Specialists in 20th century British art will be surprised to learn that there are eleven works of Adrian Allinson (1890-1959) located on the other side of the world in Victoria, British Columbia. How these works crossed the Atlantic and the North American continent some 35 years ago is a complicated story that involves marriages, deaths and emigration and that concerns British, Canadian, Pakistani and Cypriot citizens.
On the death of her sister Mollie in 1983, Peggy Mitchell-Smith was bequeathed a large number of Adrian Allinson canvases. Mollie had been safeguarding the canvasses since the death of the artist, her longtime partner, in 1959. As executor for her sister’s will, Peggy decided to sell the canvasses through her lawyer. But first she invited some friends to look through the collection and to make offers through the lawyer.
Among those invited were two recently married couples about to settle in Canada. The two wives had been friends of Peggy Mitchell-Smith for some time. After spending several hours going through the collection that was still housed in Allinson’s spacious St. John’s Wood studio, the two couples chose eleven canvasses: three signed, one embossed with Allinson’s name, and eight unsigned. Following the studio visit, the two couples made payments to Peggy’s lawyer, who subsequently shipped the works to western Canada. They have not chang ed hands in the more than 30 years since and can now be found in two Vancouver Island homes some ten miles apart.
1. Nude Above Lake
This oil was purchased framed. According to Peggy Mitchell-Smith, the artist himself chose the frame. It is an early painting that Allinson never sold, so clearly Allinson kept it for Mollie Mitchell-Smith, his longtime partner and model for this painting. Further evidence for this can be found in the Russian-style halo around the head. With this halo Allinson has made Mollie an icon figure, an object of worship.
Allinson was not known for his nudes. In fact this might well be the only one in existence. The reclining position creates some interesting lines that accentuate sensuality. Flesh colours are realistic, and the shadow along the side of the body and leg indicates the priority of realistic depiction. The effects of sunlight and shadow are faithfully rendered on both the body and the rug.
Of great interest is the hat. Apart from working as a halo, it also covers the closed eyes, leaving the lips in the bright light. The only reds in this picture are found in the lips and the nipple. The shadowing of the eyes forces more attention on the sunlit body.
The prominent long shadow on the body, which frankly looks like a bruise, is a major statement by Allinson.
The other half of the painting is comprised of landscape and, below the body, two personal additions. The predominantly dark landscape of greens and blues is impressionistic (“out-of-focus”), especially compared to the nude. These dark colours highlight the nude. The lake, with a waterfall behind the left elbow, is depicted as far below the rock in the foreground—Mollie is “on high.” The additions are a pair of white shoes and an inconspicuous fluffy dog in the lower centre of the painting.
This is a very private painting originally meant for just Mollie and Adrian.
2 Gardens Above Lake
A typical busy—some would say crowded—Allinson landscape. It’s full of wonderful colours, both contrasting and subtle. Allinson has reveled in the different shades of roof tile. The band of eight roofs separate the garden from the background of mountains and lakes. Parallel with this band are three much straighter lines: the far end of the lake, the wattle fence against the houses, and the closer fence that separates two gardens. There are also diagonal lines in the upper half: mountain side and roofs that delicately lead the eye to the centre and to the granny and two grandchildren.
Flowers and vegetables abound. Particularly appealing are the gladioli in the foreground. Also prominent are black-eyed susans and sunflowers. Among the vegetables, which are mixed in among the flowers, are marrow and tomato. A fruit-laden branch on the left fills the canvas even further.
As if there wasn’t enough in this painting, Allinson has added a cart (centre) and a pond with an exit pipe (lower left).
There is some evidence of sunlight from the upper left, but that sunlight was clearly muted by cloud cover. There’s no sense of real warmth here despite the lushness.
Allinson liked to have figures in his landscapes. Sometimes there they are mere decoration. But here I see the children adding to the fecundity in the painting. The trio occupy the centre and are larger than normal for Allinson’s landscapes.
3 Red House Among Trees
The most interesting aspect here is the effect of light on the trees. The unseen sun must be above the mountains at 10 or 11 o’clock. Thus the young corn in the foreground is in the shade of the grape vines. The sun lights up the soil on the other side of the grape vines and also backlights the two closest trees.
The red house doesn’t have much to commend it. In fact the outhouses are more appealing.
There are some characteristic features here: the crowded canvas, the hazy bluish mountains in the background, the crooked vertical lines of the stakes and of the tree on the left.
There is one intriguing detail; some letters in white on the diagonal line from the lower left corner, about 1/3 of the way up. I believe it says, “IDEA 1.” Was this a note to himself by the artist? The work is not signed, so it’s possible that this was a preliminary sketch.
4 Snowy London Street Scene
Allinson liked to paint snow, probably because it accentuated the colours. However, this is a crayon sketch, where the colours are suggested or notated in words for the final version (see notations on the gatepost and on the wall between the large windows).
There is a lot of detail in this typically busy Allinson work. He generally has several human figures in his landscapes and cityscapes (this is King Henry Road in London, just north of Primrose Hill), but rarely is there as clear a situation as there is here. The mother, child and baby are leaving a house, while the occupant waves farewell. Perhaps there has been a visit; perhaps the mother is setting off for a walk. Another figure is visible next door, probably a maid.
In his 1978 Connoisseur article, Peyton Skipwith explained the importance of sketching for Allinson: “With his increasing concentration on the distillation of landscape into colour and pattern, he found it necessary to draw and sketch voraciously and then to work up paintings in the comparative calm of his studio.” This sketch is a fine example of Allinson’s design skills. The complex but orderly lines of the building, the railings and the steps are balanced by the figures, by the five trees that are anything but straight, and by the cat and dog in the foreground.
Allinson’s sketches certainly create a strong desire to see the final version! Colour is such an important element in his art. How did he paint the blue that is suggested in many places? The same can be asked about the other dominant colour, yellow. How green will the central gate be? There is writing on the central gate and “green” is legible, but not the other word (Dark?).
5 Shed with Man and Dog
The main interest in this springtime scene (fruit trees in blossom, leaves sprouting on trees to the right) is the collection of trees on the left. Allinson’s pleasure in twisting trunks is again evident, but the main feature is the blue tinge. This blue is set off by the greens of the grass and by the young plants to the left. The non-descript shed seems to function as another colour contrast. Allinson has added a man and his dog and three ducks. The large pot and the blocks in the left corner are additional features. The oddly shaped shadow to the right of the man is a mystery.
6 Blue Pond with Farm Animals and Two Humans
Another springtime scene; this time with really vivid colours. Allinson is said to have been more relaxed with watercolour--as this work shows. It effectively captures the brightness of spring.
The two far sides of the pond establish the main structure. While the woman in the shade looks at the painter, the lamb and dog focus on the man, who is bringing the eight sheep to water. There are lots more blue trees again, to contrast with the red farmhouse. Three pollarded willows contrast the straight lines of the pond and farmhouse.
There is an unfinished feel to this work: the three sticks on the right bank of the pond; the “floating” tree in front of the farmhouse. It’s as if Allinson had to hurry to capture the feeling of this scene.
7 Spring Trees with Ploughman
Allinson’s delight in tree trunks is evident here. Using a low perspective and cutting off some of the crowns, he expresses the size and majesty of these trees. The effect of strong early-morning light is shown brilliantly on the nearest trees.
Whereas many painters would let these wonderful trees stand alone, Allinson adds another major element in the left quarter of this work. True, the curving furrows and the farmhouse do balance the stand of trees, but they distract from those wonderful trunks.
The soft colours of the gate on the right, of the field beyond it, and of the sky contrast the dominant harsher colours in the rest of the painting.
8 Steps in Ibiza
Embossed lower RH corner: “By Adrian Allinson”
This charcoal sketch, which was featured in Peyton Skipwith’s 1978 biographical article on Allinson in Connoisseur, exhibits wonderful drafting.
Allinson uses more figures than usual. The two climbing pairs take the eye up the long ascent, while the other four figures, in different poses, create interest in the lower left corner.
The viewpoint is low, similar to “Spring Trees with Ploughman.” Five colour notations can be seen: “Blue Mauve Grey” at the very top; “Green” just below; “…. Red” by the balcony to the left; “Red Railings” on the wall centre right.
This work had a strong impact on the buyer, who returned to Peggy Mitchell-Smith the day after his purchase with the intention of buying the final version, which he had seen. Sadly, the painting had already been taken.
9 Potted Plant with Snow Outdoors. signed
10 Sketch for Potted Plant with Snow Outdoors
This is Allinson at his very best. He has used a snowy outdoors to backlight the plant and the terracotta pot and bowl. The unusual outdoor brightness shows the transparency of many of the red-green leaves and explores their delicate colours. The pink of the two floral bunches blends well with the leaves, while also echoing the colour of the pot. Equally brilliant is the colouring of the polished window sill with its many reflections.
The multi-layered background is worth analysing. First are the delicate curtains, one in the shade, one in the sunlight. These are painted in the same translucent style of some of the plant leaves. But further back the colours are solid and far from realistic. First the window frames of violet, brown, white and pale green; then the railings; then the snow-covered building. Finally, beyond the house there are first mountains painted unrealistically in a magenta blue and then a hazy azure sky.
In between the railings and the house is a characteristic Allinson leaf-free tree with serpentine branches. These branches contrast and break up the straight lines of the window frame, the railings, the house and even the mountains. The branches also echo the stems of the plant. Note the two leafless stems of the plant that rise beyond the upper edge of the painting. Yet another busy Allinson painting, this time with two contrasting styles.
It is rewarding to study the sketch in relation to the final painting. Here Allinson has worked out everything except the colours, which are sometimes roughly added and sometimes penciled in with words (greenish, gold, ocre [sic], bluish, and so on). The only major difference is that the final work has more space at the top above the horizontal window divider. This sketch and the final version give an illuminating insight into the way Allinson worked.
Watercolour and crayon sketch signed and dated March 17,1924
As with “Steps” Allinson shows here a fascination with complex geometric shapes. The perspective this time is from a height so that he can look down on the roofs located this side of the wall that divides the composition just above halfway. This division is accentuated by the difference between harsh lines and colour of the lower part and the softer lines and colour of the upper parts. Although the lines of the roofs and buildings initially appear chaotic, some broader diagonal lines can be found.
Apart from the geometric interest, there is also a careful working of the colour spectrum around red orange and yellow. These related colours are offset by the green of tree foliage. Note the couple of bare trees on the left—almost an Allinson signature!
The sky and the mountains, which are often blue in these Allinson works, are left unpainted, although there is just a suggestion of blue above the hills.
Easily missed are the two figures in the street lower center. The left figure is kneeling and tending to a child.