The latest in our series of regularly updated Viewing Rooms.
Dennis Creffield would have turned 90 on 29 January this year. To celebrate, this viewing room surveys the full sweep of Creffield’s long life of making art, with one work from each of seven decades. We have not always opted for the obvious choices, preferring less well-trodden avenues that, together, give a sense of the extraordinarily rich (and relentless) nature of Creffield’s making. As he said himself, he preferred to work ‘like Billie Holiday sings the blues – and she says she never sings the same song twice.’
Self-portrait, 1947Oil on board, 110 x 29cm
Creffield painted this self-portrait early in his time in David Bomberg’s class (1947) – but already it is suffused with the artist’s stylistic signature. The angle is vertiginous, with the painted young man lowering over the viewer, rendering the artist’s encounter with himself the more dramatic; it should come as no surprise that Creffield adored the self-portraits of the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet. The shades of passionate vermilion around the face and the body look forward to the time when Creffield would liberate his colours from the subdued post-war palette of greens and browns.
Creffield always had a problem with choosing a subject for his work – but the artist himself was always around, always available. He made self-portraits regularly throughout the late 1940s and ’50s. After that he found himself in other figures, in Nijinsky’s Petrushka, or Horatio Nelson, or Blake – all figures he drew and painted. But he always loved this early self-portrait especially – he refused at least three offers to buy it.
Greenwich, Looking Down River, 1960Charcoal on paper, 50.5 x 80cm
Creffield produced a large number of charcoal drawings and oil paintings of Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs from the high viewpoint of the Royal Observatory. In many works, the imposing forms of the Royal Hospital loom large in the middle distance, but other works – such as this example – are more atmospheric affairs.
Creffield, not unlike Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, produced highly evocative landscapes of a bomb-ravaged city in the aftermath of war. The use of charcoal – a material obtained by burning – seems particularly apt, yet these images are also full of hope, regeneration and a feel for the dynamism of the city. These works were completed while the artist was a mature student at the Slade School of Art (and living in nearby Lewisham), often side-by-side with his long-time friend, Dorothy Mead. Creffield had been given access to a rooftop space at Flamstead House, part of the Royal Observatory; there he could work uninterrupted and also leave his paintings, drawings and materials on site.
Brighton: Birds in Sussex Grove, 1968Oil on canvas, 63 x 76cm
This wonderfully expressive painting shows Creffield cutting loose from the earthier organic colours of his 1950s landscapes. His relocation to Brighton after a period as Gregory Fellow at Leeds University gave rise to this change in approach. The colour and light he found in his new home was quickly reflected in his painting. Although at first view a rather abstract work, the painting has strong architectural elements. The striking juxtaposition of strong primary blues, reds and yellows was to become commonplace during the ’70s, particularly in his figure painting, and has its origins (in part) in his observation of the land, beach and sea from his studio window.
Good Morning, 1972Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76cm
In the wake of his move to Brighton, Creffield began work in 1970 on a boldly original, starkly erotic series entitled The Lovers. In many ways it was a coming-of-age – a vivid paean to primary colour, to sensuousness and to the experience of the body that signalled Creffield’s liberation from the subdued palette of his early work, and marked the moment that he began to apply the aesthetic lessons of his early Brighton landscapes to more ambitious figurative themes.
The eroticism of Good Morning, completed around the same time as the Lovers paintings, is more implicit, but all the more intimate for that. A woman awakens, her yawning arm outlined in shocking pink against the pale dawn’s blues and yellows. This beautifully simple composition is defined by the arc of that arm.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1989Oil on canvas, 139 x 153cm
Creffield adored with a passion both Benjamin Britten’s great opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare’s play. Both are hymns to the comedy and glory of love. Creffield was commissioned by friends to make a painting on the subject of the Dream. Working on the painting, he found his way back to Greek sculpture (the play is set outside Athens) and to medieval painting. As he grew older he would often say that the traditions of Renaissance painting were too narrow, with medieval art undervalued. He loved the way medieval painters would place figures on the canvas, one above the other, indifferent to realism. In the top right of this work is Shakespeare as the moon, at top left Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen; below them are the lovers. Like a medieval painter, Creffield moves ‘carelessly’ across idioms – look at the masks of the aristocratic Theseus and Hippolyta at the heart of the painting.
Jerusalem – Mount of Olives, 1994Oil on canvas, 64 x 76cm
The Jerusalem oils (and associated drawings) date from a very fertile period of Creffield’s career. When he made his first trip to Jerusalem in 1993, he had recently completed two landmark commissions – from the Arts Council to draw all of England’s gothic cathedrals in the late 1980s, and from the National Trust to work at Petworth in the early ’90s. He would soon go on to another prestigious National Trust commission at Orford Ness. Creffield travelled to Jerusalem to accompany a British Council exhibition in which he was included – ‘British Figurative Art of the Twentieth Century’, curated by James Hyman. In 2011 he wrote about the particular issues of depicting Jerusalem: ‘The problem is that Jerusalem is more than a city, it is a spiritual home…. It is both an actual place but also part of their (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) faith, imagination and dreams – dreams of the past and even hopes of the future.’ As ever, Creffield approached his subject with care, sympathy and intelligence.
Nelson (Midshipman), 2005Oil on canvas, 60 x 50cm
Creffield’s voracious appetite for history led him to inhabit many worlds over the course of his life and career. But the turn of the 19th century – the Romantic era – was always an especially happy hunting ground. He adored (and to some extent modelled himself upon) J.M.W. Turner and William Blake; he obtained a cast of Blake’s life mask, which led to an exquisite series of improvisations in oil and charcoal.
In 2005, Horatio Nelson was his obsession; Creffield made himself a midshipman’s hat to mimic that worn by the Admiral in his younger years, and the self-portraits he made while wearing it must rank among the strangest and most haunting works he ever produced. In this work, the questioning eyes of the schematically-rendered face leap out from a wild textural whorl of navies, creams and daffodil yellows. As in the poems of Blake, Innocence meets Experience.