In the Thames Estuary

Robert Medley (1905 - 1994)

Oil on canvas


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  • About the work
    Country: UK
    City: London
    Place: Government Art Collection

    In the Thames Estuary is a striking work by Robert Medley which uses blocks and smudges of dusty yellow, ochre, apricot and violet to suggest buildings, boats and a pair of standing figures apparently deep in conversation. A view of the Thames Estuary, the composition conveys a sense of lightness, in which figures and objects merge into their surroundings to the point where the work’s overall harmony and pattern brings it close to abstraction. The painting’s haunting, moody feel and open-ended narrative remains consistent with Medley’s stated desire in the 1950s to construct a poetic space within strictly figurative or representational subject matter.  

    In his catalogue essay written to accompany Medley’s 1963 retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, writer John Berger described Medley as ‘… the only mature humanist painter in Britain’. While Medley explored the same subject matter of people and everyday life throughout his career, his ability to explore and play with varying degrees of both abstract and figurative styles disconcerted critics’ and historians’ attempts to classify and categorise his work.

  • About the artist
    Born in London, Robert Medley studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art, the Royal Academy and the Slade School of Art in the 1920s. As a student he met Rex Whistler, Stanley Spencer and several Bloomsbury artists. During 1935-1939 he designed sets and costumes for Group Theatre productions of works by his good friend, W. H. Auden and by T. S. Eliot. Medley served in the Middle East during the Second World War and became an Official War Artist. He enjoyed a long career in fine art education, teaching at many London art schools. In 1982 he was awarded a CBE and elected a Royal Academician in 1986. Retrospectives of his work included shows at the Whitechapel Gallery (1963) and at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (1984).
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  • Details
    In the Thames Estuary
    Oil on canvas
    height: 127.00 cm, width: 106.00 cm
    Purchased from Leicester Galleries, June 1960
    br: Robert Medley '54
    Consigned by the artist to Leicester Galleries, London; from whom purchased by the Ministry of Works in May 1960
    GAC number