Though it demonstrates skill and sophistication in its every stroke of paint, Anthony Gross was just twenty-two years old when he made Fountain at the Spaiis.

In 1923, at the age of eighteen, he had enrolled at the Slade in London. An energetic young student, he leapt at every opportunity that presented itself: in the four years that followed, his movements were hectic as he travelled to study in Madrid at the Academia de San Fernando and Paris at the Académie Julian, punctuated by interim explorations in the south of France.

Fountain at the Spaais

By 1927 he had decided to journey to North Africa, settling in Algeria where this work was painted. The scene is of an unknown location – perhaps a fountain on the outskirts of Bou Saâda, the small haven town just north of the Sahara where Gross stayed for three months. One of the earliest of his oils to have survived, it stands alongside a small number of paintings produced across the year that, in the words of Gross expert Richard Morphet, ‘could hardly be less compatible with the careful approach enjoined by the Slade professor, Henry Tonks. They reflect not only his extensive European travels of the mid-1920s but also the competing influences of Post-Impressionism and the freedom of approach permissible in Parisian académies libres.’

A contemporary painting, ‘Figure in a North African Landscape’, 1927

Gross’ early Impressionist influences came via an American painter, Kay Scott, whom he met in Algeria. Gross recalled in a later letter how Scott, ‘told me about Cézanne’s colours. Green distance, orange middle, and red foreground and kept blue for drawing. I have kept to this colour scheme most of my life.’

A pochoir reproduction of a Cézanne watercolour showing the French artist’s use of blue for figure drawing and shadows

Fountain offers one of the first experiments in this new colour scheme. The palette is beautifully restrained with shades of dust, sand, and ochre, their coolness set off by a fold of scarlet cloth in the foreground. Cézanne’s stricture of ‘blue for drawing’ is put into practice with the gaggle of figures, achieved in an exquisite economy of brushstrokes, while in the middle ground Gross anticipates his own colour theory of the mid-1960s: ‘For light colours pale green or pale mauve or pink instead of yellow.’

detail of foreground figures, revealing Gross’ palette of pale pinks and blues

Most impressive here, however, is Gross’ use of the brush. He would paint directly onto canvas at the scene, rather than recreate from pencil sketches: ‘I used to paint each picture at a single go. As soon as I ran out of canvas, I scraped them down and repainted over them. Some had several ébauches on them before the final picture.’

detail of Gross’ gestural marks in the painted sky

The result is immediacy and total immersion: the mark-making is inescapable, with a self-evident enjoyment of the physical qualities of paint. In the broad stretches of sky, Gross draws not with but into the paint; the natural combed lines of the brush hairs become integral to its sense of movement.

Gross would return to Algeria some fifteen years later as an Official War Artist on the North African campaign. Though he would become perhaps best-known for his work during the war, paintings like Fountain reveal that, even in his formative years, he could paint with enviable finesse.

View ‘Fountain at the Spaais’ and other works by Gross online here >