In the late 1950s and 1960s William Crozier took a sombre approach to the English landscape, creating dark and visceral paintings that were less a direct observation of a given landscape than an abstracted emotive response to it. Crozier’s outlook during these years was heavily influenced by his study of the existentialist writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. Crozier’s bleak landscapes, whose terroir seems blighted by fear and anxiety, reflected an existential crisis experienced by many people in the postwar years.
A Scottish-born artist possessed of a European-oriented temperament, William Crozier first visited Paris as a teenager in 1947 and again in 1950, each time with his school friend and fellow artist William Irvine. After graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 1953 he moved to the French capital, living in Saint-Germain-des-Prés for six months and soaking up the then-fashionable existentialist theory (the notion that each individual is responsible for finding their own meaning in life). Crozier was quoted as saying:
To be in Paris then was to be at the centre of the world. Anyone who was not young in 1949 and who did not sit in the Café de Flore, where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were as gods, simply cannot appreciate the sheer excitement that enveloped the young of Europe emotionally, physically, intellectually.1William Crozier, in William Laffan, William Crozier: Early Work, Pyms Gallery, London, 2010, p. 10.
Back in Britain, after 1950, Crozier contemplated the competing claims on his attention: the strong prewar British tradition of landscape painting; the emergent dominance of American abstract expressionism in contemporary art; and his own adoption of the somewhat bleak existentialist view that humans are alone in the universe, born with no pre-existing moral compass into a world bereft of any god figure or divine purpose.
After an initial flirtation with abstraction during 1957–58, Crozier returned to an art style that was entrenched in observation of the British landscape, inspired by an especially harsh winter passed in the remote Essex countryside in 1958–59. Here, as his biographer Katharine Crouan noted, ‘he was entranced by the bleakness and brutality of the landscape’, while taking its depiction in an entirely new direction:
For a young emergent artist to employ landscape imagery, based on personal experience, as Crozier did from 1958, was to position himself closer to the neo-romantic artists of an older, wartime generation (such as his friend Robert Colquhoun or Graham Sutherland), than to his contemporaries and the avant-garde art of his own generation. However, unlike the wartime landscape artists, Crozier’s powerful experience of Essex was in no sense an engagement with a ‘spirit of place’, still less an interpretation of the landscape as a form of cultural identity. Instead, the Essex landscape became for Crozier a vehicle for the depiction of unease, anxiety and fear.2Katharine Crouan, ‘The move into landscape: Essex 1958–1960’, in Katharine Crouan (ed.), William Crozier, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, Hampshire, 2007, p. 52.
As Crozier himself wrote in 1964:
One of the failures of English landscape painting from the forties and fifties – having neither the inspiration of nature nor the aesthetic rigour of abstraction was that they simply became half-way house paintings, contrivances which took the object and arranged it in such a way that it had abstract qualities, hoping that it could be read as both while failing to meet the stringent demands of either.3William Crozier, in an exhibition catalogue preface by the artist, Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, 1964, in Philip Vann, ‘A man of imagination’, in Crouan (ed.), p. 20.
Analysing Crozier’s Essex paintings in 1960, art critic Jasia Reichardt noted that they
could be roughly described as abstracted landscapes, or as abstracts for which a landscape has been the point of departure, the original inspiration, or the basic idea.4Jasia Reichardt, ‘Bill Crozier’, Apollo, vol. 73, no. 426, Aug. 1960, p. 44.
Their palette – restricted mostly to black, white, umber and ochre – and the nervous staccato of their execution, made them seem imbued with existential torment. In 1960, Crozier began incorporating bold colours into his landscapes, such as the strong reds and pinks that are infused through Small man in a landscape, 1961.
George Butcher, art critic for The Guardian, wrote an introductory essay for Crozier’s 1961 exhibition at Drian Galleries, London, where he described ‘the hard core of an existential angst’ in Crozier’s art.5G. M. Butcher, Crozier, in an exhibition catalogue for Drian Galleries, London, 1961, in Crouan (ed.), p. 193. Small man in a landscape reflects this anxiety with its sense of humanity dwarfed by the immense indifference of nature. Pitting Crozier’s work against two exemplars of prewar British art, Butcher told Guardian readers in July 1961 how
at Arthur Tooth’s (31 Bruton Street, London W1) ‘Yesterday’ is largely a matter of Stanley Spencer and Augustus John. However good they are, how dreary they are, too. I’m very glad to live in ‘today’, and to be able to find excitement in a new painter like William Crozier.6George M. Butcher, ‘Mixed summer exhibitions’, The Guardian, 10 Jul. 1961, p. 7.
Three months later he was still singing Crozier’s praises, reflecting on how it was
exciting to come face to face with paintings which, because of the actual youth, or the youthful attitudes, of their creators, largely escape the snares of commercial success. In the Tooth exhibition, names like Appel, Bluhm, Corneille, Francis, Jenkins, Jorn, Mathieu, and Riopelle predominate; but it is among the lesser known, like Crozier, Erma, Hirst, Kitaj and Lindstrom, that the most rewarding paintings are to be found. William Crozier (whose one man exhibition at the Drian Gallery, 5–7 Porchester Place, W2, may still be seen) produces compelling ‘action’ landscapes which contrast menacing forms with richly beautiful orange, yellow, and red colour relationships.7 George M. Butcher, ‘The frontiers of painting’, The Guardian, 5 Oct. 1961, p. 10A.
Butcher’s enthusiasm may have lain behind Felton Adviser A. J. L. McDonnell’s decision to acquire Small man in a landscape for the NGV at this time. As he wrote to the Felton Bequests’ Committee in January 1962, ‘Crozier … is recognised as one of the most promising of the younger generation of British painters’.8A. J. L. McDonnell, letter to The Felton Bequests’ Committee, 7 Jan. 1962.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
William Crozier, in William Laffan, William Crozier: Early Work, Pyms Gallery, London, 2010, p. 10.
Katharine Crouan, ‘The move into landscape: Essex 1958–1960’, in Katharine Crouan (ed.), William Crozier, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, Hampshire, 2007, p. 52.
William Crozier, in an exhibition catalogue preface by the artist, Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, 1964, in Philip Vann, ‘A man of imagination’, in Crouan (ed.), p. 20.
Jasia Reichardt, ‘Bill Crozier’, Apollo, vol. 73, no. 426, Aug. 1960, p. 44.
G. M. Butcher, Crozier, in an exhibition catalogue for Drian Galleries, London, 1961, in Crouan (ed.), p. 193.
George M. Butcher, ‘Mixed summer exhibitions’, The Guardian, 10 Jul. 1961, p. 7.
George M. Butcher, ‘The frontiers of painting’, The Guardian, 5 Oct. 1961, p. 10A.
A. J. L. McDonnell, letter to The Felton Bequests’ Committee, 7 Jan. 1962.