The Artwork of Christopher Wood
Born in Knowsley near Liverpool in April of 1901, Christopher Wood was an English painter who produced during his short life a well-crafted collection of vivid, personal canvases. Wood was one of few Englishmen who gained access to the fashionable Parisian art circles through which he developed a great friendship with Jean Cocteau. Like the artist Van Gogh, Wood experienced a level of emotional inner turmoil and over-sensitivity throughout his life.
The son of a primary healthcare doctor, Wood began to draw at the age of fourteen while recuperating from septicemia, blood poisoning caused by bacteria. By 1920, he had studied architecture briefly at Liverpool University and painted a series of canvases in Wiltshire where his father had set up practice. However, Wood was mainly untutored and, due to his use of unusual perspective and bold color, his work is considered faux naïve, primitive or childlike, with resemblance to the canvases by self-taught French painter Henri Rousseau. Although untutored, Wood learned from his acquaintances in France and, in particular, adopted the elegant line of Cocteau’s drawings.
In London in 1920, Christopher Wood was invited by the visiting French art collector Alphonse Kahn to Paris, where he began studying drawing at the Académie Julian. Within a short time, Wood met painter Augustus John and, in the early summer of 1921, the Chilean diplomat José Antonio de Gandarillas. Wood, who was bisexual, moved into Gandarilla’s house at 60 La Montaigne although he kept his studio on the Rue des Sant Peres. Although Gandarillas was a married homosexual fourteen years older than Wood, their relationship lasted through Wood’s life. In addition to financial support, Gandarillas introduced Wood to Pablo Picasso, Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau, and to the use of opium.
In his work, Wood always remained attached to the presence of the human figure in his compositions. His work included self-portraits and sensitive renderings of fishermen and local people; working people were often idealized in his paintings as heroic or spiritual figures. In this regard, Wood’s work had much in common with Paul Gauguin’s Brittany paintings and with images Van Gogh made throughout his career. Initially dedicated to portraying exactly what he saw, Wood’s later canvases with their added contrasting scenic aspects, such as the 1930 “Zebra and Parachute, suggest a look forward to the beginnings of the surrealist movement.
During the years between 1922 and 1924, Christopher Wood and José Gandarillas traveled extensively throughout Europe and visited the northern region of Africa. By 1926, Wood had established himself as an artist and was chosen to make set designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes adaption of “Romeo and Juliet”. This commission occurred after the successful presentation of Wood’s largest and most ambitious work, the 1925 “Beach Scene with Bathers, Pier and Ships’, which was sold immediately and reproduced in the art journal “Colour” and in “Vogue” magazine. When his set designs were abandoned, Wood returned to London where he became a member of the newly formed contemporary art associations, the London Group and the Seven and Five Society.
It was during this period that Wood met Ben and Winifred Nicholson, a married couple, both painters, who supported his work. He also shared an interest with the Nicholson couple in still life and surrounding landscapes. Wood and the Nicholsons, now close personally and artistically, traveled together in Northumberland and Cornwall; they exhibited their new work together in April and May of 1927 at London’s Beaux Arts Gallery. In 1928, Wood again joined Ben and Winifred Nicholson on a second painting trip to Northumberland and Cornwall. There in St. Ives Wood, he met primitive artist Alfred Wallis, whose work played an important influence on Wood’s stylistic development.
Christopher Wood had a solo exhibition in April of 1929 at Tooth’s Gallery on London’s Bond Street where he met art patron Lucy Wertheim who purchased a painting and soon became one of his biggest supporters. In May of 1930, he had his next exhibition with Ben Nicholson that included paintings made in Brittany; this show at the George Bernheim Gallery in Paris was largely unsuccessful. Wood painted during a second stay in Brittany in June and July of 1930; these paintings were for an intended exhibition to open at London’s Wertheim Gallery in October.
In late July, Wood met his patron Lucy Wertheim in Paris to choose the paintings for the October exhibition at her gallery. At that meeting, there was a quarrel about guaranteed annual support from Wertheim. Traveling with his paintings, Wood met his mother and sister in Salisbury on the twenty-first day of August for lunch and a viewing of his new work. After saying his farewells and waiting for the train to London, Wood threw himself onto the tracks just as the train pulled into the station. He died immediately.
It was believed by many that, withdrawing from opium, Christopher Wood thought he was being pursued; he had been carrying a revolver with him at all times. In deference to his mother, Wood’s death was reported as accidental; however the jury at the inquest returned a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind. Ben and Winfred Nicholson, shaken by the event, hired a private detective to investigate the last days of Wood’s life. After reading the first report from the detective, they abandoned their investigation.
Christopher Wood was buried in the churchyard of All Saints Church in Broad Chalke, Wilshire, England. His headstone was carved by fellow artist Eric Gill. A posthumous exhibition of Wood’s work was held at the Wertheim Gallery in February of 1931; another exhibition followed in 1932 at the Lefevre Galley in London. In 1938, Wood’s work appeared at the Venice Biennale and a retrospective at the Redfern Gallery in the West End of London.
Note: A more extensive account of Christopher Wood’s life and notes on many of his most important paintings can be found at the online Art Story site located at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/wood-christopher/
Another article on Christopher Wood containing many of his landscape paintings can be found at the Artistic Horizons site located at: https://httpartistichorizons.org/2020/11/30/christopher-wood/
Top Insert Image: Peter North, “Christopher Wood”, 1930, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Christopher Wood, “Tréboul”, 1930, Oil on Board, 52.5 x 71.5 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Christopher Wood, “Portrait of a Gentleman (Henri)”, circa 1925-26, Pencil on Paper, 50.5 x 35.5 cm, Private Collection
Fourth Insert Image: Christopher Wood, “Boat in Harbour, Brittany”, 1929, Oil on Board, 79.4 x 108.6 cm, Tate Museum, London
Bottom Insert Image: Christopher Wood, “Man with Cards”, 1925, Oil on Canvas, 70 x 57 cm, Philip Mould & Company