Christopher Wood (1901-30)
The young man is transfixed on the playing card which he shows to the viewer as he places it on the table. Symbolic of mystery and transformation, the ace of spades seems to be a deliberate reference by Wood to his life and art which at this date was undergoing a period of change as his confidence and ambition soared.
Christopher Wood is a defining figure within the canon of 20th Century British art whose short yet prolific career remains a constant source of fascination amongst scholars and collectors alike. Of all the work Wood produced over his tragically short career of less than a decade, his portraits and figure studies often provide the most revealing insight into his complex character...
In this work a young man, whose identity is unknown, plays an ace of spades as two figures peer through an open window beyond. A balcony and a window with shutters in the background suggests the setting for this work is Paris, where Wood lived on and off between 1921 and 1930 when he died. The physiognomy and anatomy of the young man has been simplified, reflecting Wood’s recent abandonment of close observational drawing, and beneath the surface of the paint we can observe a busy network of rapidly applied drawing lines, some of which Wood has followed when later applying the paint, others he has ignored entirely. The ear of our subject has been left daringly unfinished, revealing a flash of red drawing against a dark brownish ground beneath.
The young man is transfixed on the playing card which he shows to the viewer as he places it on the table. Symbolic of mystery and transformation, the ace of spades seems to be a deliberate reference by Wood to his life and art which at this date was undergoing a period of change as his confidence and ambition soared. It was in 1925, when this work was painted, that Wood first met Pablo Picasso and exhibited for the first time with the London Group. It was also in this year that Wood started his monumental work Beach Scene with Bathers, Pier and Ships which was over three and a half metres wide. Like a game of cards, Wood’s life was also unpredictable given his financial reliance on José Antonio de Gandarillas, a wealthy and well-connected Chilean diplomat who for the last few years had been supporting Wood in Paris.
The present work appears to be the earliest instance of Wood incorporating playing cards into a composition which in his later works, especially those painted in Tréboul in Brittany, were often included as an allusion to the idea of chance and fate. The mystic qualities of Tarot cards were likewise explored and exploited by Wood who placed them within certain compositions to allude, in the case of Nude Boy in a Bedroom, to danger and romantic insecurity.
Wood was bi-sexual and his relationship with Gandarillas lasted throughout his life. The year after this work was painted, however, in 1926, Wood became romantically involved with Jeanne Bourgoint, who, along with her brother Jean, was the basis of Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles published in 1929. Wood painted portraits of both the Bourgoint siblings and Jean was the subject of one of Wood’s most celebrated works Boy with Cat which was painted in 1926, the year after the present work. In late 1926 Wood met Ben and Winifred Nicholson in London and was elected to the 7&5 Society which had recently shed its conservative attitudes towards art and was increasingly embracing and promoting Modernism in English painting and sculpture. Wood exhibited four works in their annual exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery, aligning himself with some of the most prominent British avant-garde artists of the period. The following year he shared an exhibition at the same gallery with the Nicholsons and the potter William Staite Murray and exhibited his remarkable self-portrait and several still-lives and Parisian street scenes.
By this stage Wood was addicted to opium which he had been smoking since soon after he arrived in Paris in 1921. Wood had a compulsive character and his opium addiction combined with a complex private life resulted in periods of depression which manifested themselves in his art. At first glance his work from the late 1920s can appear inconsistent from one day to the next and heavily reliant on the influence of other great artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, however, each of his paintings are entirely unique to Wood and reflect, in an almost autobiographical manner, his profound yet changeable state of mind.
In August 1928, after a period spent painting landscapes in Cumbria, Wood travelled to Cornwall with the Nicholsons and stayed in Feock. It was on this brief sojourn that Wood and Ben Nicholson ‘discovered’ the untrained painter Alfred Wallis in St Ives and a few months later Wood rented a cottage in St Ives overlooking Porthmeor Beach, meeting with Wallis daily and painting some of his most iconic Cornish views. Whilst in St Ives Wood’s opium addiction worsened and his inability to source the drug made him reliant on the dregs from old pipes.
The following year Wood staged his first solo-show at Arthur Tooth and Sons in London and exhibited again with the 7&5 Society. A tour around Brittany and the northern coast of France in the summer was a turning point in Wood’s career and the coastal views and harbour scenes he painted in Tréboul and Dieppe especially remain his most captivating and emotive in this genre. Like some of his portraits, Wood’s landscape works from this date combine a primitive viewpoint with a broader modernist outlook, fused with deep understanding of colour and design.
In 1930 Wood staged a major exhibition at the gallery of Georges Bernheim in Paris in which over twenty-five of his paintings were exhibited alongside ten works by Ben Nicholson. Wood sold ten paintings during the exhibition and soon returned to Tréboul where he painted more than forty paintings over a six week period. In debt, under considerable stress and heavily reliant on opium, Wood’s mental health began to deteriorate and on a trip to England to meet a friend he was convinced he was being followed and threatened. On 21 August 1930 Wood travelled to Salisbury to meet his mother and sister and afterwards jumped in front of a train and was killed instantly.
Wood was a prolific painter who art served as an outlet of personal expression. Mercifully, he was also an artist whose affairs were posthumously well-managed and following his death Wood’s family sent all of his paintings and drawings to the Redfern Gallery in London who in 1938 staged a major exhibition of his work, including over 350 oil paintings, A monograph on Wood with a Chronological List of Works was also published to coincide with the show. A further 100 oil paintings, including the present work, were not featured in the exhibition due to space restrictions but appear in the book. The present work was then sold by the artist’s estate through the Redfern Gallery in 1956 and since then has been in a private collection in Moray Place in Edinburgh.
 Private collection
 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh [GMA 1712]
 K. Norris (2016), Christopher Wood, London: Lund Humphries, p. 153
 Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge [CW 25]
 Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge [CW 1]
 iBid, p. 14