Christopher Wood is one of the best loved artists of the Modern British period and remains highly sought after by collectors. His artistic output was small but influential, and his dramatic life story, culminating in his tragic early death in 1930, engendered a personality cult which continues to enthral historians and collectors to this day. Here our Head of Sale, Charlotte Riordan, takes a closer look at the artist's work Man with Cards from 1925, to offered in our forthcoming Modern British & Contemporary Art auction on 18 April.
Born in Knowsley, Liverpool, Wood moved to Paris after briefly studying architecture. In 1921 he attended the Académie Julian, a school which produced many successful artists and was as effective at stimulating networks as it was at nurturing artistic talent. The handsome young Wood, whose artwork was becoming admired for its charming naivety, excelled in both of these areas. He quickly gained the attention and patronage of Chilean diplomat Antonio de Gandarillas. Gandarillas provided crucial financial support, and introduced Wood to Picasso and Jean Cocteau, though also to the use of opium, which was to play a tragic role in his later life.
It was in the mid-1920s, however, that Wood truly began to make his mark. Man with Cards dates from c.1925, a year considered pivotal to his transition into a “serious” artist. It is likely to have been painted while in France, possibly Paris. It could be posited that this work contains an early appearance of what was to become a classic trope for Wood: the fisherman. Traditionally associated with boundlessness, escapism and freedom from society’s rules, some have interpreted Wood’s fishermen as a covert reference to his homosexuality; Wood was openly bi-sexual and indeed was co-habiting with Gandarillas at this time. Whether a fisherman or some other form of fringe figure, the sitter seems lost in a reverie, playing with (Wood’s own) pack of cards. This is one of the earliest known appearances of playing cards in his work. This became another important part of his visual lexicon; evocative of fate and life’s unpredictability. His cards are now housed in Tate’s collection.
Wood began his first serious heterosexual love affair the year this work was painted, and the presence of two somewhat surreal female figures in the top right of the composition perhaps allude to this development in his life. His work often contains a sense of the uncanny or a barely perceptible undercurrent of tension, and these strangely-hued figures peering into the frame appear almost as if figments of the sitter’s imagination. Many art historians perceive evidence of the more hallucinatory and visionary aspects of Wood’s opium addiction at work in such elements, and it is certainly true to say that Wood became increasingly keen on weaving his work with elements of fantasy and memory.
The late 1920s saw Wood continue to establish himself - especially in London - exhibiting as a member of the London Group in 1926 and the Seven and Five Society between 1926-30. Through this he forged an important friendship with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, exhibiting with the couple at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1927. Both artists had a considerable impact on Wood’s art, and his mature artistic style was ultimately cemented during a trip with Ben Nicholson to St Ives. Here, the pair met a local artist called Alfred Wallis. The freeness and gentle naivety of Wallis’ self-taught ‘primitive’ approach was the final piece in the eclectic puzzle of Wood’s own visual language.
The modernism absorbed during his Parisian years, the romanticism of the English artistic tradition to which he was both drawn and simultaneously sought to circumvent, and the child-like quality of the work of ‘Outsider’ figures like Alfred Wallis combined to set his work apart from his peers. As such, Wood’s art is considered to represent an important and unique ‘bridge’ between England and the Continent at that time – subsumed by neither one style nor the other.
Wood died prematurely and tragically; throwing himself under a train in 1930 at the age of 29, presumed to be struggling with opium withdrawal symptoms. His career was cut short; capping the number of artworks produced and increasing the scarcity and demand to this day. A well-known figure in art circles of the time, his legacy was cemented and his influence on the next generation has been well-noted. In 1938 his paintings were included in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In the same year a major exhibition was organised by the Redfern Gallery at the New Burlington Galleries, which attempted to re-unite Wood's complete works, and is said to have provided key inspiration to the Neo-Romanticist movement including Paul Nash, John Minton and John Craxton.
Man with Cards is listed as number 125 in Eric Newton’s 1936 catalogue raisonne of the artist, and, along with the rest of his estate, was taken into the care of the Redfern Gallery from 1938. It was purchased from the gallery in 1956, and has remained in the same family’s private collection since. It will appear in the forthcoming catalogue raisonne by Robert Upstone, who Lyon & Turnbull would like to thank for his kind assistance in cataloguing this lot.