4th Jul, 2023 12:00

Modern British & Irish Art

Lot 32 § *


Two Figures with a Snake
signed, titled and dated 'TWO FIGURES WITH A SNAKE/1973/Keith Vaughan' (on the backboard verso)
oil on board
29 x 32.5 cm. (11 3/8 x 12 3/4 in.)

The artist, by whom gifted to
Peter Adam (1929-2019), thence by family descent

London, Olympia, Keith Vaughan, 26 Febuary-3 March 2002, cat no.281
Bath, Victoria Art Gallery, Keith Vaughan: Figure and Landscape, 3 Febuary-25 March 2007
London, Menier Gallery, Clough and Vaughan: Visions and Recollections, 15 April-2 May 2004

Anthony Hepworth and Ian Massey, Keith Vaughan, The Mature Oils 1946-1977, Sansom & Company, Bristol, 2012, p.186, cat.no.AH568 (illustrated in colour)

We are grateful to Gerard Hastings and Anthony Hepworth for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.

While preparing for his major exhibition of gouaches, held at Victor Waddington Gallery in 1974, Vaughan made a significant number of gouaches, producing only six or seven oil paintings on paper or card, but none on canvas.

In terms of subject, size and handling, Two Figures with a Snake is closely related to an oil painting produced a year earlier called Two Bathers. These number among his last few oil paintings which have the male figure as its central motif and, as such, represent Vaughan’s final reflections on a subject which had occupied him for four decades. In one way or another, the late figure paintings reflect the artist’s dark and unsettled emotional state at that time.

The composition and character of the two figures resemble photographs Vaughan took of his partner Ramsay McClure and one-time lover Johnny Walsh by the garden pond at Harrow Hill, his home in Essex. These were used as starting points for several paintings. The presence of the snake, held by both figures, also recalls his visit to Morocco in 1965 where he witnessed snake charmers in the market at Marrakesh. The highly sensuous application of pigment and wet-in-wet brushwork indicates the confidence with which Vaughan had now attained in his depictions of the male form.

The confrontational character and frontal poses of the two figures engender feelings of threat and psychological disturbance. They advance towards us like spectral figures. The strange, stick-like appearance of the snake in the hands of the shadowy figure and the overcast lighting further generate an air of disquiet. The mood seems to mirror Vaughan’s emotional landscape at the time, since his relationship with McClure was disintegrating.

Suffering from anxiety and nightmares, he wrote in his journal that summer: "August/September 1973: Harrow Hill. Been here since Saturday. Feeling very ill. But it is more than depression. Something is wrong. I do not know what. I hide here in safety. Fear to go back to London. Fearful dreams & awakenings. I have absolutely no desire to go on living. Nor the means or incentive to die…Retire to my room ill at ease. Ramsay exudes such an air of madness, sitting, silently staring at me…I sit in fear in his presence as though he has some power over me."

We are grateful to Gerard Hastings for compiling this catalogue entry.

Sold for £27,500

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