15. Overy Mill, by Carel Victor Morlais Weight

by Dr Jennifer Johnson – 29 October 2020
Dr Jennifer Johnson discusses the deeper readings that can be uncovered in a painting of a mill situated on land previously owned by St John's
Overy Mill.jpg Carel Victor Morlais Weight, Overy Mill, oil, mid-20th century, H 74.9 x W 62.2 cm

A first glance at Overy Mill by Carel Victor Morlais Weight (1908-1997) might suggest that this is a piece of mid-twentieth century neo-Romanticism – a nostalgic vision of the eighteenth-century weatherboarded timber-framed mill with old plain-tile roof. The subject would fit this inclination: there have been mills at Dorchester-on-Thames since the eleventh century, set amongst the meadows and trees of Oxfordshire (in fact, on land owned by St John’s from 1874 until the late twentieth century) and overlooking the River Thames. But this reading of the painting doesn’t hold for very long. For one thing, the barbed-wire fence that slices through the foreground disrupts any sense of pastoral, and the mill itself is decentred both by the figures and by the slanting angle at which it – and the horizon and clouds are set. This is typical of Weight’s work, in which the mid to background is often set as if sliding away from the viewer.

It is the figures, however, that add psychological intensity to the scene. There are four figures in the scene, two to the right in front of the mill itself, one seated and one standing. These have the effect of changing the setting from isolated mill to a beauty spot frequented by visitors. But it is the couple standing in the field, separated from the river and buildings by the barbed wire that epitomise the kind of uncanny presence Weight evoked in his paintings. Painted in pale tones so that initially they are almost absorbed by their surroundings, it is unclear if ‘couple’ is even the right word. There is a woman walking across the field holding a small case and a black handbag. Where she is going is confused; the field ends at the river bank with the barbed wire. The case is incongruous too. And she is followed by, or perhaps simply in the proximity of, a man. He is walking more casually, his hands in his pockets. I am inclined to read him as following her, but in no hurry to invade the woman’s reverie, and the meeting or pursuit – in part shaped by the pale colours – is not a happy one. This, again, is typical of Weight’s work in which relationships are complicated and estrangement is pictured in suburban gardens (see The World We Live In, 1970-73) or rural idylls (see Young Lovers, undated).

Weight once declared that 'Even when I paint a landscape out of doors, and I say I'm not going to put any figures in; when I get back to the studio I always paint in figures; it would be too lonely without people'. Ironically, however, it is often the figures that introduce a new loneliness, a complex welter of emotional disconnectedness. ‘I think love and all that sort of thing is rather superficial.’ Weight said in a late interview: ‘You can love people, but it doesn't bring you any closer to them.’

Weight is a curious painter – highly prolific and a revered teacher at the Royal College of Art (he was Professor of Painting there from 1957 to 1973). However his own work has been somewhat overshadowed by the more exuberant avantgarde work of his students, who included the likes of David Hockney. Weight himself trained at the Hammersmith School of Art, joining in 1926, and was initially taught by James Bateman, who himself had been taught by the highly influential Tonks at the Slade and whose instruction was deeply classical – his approach to composition was largely formed around an analysis of Piero della Francesca. Whilst Weight enjoyed this period of his training, he resisted Bateman’s emphasis upon realism and when he moved to Goldsmiths, Weight pursued a far more imaginative approach to painting.

During the Second World War, Weight was briefly on active service before Kenneth Clark appointed him an official war artist. Weight’s work during this period is a haunting mixture of war and domesticity. The War Office censored one of his paintings, which showed passengers fleeing from a bombed bus, on the grounds that it depicted a state of public panic. ‘Haunting’ is right, as many of Weight’s figures in his post-war work are ghosts, painted thinly amidst more solid figures and representing, amongst other things, a period marked by a widely-felt sense of loss.

Black and white photo of Overy MillWeight’s work has a penetrating narrative force, and yet it is narration that comes about through presence and the emotive work of the brush as much as from the positioning and expressions of the figures. Returning to Overy Mill, the passivity of the figures is countered to an extent by the rapid marks that make up the trees – there is feeling here, but it is contained, and the brutality of the barbed-wire that cuts through the composition seems to narrate the dislocation we read in the space between the two main figures.

The doubt about human relationships that Weight’s work depicts is often related to his own childhood experience. Born in 1908 to middleclass parents, they sent him to a foster-mother during the week. The difference between the poverty in which his foster-mother, Rose, lived and the relative privilege of his parents’ middle-class home was a rupture that stayed with Weight throughout his life. He also struggled with this dual existence, absorbing experiences in each that deeply unsettled him as a child. Whatever the root of it, Weight’s painting was able to connect to the high-anxiety of Cold War Britain and to bring that anxiety to bear upon minute moments and relationships. In this, his work resembles contemporary absurdist and existentialist interpretations of the human condition in the twentieth century.

View the painting on Art UK here

Jennifer JohnsonDr Jennifer Johnson, Junior Research Fellow in History of Art