Brilliant Light / from the archive / issue 2

The Short Life of Kit Wood (1902-1930), Early Cornish Movement. From Huyton to St. Ives vis Cocteau's Paris

Huyton, 1902: A gritty suburb of Liverpool now famous for its 1960s tower blocks, Huyton was a relatively prosperous area when painter Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood was born there, the son of an eminently respectable General Practitioner. To young Kit, the North-Western skies of Huyton were low and menacing, its light murky and pewter-grey. There was, however, another kind of luminescence in his childhood - the doting love of his mother Clare and her tales of Cornwall, which had been passed down from her own sea-faring family. Kit Wood believed that Cornish sea and sunlight were in his artistic blood.

The provincial, bourgeois England represented by Wood’s father, who worked on Lord Derby’s estate at Knowsley, was rather eager to keep the modern world at bay. Dr Lucius Wood, who had served in the Boer War, believed that England’s future

lay in splendid isolation from continental Europe and her dangerous Modern painting and Modern ideas. His son’s homosexuality was, perforce, a taboo subject.

After schooling at Marlborough, Kit planned to study Architecture at Liverpool University; this conventional approach would please Lucius whilst keeping Kit at home with mother. He lasted a year. Wood’s attitude to academic study is summed up by a surviving visual scrap – a solitary architectural drawing, on the back of which lies a vividly coloured portrait of a young woman. Kit’s mind was on Paris and on Art, perhaps spurred by a meeting with Augustus John after a lecture given at the University’s Sandon Club. Thus it was that, at the age of 19, the daring and ambitious Christopher Wood took the boat-train for France…

The Harbour, Christopher Wood, 1926.JPG

After schooling at Marlborough, Kit planned to study Architecture at Liverpool University; this conventional approach would please Lucius whilst keeping Kit at home with mother. He lasted a year. Wood’s attitude to academic study is summed up by a surviving visual scrap – a solitary architectural drawing, on the back of which lies a vividly coloured portrait of a young woman. Kit’s mind was on Paris and on Art, perhaps spurred by a meeting with Augustus John after a lecture given at the University’s Sandon Club. Thus it was that, at the age of 19, the daring and ambitious Christopher Wood took the boat-train for France…

Paris, 1921: Living initially with wealthy ‘connoisseur’ Alphonse Kahn, Wood soon formed useful social attachments and came under the heady influence of modern French painters, particularly bold colourists such as Cézanne, Matisse and Derain. Compared to Huyton, the sexually ambiguous, déclassé demi-monde of Paris was entrancing. Wood soon met, and fell in love with, another rich older man, Chilean diplomat and émigré Antonio de Gandarillas, a notorious Bohemian figure who adopted Kit ‘as curio, protégé and lover’. Imagine Wood’s ruthless artist’s disdain when, at the end of 1921, he had to return for Christmas to the now detested Huyton.

On his lavish travels in the company of Antonio, Wood started to explore the effects of colour and light which would infuse his later work. In Taormina, Sicily, he painted a plate of brilliant yellow lemons from above. At the apartment the couple now shared on the Avenue Montaigne, Wood was introduced to Picasso, who made himself charming to the young, gauche Englishman. Cocteau became a fervent admirer of Kit’s drawings and suggested an exhibition. Diaghilev even commissioned Wood to design stage back-drops for the Ballet Russe.

As well as these famous artistic companions, the sometimes lonely young man made another close friend at this time - a lifelong and ultimately murderous companion.  In Paris, Kit Wood discovered the dark joys of opium…

St Ives, 1926:  In August with Gandarillas, Wood stayed at St Ives, then a small and undistinguished artists’ colony. For six weeks, under Cornish light, Wood painted feverishly. Kit had the feeling of an inner illumination. In returning to his ancestral land, it was as if he had found himself; as if St Ives, detached as it was from his father’s lineage, represented another England, an England belonging to his mother. (The point had been underlined in an earlier vacation - returning from Inverness by car, Kit and Antonio had driven past Huyton without calling in!) Later that year he was introduced to Ben and Winifred Nicholson, who became ardent supporters and a counter-example of austerity, country living and dedication to work. Paris had been too decadent, Huyton too dead. In Cornwall, Wood was on the edge of something new: an English representational Modernism, a blend of simplicity and sophistication, an exhilarating Cornish luminosity suffused with something dark and menacing, something from the night-time world of Kit’s opium reveries. It was a turning point – the first of a succession of summers in which Kit would produce the body of his oeuvre.

Staying in a rented house on Porthmeor Beach, Wood and Nicolson were out walking one morning when, famously, they passed the cottage of a retired fisherman and rag-and-bone merchant - Alfred Wallis. The cottage walls were covered by Wallis’s startlingly naïve paintings - on old cardboard boxes, on bits of wood, on bus timetables - of the sea and of ships and of fisher-folk. Tired of the Parisian beau-monde, these pictures were to have a stunning impact on Wood. Though not a true naïve like Wallis, these paintings inspired Kit to use house paint and board and offered him a new childlike directness.

Wood stayed on alone that winter and produced a series of dark, primitive, strange pictures. Rejecting conventional Modernism’s dogmatic idea of non-representation, Wood believed that Modern Art could deal with the lives of people, with human figures and with human landscapes. Meanwhile, in the absence of his human friends, the opium-pipe was ever present…

Salisbury, 1930: In August again, after four years of exhausting artistic and social activity, Wood set off from Paris to London where a major exhibition of his recent pictures was about to open.   Still unwilling to travel North and arranging instead to meet Clare in Salisbury, Wood was observed by the locals acting strangely in a hotel. He reported voices in his head and mysterious ‘pursuers’.  After lunch with his mother, he was driven to Salisbury Station and made his farewells. As the Waterloo express came in, the paranoid and mentally confused Wood, sitting by the bookstall on the platform, jumped, screamed and threw himself under the train’s wheels.

Christopher Wood’s physical beauty, his awful and premature death, a lifestyle of wild partying interspersed with frenzied artistic activity made of him a 1930s minor cult hero. The Manchester Guardian, however, urged at the time that the myth-making ought not to get in the way of the work: ‘His work was good enough to have no need of it’.  In his last few years as an artist, Wood can be compared to no other.

Back in Huyton, after the brief inquest, Clare and Lucius Wood gathered their sorrows as damp Northern England moved inexorably towards another dreary Autumn. The brilliant light had been fleeting.

© Stephen Hale

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.