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Adrian Stokes


Adrian Stokes (27 October 1902 15 December 1972) was a British writer and painter, known principally as an influential art critic. He was also a published poet.

Stokes' father, Durham Stokes, was an eccentric stock broker who had once run for office in Parliament under the Liberal party. His affluence allowed the younger Stokes to live financially independent his entire life. Adrian Stokes attended the Rugby School. During World War I, his elder brother Philip was killed in France. Stokes entered Magdalen College, Oxford where he read philosophy, politics and classics. He achieved a second class in those fields in 1923 as well as excellence in tennis.

After graduation, Stokes traveled to India and returned by way of China and the United States. It was these travels, as well as a college visit to Italy, that fostered an appreciation of art as the means to make sense of life. His first book, published in 1925, The Thread of Ariadne, was based on that thesis. The same year he moved to Venice to write and research on the Italian renaissance. Two events in the late 1920s would change his life and art-historical writings profoundly. In 1926, Stokes met Ezra Pound at Rapallo, Italy. In 1929 he began therapy with the Freudian psychoanalysist Melanie Klein (1882-1960) to investigate his bisexuality and depression. Pound's literary conception of the Italian renaissance and Klein's psychoanalytic theory would figure strongly in Stoke's art history. His essays in the Criterion magazine began to be published in collected works. Pound's prevailed upon T. S. Eliot (then editor at Faber & Faber) to publish the first two of Stokes' books of art history essays, The Quattro Cento: A Different Conception of the Italian Renaissance, 1932, and The Stones of Rimini, 1934. That same year Stokes moved to England to live among the British artists at Parkhill Road, Hampstead, painting and writing reviews for the Spectator.

In 1937 he studied painting at the Euston Road School with William Coldstream (1908-1987), Lawrence Gowing (q.v.), F. Graham Bell (1910-1943) and Victor Pasmore (1908-1998). His book Form and Colour of the same year displays the sensibilities of an artist as much as an art historian. In 1938 he married the Scottish painter Margaret Mellis (b. 1914).

The Stokes' moved to Little Parc Owles, Carbis Bay, Cornwall, shortly before World War II and were followed there by other artists from London: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. Here they started a small-holding in the large garden, where they employed Sven Berlin, a conscientious objector. During the war Stokes is known to have bought Alfred Wallis paints, and eventually helped pay for his funeral. He also served as private in the local Home Guard.

After stormy years of marriage and the birth of a son, Telfer (1940), Stokes divorced only to marry his ex-wife's sister, Ann Mellis (b. 1922), in 1947 requiring a move to Ticino, Switzerland, with more liberal laws of consanguinity. A second son was born in 1948.

Stokes returned to England in 1950 to Hurtwood House, Guildford. Many of the paintings for which he is known today were produced during this time. His post-war writing included two autobiographical works, Inside Out, 1947, and Smooth and Rough, 1951. Longer essays on individual artists such as Cézanne, 1947, Raphael, 1956 and Monet, 1958 also appeared. These works continued to use Freudian analysis as a basis to explain art. A major work of his later years using psychological interpretation, Michelangelo: A Study in the Nature of Art, appeared in 1955. His most programmatic use of psychology as a tool for the art historian appeared in 1963 as Painting and the Inner World, including an interview with the psychiatrist Donald Meltzer.

From 1960-67 Stokes was a trustee of the Tate Gallery, London. In 1967, his final work Reflections on the Nude was both a synthesis of his ideas as well as the conclusion of his writing on art. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1971, he focused on his painting until his death the following year. His paintings are owned by a number of galleries including the Tate. A retrospective exhibition was held at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1982. A collection of poems, With All the Views, appeared in London in 1981.

Stokes was completely self-educated in art history. His wealth allowed him to consort with the intelligentsia of Europe, traveling with the Sitwells, tennis with Ezra Pound, sharing a villa with Aldous Huxley in Sanary. It also freed him from constraints of writing to please mainstream art-historical audiences. Marginalized by the emerging Warburg art historians whom he disputed on esthetic and psycho-analytical grounds, Stokes was championed in the 1950s after a period of neglect by his friends Richard Wollheim (1923-2003) and the critics Andrew Forge and David Sylvester. Methodologically, Stokes continues the British esthetic-school art writing of John Ruskin (q.v.) Walter Pater (q.v.), reacting against the formalism of the Bloomsbury group. Later art historians such as John Berger, Peter Fuller, Michael Baxandall, John Shearman and John Gage owe a debt to Stokes' "phenomenological precision" (Read).


His Biography: Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 97; Wollheim, Richard. Introduction to The Image of Form: The Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes. Edited by Richard Wollheim. New York: Harper & Row, 1972; Read, Richard. "Preface." Art and its Discontents: The Early Life of Adrian Stokes. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002, pp. xix-xlii; Bann, Stephen. Dictionary of Art; Kite, Steven, "Adrian Stokes" http://www.pstokes.demon.co.uk/; Carrier, David. "Introduction: England and its aesthetes." England and Its Aesthetes: Biography and Taste: John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Adrian Stokes: Essays. Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1997; obituaries: The Times [London], December 19, 1972, p.18.

His Bibliography: The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes. Lawrence Gowing, ed. 3 vols. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1978; The Image in Form: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes. Richard Wollheim, ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1972; Greek Culture and the Ego: A Psycho-Analytic Survey of an Aspect of Greek Civilization and of Art. London: Tavistock, 1958; Michelangelo: A Study in the Nature of Art. London: Tavistock Publications, 1955; Reflections on the Nude. London: Tavistock Publications, 1967; The Thread of Ariadne. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925; Sunrise in the West: A Modern Interpretation of Past and Preset. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1926; The Quattro Cento: A Different Conception of the Italian Renaissance. [Part One: Florence and Verona. An Essay in Italian Fifteenth-Century Architecture and Sculpture]. London: Faber & Faber, 1932; The Stones of Rimini. London: Faber & Faber, 1934; Colour and Form. London: Faber & Faber, 1937, extensively revised edition, 1950; Venice: An Aspect of Art. London: Faber & Faber, 1945; Inside Out: An Essay in the Psychology and Aesthetic Appeal of Space. London: Faber, 1947; The Invitation in Art. [Preface by Richard Wollheim]. London: Tavistock, 1965.

FROM: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Richard Wollheim, Stokes, Adrian Durham (1902–1972)