Meredith Frampton RA, Still Life, 1932. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Object of the Month - February 2017


Meredith Frampton RA (1894-1984)
Still Life, 1932

The artist's starting point for this work was a stone bust that he inherited from his father. The sullen expression gave Frampton the tone for the entire painting: that of anger and unease. This head, gazing out of the picture plane draws the viewer into the rest of the imagery. Frampton's nostalgic symbolism was typical of the inter-war years, which simultaneously aspired to, and mourned the loss of, classicism's sense of order. Frampton's is not an idealised classicism however, the bust is chipped, the vase broken, the flowers wilted and the trees are severed.

Frampton's imagery is imbued with conflicting symbolism, embodying the discord between an idealised vision and the disorder of reality. Nature is represented in the trees, flowers and the landscape in the background. The man-made is symbolised by the stone head, masonry and the tape measure. The head denotes intellect and the tape measure human constructs: both in contrast to the wild flowers. Life is seen alongside death in the combination of funerary masonry with severed trees. Even the method of demolition is conflicting: one tree has been smoothly cut and another torn and fractured. This sense of tension is emphasised by the composition which is dominated by both vertical and horizontal lines and has flashes of bright colour against an otherwise colourless setting: the red notably highlights both the natural flowers and the man-made tape measure. Considering Frampton's unceasing attention to detail, it seems unlikely to be chance that the tape measure forms an ampersand. He seems to be inviting the viewer to add up and decipher the symbolism in the image: a difficult task considering the abundant contradictions.

Frampton's ultra-smooth surface makes it look almost like a Surrealist painting but Frampton would not have welcomed the association; he admired Salvador Dalí but said of the rest of the movement, 'I just didn't care. I knew how easy it was to do that sort of thing.' He valued precision, meticulously constructing his compositions (copying from life but piecing the objects together on the canvas), and painstakingly captured every detail. It is a testament to his skill that he would not work from preparatory drawings but worked directly onto the canvas with the paint brush. Each painting would take up to a year to complete and his perfectionism resulted in a relatively short career as an artist. Whereas many artists would adapt their technique upon changing conditions, Frampton gave up painting altogether when his eyesight started to deteriorate in 1953. Tellingly, his sight was still sufficient for daily functions. It was this time-consuming quest for perfection that guided Frampton's choice of subject matter: still lives or portraits. When he attempted landscapes they would change in front of him, through weather conditions or human impact. Still lives allowed him unchanging subject matter that he could control.

It was not only Surrealism that Frampton disparaged. He also expressed indifference for Henri Matisse and dislike for Pablo Picasso, claiming that he had never seen a reproduction of Picasso's famous painting Guernica, or a sculpture by his British contemporary Henry Moore. He said 'I never joined a movement. I've always been alone. Always alone.' However, his work has subsequently been linked to the 'Neo-Realists', Charles Ginner, Harold Gilman and members of the Euston Road School. In an essay of 1914 Ginner argued that 'Neo-Realism by its very ideals finds itself opposed to the slap-dash, careless, and slick painting which has been and is still so much in vogue.'

Both Frampton's parents were artists having met at the Royal Academy Schools. His father, Sir George Frampton RA was elected to the Royal Academy exactly 40 years before him in 1902. When Meredith Frampton became a member of the Academy he gave Still Life as his Diploma Work. Although Frampton became largely unknown after he gave up painting, a solo exhibition at Tate in 1982 brought him back to public attention.

Frampton's Still Life can be seen in The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950 at Pallant House Gallery until 19th February 2017.