Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The noble vision of John Currie

A trip to Stoke (up Hanley duck, specifically) has reminded me of the wealth of stuff at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, not least the jaw dropping collection of British ceramics and a chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard. And currently in pride of place in the art rooms is John Currie’s marvellous The Supper, dated to 1912-14.

the supper

Dollie Henry as 'The Witch'

Dollie Henry as ‘The Witch’

Potteries-born Currie, trained as a ceramics decorator, was a little older than his fellow “new primitive” Slade painters Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Stanley Spencer. (“Primitive” in the Italianate sense, that is.) His volatile and disturbed relationship with model and mistress Dollie Henry collapsed into nightmare in October 1914 when he shot her dead and turned his gun on himself. Mark Gertler, his close friend and himself a later suicide, was deeply traumatised by this tragedy. No monograph on Currie has yet been done, but his story was covered in Sarah MacDougall’s 2002 biography of Gertler, passing into David Boyd Haycock’s popular A Crisis of Brilliance. Among Currie’s stately female portraits, which are on the whole very close in temperament to Gertler’s, is The Witch, an unmistakable image of flame haired Dollie; superficially, this carries mere sexist charm, but on more careful consideration the attraction-repulsion projected into the face is psychologically troubled.

'Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.' Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

‘Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.’ Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

Over two dozen Curries survive in public collections, mostly at the Potteries, which could furnish a room full, and should, but doesn’t. His work touches the trends of its day: a bit of Brittany, some soft cubism, post-Impressionist colourings, and so on. But the group angularities, diagonals and rhythms of The Supper are aligned with the human abstractions of Bomberg and Roberts, and suggest the way Currie might have travelled had he survived.

Self portrait, 1905

Self portrait, 1905

It is a noble vision of the coming Kingdom. There is a strong hint of the Last Supper in the group around the table at the back, not least the Jesus-ish features of the central figure to the top left of the head of the dark haired woman in the foreground; are she and her blonde companion meant for Mary and Martha? This is society as common-wealth, as table, as agape, but agape here comprehends eros; the embracing couple at lower right seem intended for Dollie and Currie. This is the way things could be, could have been, but were not and are not. We are invited to trust that it is the way they will be.

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5 responses to “The noble vision of John Currie

  1. Trevor Mill March 13, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Great painting. Same with the writing. The Suppers abstraction at the back diagonally dancing to stylised realism in the middle with the lady and the bowl, moving to the kisser’s metal like creases in her dress. Plus the dark rose and dark blue greens. Was it framed?

  2. CHARLOTTE MACKIE March 14, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Hi Richard, Just wanted to say how interesting I find your blog, and how I look forward to every posting. Charlotte

    ________________________________

  3. Jan D. Cox March 16, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Currie is a fascinating character who I have often included in my teaching, particularly alongside the other four artists in ‘Some Later Primitives’ (above). You have reminded me that I was in touch about a year ago with a man writing a book on Currie, so I have emailed to enquire about progress. At that time, he told me he was in touch with a nephew of Dolly Henry. Currie’s ‘The Supper’ shows clear connections to me with the work of Stanley Spencer at this time (‘The Apple Gatherers’ etc.). Currie was not the only loss to art by suicide at this time, the technically-brilliant Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot (1886-1911) slit his own throat – he had won prizes at the Slade at a time when the competition was at its peak.

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