighy's character, Johnny, gives Nancy (Rachel Weisz) one of his paintings before he disappears at the end.

It's a shame the BBC didn't make a biopic about Christopher Wood instead – it would have been far more interesting than Page Eight (though possibly couldn't have starred Bill Nighy). Born near Liverpool in 1901, Wood had an eventful yet tragically short life. He was educated at Marlbourough college in Wiltshire, whose previous alumni include great yet eccentric talents from William Morris to Bruce Chatwin.

Wood dabbled in architecture and medicine before settling on art, persuaded by the painter Augustus John whom he met whilst at Liverpool University. Wood studied painting in Paris, where he met important artists including Picasso and Cocteau, who introduced him to opium, before travelling in Europe and North Africa. Christopher Wood's colourful personal life at this time involved affairs with women and men, including a Chilean diplomat fourteen years older than him, Jean Cocteau and (a few years later) an heiress of the Guinness family.

Back in England he became associated with several art groups, befriending and exhibiting with married painters Ben and Winifred Nicholson. Wood briefly became attached to Cornwell's artistic community, and when in St Ives with Ben Nicholson met fisherman Alfred Wallis, whose 'primitive' paintings (nowadays he would be described as an outsider artist) influenced Wood.

Several successful exhibitions followed until one day in August 1930 when Wood went to meet his mother at Salisbury train station. Suffering from the effects of opium withdrawal, Wood, who had begun to carry a gun around with him, and possibly imagining himself being pursued, jumped underneath the London-bound train and was killed. He was 29.

Christopher Wood is buried in Broad Chalke, near Salisbury. His gravestone was carved by Eric Gill.

The excellent Pallant House Gallery (my new favourite place), currently showing the Edward Burra exhibition, has a number of Christopher Wood paintings, including the lovely Lemons in a Blue Basket (1922), above, which shows a Post-Impressionist influence, though his later paintings are more in the primitive style.

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