Grey matters at Kettle's Yard
To coincide with the exhibition "Grey matters: Graphite" at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Sebastiano Barassi, Curator of Collections, looks at four works from our permanent collection which use graphite.
Jim Ede had a clear predilection for simple lines and restrained colour schemes. He created Kettle's Yard above all around the careful modulation of light and shadow in each space. Many of the works he collected and displayed in the house are centred around the conversation between black and white, often emphasising the subtle nuances between them. Thus the interest in the colour grey and the use of graphite recur frequently in the collection.
In his Figure of 1925, for example, Max Ernst uses graphite in combination with the Surrealist technique of frottage. He made the drawing by rubbing a soft pencil across a sheet of paper laid over a rough surface – probably chair caning. With a sequence of semi-automatic gestures Ernst initiates a process of progressive revelation and recognition, through which the image of a female body emerges floating on the paper, almost as if in a dream. The monochrome palette of the drawing, resulting from the exclusive use of graphite, contributes to enhance its dream-like quality.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's Sketch for 'Bird Swallowing a Fish' is a study for one of his best-known sculptures. Graphite provided Gaudier with the perfect tool to capture instantly the frantic movement of the figures as he witnessed it during a drawing trip to the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, London. The speed of execution, typical of the sculptor, was here necessary to match the great dynamism of the subject, a bird and a fish engaged in a fight.
A much more serene atmosphere pervades Elisabeth Vellacott's Bare Trees and Hills. Ede was a great admirer of her work, finding in it formal and spiritual qualities that reminded him of Indian and Chinese art. Of this drawing he wrote: "It was a great joy to me to find an artist who could leave untouched a large area of paper and yet keep it full. Never in the drawing itself does her paper become empty, so subtly does she approach it with her pencil." The view is believed to be of landscape near Llanthony in Wales, a frequent subject in Vellacott's drawings.
Christopher Wood made Ship in Harbour while on holiday in Cornwall, in the summer of 1928. This was a very important time in Wood's artistic development, coinciding with his first encounter with fisherman-turned-painter Alfred Wallis and with intense experimentation and exchanges with Ben and Winifred Nicholson. Unlike Gaudier's drawing, in which the emphasis is strongly on dynamism and the line, here Wood exploits the softness of graphite to create gentle chiaroscuro effects.