Crosbie’s artistic vision was restless and uncompromising, and the selection of works that were offered in our July 2021 auction spanned the breadth of his career, from assertive observational studies to his symbolist interrogations of form, space and structure. Here, we take a closer look at a few of the highlights that featured in the William Crosbie Studio sale.
This group of works are largely from the 1940s and early ‘50s, a decisive and fruitful period in Crosbie’s career. One particularly exciting inclusion is a study for Womb from Womb, the introspective self-portrait painted in 1941 that is currently on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. In Womb from Womb, Crosbie cuts a tense and crooked figure before his easel, his features and gestures drawn almost in caricature of himself. The study appears to capture the artist, mid-painting, in the throes of a crisis of confidence - and, as the title suggests, can be read as a meditation on the very act of creation.
Crosbie’s symbolist pieces are particularly sought-after. Mother and Child demonstrates Crosbie’s confidence working on an almost monumental scale – likely indebted to the fact that in the 1940s and 50s, Crosbie was a celebrated painter of murals (including a commission for a mural for the 1951 Festival of Britain). This vast canvas demonstrates the enduring influence of the French cubist artist Fernand Léger, under whom Crosbie studied between 1938-38 while living in Paris – and, of course, the legacy of Picasso. The composition is complex, at once tender and haunting: is the mother’s arm reaching out or letting go? And what to make of the shadowy third figure floating, seraph-like, above the mother and child?
In this vivid oil-on-board, titled Binary, Crosbie has blown up the still life: monstrous day-glo blooms strain to the edge of the painting, their forms reverberating across the scene in a perpetual state of fragmentation and consolidation – even death and re-birth. Binary explores artificial and organic forms and their interrelationships, and demonstrates the artist at his experimental best.
Yet Crosbie was just as able on an intimate and domestic scale. Still Life with Roses deploys a harmonious arrangement of primary tones in vibrant slabs, inviting the eye to ambulate around the composition. The originality of Crosbie’s vision, and his characteristic application of colour in bold, energetic strokes, invest this sweet still life with an undeniable dynamism.
Crosbie’s postmodern approach to his subjects was nevertheless underpinned by rigorous observation and his talent as a draughtsman. Take this study of a pair of sleeping dogs - the deft and assured mark-making is striking, and the subject-matter can’t help but recall David Hockney’s studies of his own dachshunds. Crosbie’s study feels equally personal and charming.
A subject that preoccupied the artist throughout his career was the nude. Crosbie attended the Glasgow School of Art between 1932-1934, a time when rigorous anatomical study was still viewed as a fundamental and foundational to any serious student of the fine arts. His devotion to the life model endured beyond his graduation, and he regularly worked from models at his Ruskin Lane studio. The figure in this portrait, titled Grace, possesses convincing mass, and appears really to inhabit the space; yet the bright planes of colour and bold contours ensure that this portrait remains thoroughly modern in style.