4. Rear of Houses on Museum Road, by Elspeth Beckett

by Dr Jennifer Johnson – 20 May 2020
Dr Jennifer Johnson talks about a painting that encourages us to consider the interrelation of spaces, and to pause as we wait for activity to resume
Elspeth Beckett.jpg Elspeth Beckett, Rear of Houses in Museum Road, c. 1956, oil on board, 62.2 x 74.9 cm

This is a view that speaks to the evolution of the college environment – it is now Garden Quad, but in the 1950s, it was, as we can see here, filled with greenhouses. Prior to this, until around 1946, it had been an orchard with a cottage for the President's Butler situated to the left of the site pictured here. The phalanx of containers stretching towards us were earthenware pots used for experimental planting by botanists and gardeners associated with the College. 

In the strange current circumstances most of us are coming to know our domestic worlds and the views they warrant with a new intensity. This painting by Elspeth Beckett (1929-2016) is about the way spaces interrelate between and behind, particularly in cities. It is a composition jostling with rectangles and circles that both divide and unite the spaces. The houses not only overlook the greenhouses, but look on – their windows verging upon a faciality that peers over the wall and into the foreground space.

Amongst this jostling there is order and a peculiar emphasis though – again something that makes it a particularly striking image for our moment. The repetition of the rectangles of the houses and panes of glass cedes to the quiet repetition of the circular containers that reach towards us. The carefully delineated shadows and the stylised barrow give the work both pause and poise. It stops, quiet and empty, waiting for activity to resume.

Beckett was a GP and self-taught artist, but in its stylized-realism this painting combines elements of geometric elements, flattened shapes, and a naïve, almost illustrative treatment of buildings that recall aspects of British neo-Romanticism in the post-war period.

View the painting on Art UK here.

Jennifer Johnson 250x250Dr Jennifer Johnson, Junior Research Fellow in History of Art