Ambiguity was the essence of the work of Carel Weight, where ostensibly ordinary scenes were made alternately strange, serene, and sinister. His images of peripheral London life, subtly undercut by an atmosphere of unfamiliarity, have seen his work represented in a number of high-profile public and private collections including the Tate, the V&A, and, most recently, that of the late David Bowie.
‘Child’s Wonderment’, screenprint after original painting by Carel Weight, from the complete numbered edition
Weight’s predilection for the unusual can be traced to a childhood of uncertainty. Born in 1908 to a bank clerk and a manicurist, his parents prioritised careers over their new son, handing care of him over to foster-parents and tolerating only weekend visits. Criticised by his father, neglected by his mother, beaten by his schoolmaster and brought up surrounded by relative poverty, the artist recalled in later years how his early youth was spent in an almost constant state of fear and anxiety.
Though by his adult life it was an experience he could put behind him, as one of Kenneth Clark’s celebrated Official War Artists and occupying the coveted position of Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art, the dreamlike world in which he had sheltered himself as a young boy frequently provided inspiration for his well-known images of life in suburbia.
Child’s Wonderment, completed around 1975 and just seven years before a major retrospective at the Royal Academy, perfectly epitomises Weight’s indistinct approach. Stylistically, the image is a triumph of composition: the great sweeping motion from right to left through leaning sail boats, buffeted treetops, an ethereal disappearing handrail and the crooked form of the aged tree beautifully frames the titular child, swept up beneath the naked branches above. It seems a typical picture of a grey, British childhood.
But look more closely, and things are less clear. The boy, body lilting and hands clasped to the side of his head, echoes the ghostly figure of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Gazing out beyond the canvas, the source of his amazement remains a mystery: perhaps out of sight, perhaps all in his head.
The enduring power of Weight’s images was to make one see strangeness where seemingly there was none. When the London Zoo zebra house was bombed in the Second World War, unleashing one startled animal onto the city streets, Weight could not help but be drawn to so surreal a scene.
In Child’s Wonderment, this facility is felt most fully. Presented with an intimate vignette of stereotypical, commonplace ordinariness, the more we look, the more we explore, the less certain everything begins to seem.
This screenprint after Weight’s original painting was produced in a numbered and signed edition of 95, printed at Curwen Studios and published by Fieldborne Galleries in the early 1990s. We have been lucky enough to have acquired the complete edition, which has lain untouched for over a quarter of a century now.