The exhibition 'True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s', at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, has drawn a lot of positive comment from press and public alike. It features the work of about 60 artists working in a graphic, realist style, and the strange thing is that most of them are more-or-less unknown. Many were famous in the years between the wars, but fell out of fashion in the 1950s, when ‘Kitchen Sink’ realism, abstraction, and later Pop Art, elbowed realism out of the way and into the museum stores.
The artist who has impressed people the most is Meredith Frampton. Social media has been full of comments about his work, and how hypnotically realistic it is and what incredible technical skills he had – but at the same time, how strangely still and icy the figures look.
There are four works by Frampton in the show. One of them is in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, the portrait of Sir Charles Grant Robertson, who was Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University. His publication of two important atlases and his interests in music and gardening are all referenced in the props on the desk. His struggle to get the Queen Elizabeth Hospital built is marked by the architect's drawings in the background. The glass of water with the flowers, in the foreground, looks so real that you could drink from it. But look at the picture again, and there’s something odd about it. Imagine that Sir Charles is asked to stand up. He couldn’t. He’s pinned in by the desk: he’d have to push it forward a foot or two if he wanted to get out. And the chair doesn’t really support him – he can only have half his bottom on it. Then there’s the can of weed-killer on the right. On varnishing day at the Royal Academy, in 1941, when the portrait was first shown, Frampton added the little label to partly obscure the text. You can imagine that he might want to erase the text and the slightly Agatha-Christie-esque reference to weed-killer, but to decide at the last moment to half cover it is really strange. Frampton’s paintings are all the more mesmerising because of these peculiarities.
Frampton had his first solo show in 1982, at the Tate Gallery, when he was 88 years old. It was organised by Richard Morphet, who was a curator at the Tate from 1966 until the late 1990s. Morphet proposed hanging work by Frampton in the regular displays in the 1970s but was asked not to: Frampton looked old fashioned and the Tate had to be seen to be modern. When in 1980 he was eventually given the nod to investigate the idea of an exhibition, Frampton – who had been virtually blind for 30 years – was amazed by the interest: he thought he would die forgotten. How times change.
In the 1930s museums almost literally fought for his work. His work was produced with such painstaking precision that he only painted a couple of works each year. His Portrait of a Young Woman was shown at the Royal Academy in 1935 and was bought for £500 (a massive price at the time) by the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. Or so it thought. The Gallery announced the acquisition with pride in the press, but a few days later they got some bad news: they had been gazumped. The Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, which was administered by the Royal Academy, exercised their authority, and bought it for the Tate. It was stated that they had reserved the work the day before the exhibition opened, but Hull claimed they had bought it ‘fair and square’. In the ensuing wrangle it was noted that nobody had put Hull’s red ‘sold’ sticker on it, so the sale to the Ferens had not been properly executed. Litigation was threatened, and was only put off when the Tate agreed to lend the painting to Hull for six months.
Hull got their just reward nearly 50 years later. Their director saw Frampton’s painting A Game of Patience, which shows the same woman (a professional artist’s model called Miss Margaret Austin-Jones) at Morphet’s Tate Gallery exhibition of 1982. Memories had not faded, and the stand-off of 1935 was resurrected. This time, though, Hull was given first refusal and they got the painting they wanted.
Patrick Elliott, Curator, National Galleries of Scotland
'True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s', at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is open until 29th October 2017.