A D R I A N S T O K E S
M A I N I N T R O D U C T I O N - Richard Wollheim
One fine clear morning in the spring of 1936, a guest staying in one of the hotels in the seaside town of St Ives, waking early and going over to the window to close the curtains against the dawn, might have observed beneath him a youngish man of striking appearance, rather like a great blond hawk, let himself out of the hotel by a side door, step on to the lawn that faced the sea, survey the view, and, carefully taking up position, unpack a particularly large groundsheet and spread it out over the damp grass; then the young man set up an easel on the groundsheet, a canvas on the easel, and, settling himself in front of the canvas, he began, with some hesitations and much darting of his large hooded eyes, to paint a picture. The canvas is virgin, the paints are unused, the brushes are fresh, the easel is brand-new; and the large groundsheet must have been bought specially for the occasion. The man on the lawn is, at this very moment, at the age of thirty-three, at work on, if not his first painting, then his first as a painter.
Who is he? What kind of picture will he paint? And what has led him at this juncture in his life to take up painting and to resolve on becoming a painter? No more natural questions to ask; and it is only when we have answers to all three that we can recognize what a complex man we are asking about.
Adrian Stokes had been born in 1902 into an upper middle-class family. From them he derived the financial independence that made his life as a writer and artist possible. The central facts of his life up till this short painting holiday in Cornwall are these. He had been at boarding-school during the First World War when his elder brother was killed. He had gone to Oxford. His father had sent him round the world. Still in his twenties he had published two books of rather immature reflections upon civilization and its future. He had spent months at a time in Italy, looking at art, and he had planned a trilogy on Renaissance art, two volumes of which had already appeared and received some critical acclaim. He was an enthusiast for the ballet and he wrote occasionally as an art critic for the Spectator. More than six years earlier he had entered into psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein. He was, by all accounts, intense, wayward and shy; he was absorbed in art and also in games; and he was possessed of looks that made a very strong and enduring impression upon both sexes. He was emerging from a period in which any attempt on his part to respond to such impressions could occasion in him only pain or confusion.
If we now ask what kind of painting this young man would have painted, I am fairly certain that the first thing to say is that it would not have been very good. I have seen his early paintings and they are not very good . They are rather stiff, a little chalky, there are failures of recession and, above all, as throughout his work, there is a total absence of drawing or dependence on drawing. 'As throughout his work': for it is a fact of major importance, and in our day something like a miracle that throughout his painting life there is a total continuity of style and ambition. The only marked changes that his work displays arise from a continuing loss of awkwardness, a steady gain in mastery, an increasing refinement of effect, a mounting saturation of the outer image in the inner condition. He painted his last painting just over thirty-six years later only thirty-six hours before he died, and the last paintings are of an overwhelming intensity.