A talent cut short - the tragic journey of Christopher Wood at Kettle's Yard

By Richard Moss | 05 July 2013

Christopher Wood, Artist in Focus at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge until September 1 2013.

a still life of flowers in a vase
Christopher Wood, Flowers, 1930© Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge
Christopher Wood’s ambition to become the best painter in England came to an abrupt end in 1930, when he threw himself beneath the wheels of a train in Salisbury.

It was a sad and dismal end for an increasingly troubled young man whose precocious talent and appetite for life had propelled him from the tranquillity of rural Wiltshire to the salons of 1920s Paris.

In the early 1920s Wood had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jean Cocteau, Sergei Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso and developed his painting style at such a rate that by the time of his death aged only 29 he was regarded as one Britain’s most singular painters.

a painting of a woman in floral chair
Christopher Wood, Mme Bourgoint, 1928© University of Essex
Wood’s style was mature and lyrical and managed to subtly reference the innovations of Paris whilst reflecting some of the key landscape innovations taking root in his native country.

In Britain he became close friends with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, painting with them in Cumberland in 1928. He also joined the Seven and Five Group at the behest of Winifred as it began to cautiously embrace Modernist ideas.

In 1928 he fell under the spell of Alfred Wallis who he famously met on a fateful trip to St Ives with Ben Nicholson.

From Wallis he absorbed a primitivism that seemed to suit his vibrantly rugged approach and an almost naïve method of painting figures within the landscapes that were to become a constant within his work – particularly the much admired coastal landscapes he painted in Brittany towards the end of his short life.    

But in common with many British artists of the period Wood painted still lifes, the portraits of friends and coastal scenes, all of which he invested with a vibrancy of colour and a level of poetic drama that gradually became his own.

This Artist in Focus display centres on the collection amassed by Kettle’s Yard former occupant Jim Ede who first met Wood around 1926/7 and it offers a rare opportunity to see the gallery-house's Wood collection, many of them held in store.

Ede dealt with the settling of the artist’s estate when he died and organised the first posthumous survey of his work in London at the Lefevre Gallery in 1932.

Joining the Kettle's Yard pieces are some key works from national collections including Mme Bourgoint (Woman with Fox), 1929 which was originally given to The University of Essex by Ede as part of his founding gift of a collection of art to the fledgling college in 1964.

The painting is reunited with a portrait of Jeanne Bourgoint’s twin brother Jean, who is depicted in the work Boy with Cat (1926). The siblings were key figures in Wood’s life in Paris during the 20s and members of the fashionable social circles around the Parisian avant-garde in which he moved.

It was the latter that ultimately led to Wood’s demise. Amidst this bohemian whirl he became acquainted with, and later addicted, to opium. It is thought he was under the drug’s influence when he died.

The characters and circumstances of that tragic journey loom large in this fascinating display, reminding us of his talent - and also what might have been.

  • Summer opening, from 6 April, Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays 1.30-4.30pm. Free. Follow the gallery on twitter @kettlesyard
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