21 June 2009

Shells, Marine Objects, Etc.

On this day in 1949, Edward Alexander Wadsworth died. An English artist, famous for his association with Vorticism, he contributed Dressed Overall at the Quay and The Sea [originally entitled Arrival] to the R.M.S. Queen Mary's cabin class (1st class) smoking room. His quasi-surrealist work elicited mixed reviews from passengers and, initially at least, from Cunard White Star. After being commissioned by the company, Wadsworth sketched out his idea of two similar paintings depicting the Queen Mary sailing along the horizon. He showed them to the man in charge of the ship’s interior design, American architect Benjamin Wistar Morris, who reported to Cunard that he was pleased with Wadsworth’s work and had approved it.

However, a few months later when Wadsworth traveled to Glasgow to present his ideas in person to Cunard's board of directors, he was let down. The original works, Arrival [aka The Sea pictured below] and Offing, each depicted a single column surrounded by nautical paraphernalia. This was not the sort of thing Cunard expected.

Familiar with his previous work, the company had assumed Wadsworth would produce something similar. As a result, J.C. Whipp, a British architect working with Morris, began to meddle with his colleague's decisions. Whipp wrote Cunard's board members on September 9, 1935: “Mr. Wadsworth's conception for these two panels appears to me...most unsuitable...both as regard to subject, scale, and proposed colour scheme.” Accordingly, Cunard allowed Wadsworth to go forward with only The Sea, insisting the other painting must portray a harbor scene. Wadsworth was less than overjoyed, feeling he had already accomplished all he could in that area and anything he produced now would be derivative.

Cunard found the resulting painting, Dressed Overall, [below] suitable, believing the image of a brigantine safely moored in a harbor would create a sanguine atmosphere for passengers taking their leisure in the smoking lounge—there were at least no troubling reminders of stormy weather to unsettle them. In an attempt to connect the two paintings, Wadsworth depicted the Queen Mary in the background of each, showing her sailing in opposite directions.

Despite his troubles with Cunard, Wadsworth remained enthusiastic about his work, particularly The Sea. Writing to fellow artist, Maxwell Armfield, he stated, “As regards to my QM panels, I should be delighted to show them to you--especially the one I am working on now ... which is almost finished. It is rather like what I was doing seven years ago, shells, marine objects, etc. but with a rather more severe composition.”

Wadsworth realized not everyone would be as enthusiastic about his work, particularly the general public. The headline of an interview he gave with the Glasgow Daily Mail trumpeted: Problem Picture in the Queen Mary. In the story, Wadsworth stated when asked that he had painted the picture to please himself. “Those shells,” he said, “are symbols of organic life and are therefore the biggest objects in the pictures, just as the Queen Mary, the largest object in life, becomes the smallest.... The cork float is a symbol of buoyancy, whilst the sextant and masthead light are symbols of orientation. The chain stands for security, and the anchor for faith.”

Wadsworth's comments were repeated in the media and included in promotional brochures. However, his statements probably did not reflect his true feelings about the painting. At an earlier time, before his commission with Cunard, he had declared, “A picture is primarily the animation of an inert plane surface by spatial rhythm of forms and colors.” In his view the object only played a role in the composition—any symbolism was accidental.

In addition to his disagreements with Cunard, Wadsworth faced other challenges. In a letter to a friend from his home in Maresfield, Sussex, he wrote, “at the moment I am tethered here painting two enormous panels ... for the Queen Mary. I think these must be almost the biggest tempera paintings since Mantegna--and the price of eggs is going steadily up in Sussex!”The Sea measures 274.3 x 182 cm and Dressed Overall 366 x 244 cm. In order to work, Wadsworth was forced to rent the village hall from the parish council, the entrance of which he had to dismantle to get the panels inside the building, because his studio wasn’t big enough to accommodate them.

Furiously trying to finish before Cunard's February deadline, there was a sudden change of plans. Cunard concluded that due to their size, Wadworth’s paintings would have to be brought into the smoking lounge before the doors had been installed. According to Wadsworth, “the Cunard people had another fit of the panics and took my panels away from me at a few hours notice…the panels are not only very big but very heavy with steel battens at the back and in moving them about six men are required. I am terrified that the surface may be scratched or otherwise ruined.” Though he wasn’t thrilled with spending the winter in Scotland, he followed his paintings there, finishing them where they would remain, in the first class smoking room aboard the Queen Mary.

Tate Online

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