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Le Phare, 1930

The technique of Le Phare shows Christopher Wood’s urgency in the period of intense creativity that shortly preceded his untimely death in August 1930. Painted on his preferred support of thick strawboard, the white ground – visible as the sky – was roughly worked before the image was begun. The details of the ships were sketched in pencil at the same time as the foreground. Only then was the grey of the sea added in broad strokes which allowed it to rise upwards with the curvature of the earth. Most interesting is the treatment of the net: where it is cast over the rock its lines are scratched into the grey surface to expose the white below; where the net drapes over the sand, however, it is drawn in grey paint.

The painting refers to the theme of fate. Le Phare (The Lighthouse) is the name of the newspaper in the foreground, whose masthead has been carefully painted in cursive letters. The rocking sailing ships, whose style recalls that of Alfred Wallis, ride out the waves without a lighthouse. Their conflicting directions and ghostly appearance symbolically evoke the risks of life at sea. This makes the title suggestive, both because of the guidance that the lighthouse provides and for its absence here. The unpredictability of the roughly painted sea is indicated by the large foreground rocks which cut into it. The nets are cast over the rock, with all the difficulties of entanglement that this implies. More significant are the three cards thrown down upon the newspaper, which suggest both the chance of the game and the prediction of the future. The deliberateness of this reference is reinforced by the fact that fate and divination were important issues for Max Jacob, the poet who shared Wood’s last months in Tréboul (Brittany). Jacob was hospitalised in Quimper following an accident in August 1929, a fact that must have focussed the painter’s concerns with mortality even beyond his own feelings of foreboding.

Jim Ede, who was a close friend of Wood’s, collected many of the his works after his death, choosing to see their innocent, even optimistic side. In Kettle’s Yard, he placed Le Phare above Wallis’s Seascape (which the painter had owned), making concrete the long established view of Wood’s appreciation of the art of the Cornish fisherman.

Provenance: gift from Mrs Clare Wood (the artist’s mother) to H.S. Ede, September 1930

Painting [CW 8]


Oil on board

535 x 790 mm

About the artist

Wood was born in Liverpool. Through extended visits to Paris between 1921 and 1924 he came into contact with the European avant-garde, meeting Picasso and Jean Cocteau in 1923. In Britain he became close friends with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, painting with them in Cumberland in 1928. That year he also met Alfred Wallis on a visit to St. Ives with Ben Nicholson, and lived near Wallis for several months. He first visited Brittany in 1929, returning in 1930. During his Parisian years Wood was introduced to opium by Cocteau. He became addicted to it and was under the drug's influence when he was killed by a train at Salisbury station.