Our venues

'Still life: Autumn fashion', 1978, by Patrick Caulfield (b. 1936)


See a larger version

About the artwork

The bold and colourful work of Patrick Caulfield can be termed 'pop art' because of his use of highly unconventional techniques and the ironic position that he adopts towards high art.

However, Caulfield does not aspire to the same choice of subject matter as American pop artists. Instead of painting advertising products, celebrities and other features of popular culture, he paints interiors, horses, churches and everyday objects.

'Still life: Autumn fashion' depicts an interior, possibly a kitchen, with light coming from an open window. A basket of leeks sits on the table, painted with thick black outlines. By contrast, oysters are shown both in outline and in highly realistic detail.

The thick outlines of the objects make them stand out as if they can be touched. Yet not all of the objects are complete, suggesting that an artist's work is only truly completed once it is viewed.

Patrick Caulfield was born in London, although his parents were from the north of England. After attending evening drawing classes while serving in the Royal Air Force (1953-1956), Caulfield decided to study art full time. He began studying graphic design at the Chelsea School of Art and then transferred to the department of painting. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art between 1960 and 1963.

As a student Caulfield was influenced by the work of American abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock and Marko Rothko, but he only experimented with abstract work for a short time. Many of his early works are characterised by thick black drawing or an outline used to bring out the full strength of other colours.

Caulfield also visited Greece during his student years and admired the graphic quality of the murals in the prehistoric site of Knossos in Crete. He is of the opinion that the most celebrated art has always had a decorative purpose.

He is noted for his use of hardboard and supports as a cheap and readily available alternative to canvas, along with enamel paints. This choice of materials challenges the traditional separation between painting as a high art form and decorative art as being of an inferior status.

Caulfield received acclaim early on in his career through solo exhibitions and participation in group-shows by the New Generation of British artists. He represented Britain at the Fourth and Fifth Paris Biennales in 1965 and 1967, and at the 18th Sao Paolo Bienal in 1985.

In addition to painting, Caulfield has enjoyed the challenges of commercial projects, including commissions to design posters, book covers, ceramics, murals, tapestries, mosaics and stage sets.

The Painting

In 'Still life: Autumn fashion' Caulfield skilfully layers pictorial elements, combining schematic techniques with real textures. The leeks, oysters and vessels of the painting are arranged in a disparate way to enable us to find our way into the picture. The play between the two worlds of reality and decoration is further intensified by Caulfield's treatment of two of the oysters in their real texture rather than in a graphic manner.

Caulfield has always being interested in transforming ordinary things into extraordinary ones, perhaps suggesting that the role of the modern artist is to make people see and examine things in a different light. As he has noted: "what we call inspiration results from a careful sifting of everyday experience."

Caulfield became interested in still lifes when he realised that they offered him the opportunity to depict objects true to scale; Caulfield has always enjoyed the one to one relationship with his chosen subjects. In the early 1980s he turned further still towards producing images of food and drink, presenting them with equal weight within his paintings.

The layering of elements in 'Still life: Autumn fashion' gives the work an extraordinary mystery and intensity. Although Caulfield's art is enjoyable for its economy of means and lush colours, the ambivalence of the space can often mean that spectators feel they are staring into the void.

One is confronted with multiple systems that seem to interfere and interact with each other. Unable to define a spatial position in relation to these objects and conventions, the viewer experiences the picture as if from within the compostition.

'Still life: Autumn fashion' was bought by the Walker in 1979 with the aid of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation's Regional Purchase Scheme and a grant from the Victoria and Albert Museum.