Coldstream Correspondence

Scope and Content

Correspondence of Sir William Menzies Coldstream concerning the Arts Council of Great Britain, 1949-1963.

Administrative / Biographical History

Coldstream, Sir William Menzies (1908-1987), artist and arts administrator, was born on 28 February 1908 at the Doctor's House, West Street, Belford, Northumberland, the youngest in the family of two sons and three daughters of George Probyn Coldstream, general medical practitioner, and his wife, (Susan Jane) Lilian Mercer, elder daughter of Major Robert Mercer Tod (43rd light infantry), of Edinburgh.

Although Coldstream went at sixteen to the University Tutorial Centre, Red Lion Square, to prepare for entry to medical school, by his eighteenth birthday he had failed matriculation, met W. H. Auden, and started to draw and paint seriously. In Apr 1926, with his father's support, he enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art. While there Coldstream was awarded the Slade certificate for drawing (1926), a Slade scholarship, the figure and summer composition prizes (1927), the summer landscape prize, and the second Melville Nettleship prize for figure composition (1928).

He left the Slade in 1929, and in the following year got his first commission, met Victor Pasmore, and was elected to the London Artists' Association. On 22 Jul 1931 Coldstream married Nancy Culliford Sharp. They had two daughters. The marriage was dissolved in 1942. In 1932 he became temporary art master at Wellington College, and in 1933 briefly attempted 'objective abstraction', which Geoffrey Tibble and Rodrigo Moynihan were then moving towards.

Coldstream got a job with the pioneering General Post Office film unit run by John Grierson. In 1935 he directed 'The King's Stamp' and edited 'Coal Face', with lyrics by Auden and music by Benjamin Britten; but, after directing 'Fairy of the Phone' (1936) and 'Roadways' (1937). In 1937 Coldstream joined with Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore in starting the Euston Road School, a school of drawing and painting at 12 Fitzroy Street (later 316 Euston Road). Although it closed on the outbreak of the Second World War (1939), it had much impact and created a 'new look' in English art.

In 1940 Coldstream enlisted in the Royal Artillery but was soon transferred to the Royal Engineers and commissioned as a camouflage officer (1940). He served in England until appointed an official war artist (1943). He then went first to Egypt, painting mostly portraits at no. 11 Indian transit camp, between the pyramids and Cairo. From 1944 he was in Italy, doing outstanding war landscapes in Capua, Pisa, Rimini, and Florence.

On demobilization (1945) he joined Victor Pasmore in teaching at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, later (1948) becoming its inspiring head of painting. In June the following year he was appointed Slade professor at University College, London. During twenty-six years there he introduced postgraduate courses, and, for the first time, made film studies available at university level. He was elected a fellow of University College in 1953. On 30 March 1961 he married Monica Mary, daughter of Alfred Eric Monrad Hoyer, journalist, of London. They had a son and two daughters.

During those years and after his retirement (1975), his paintings included a succession of outstanding nudes, a series of views of Westminster painted from the Department of the Environment in Marsham Street, and a number of commissioned portraits which rank among his most remarkable works. Among these are: 'Dr Bell, Bishop of Chichester' (1954; Tate collection), 'Sir Ifor Evans' (1958-1960; University College, London), 'Westminster Abbey I' (1973-1974; Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre, London), and 'Reclining Nude' (1974-1976; Tate collection).

Coldstream was chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (1958-1971); a trustee of the National Gallery (1948-1955, 1956-1963) and of the Tate Gallery (1949-1955, 1956-1963); a member of the Arts Council (1952-1962), vice-chairman of the council (1962-1970), and chairman of its art panel (1953-1962); a director of the Royal Opera House (1957-1962); chairman of the British Film Institute (1964-1971); and vice-president of Morley College (1977-1983). In 1977 he was elected to the Society of Dilettanti, and became painter to the society. Appointed CBE in 1952, he was knighted in 1956 and received honorary degrees from the universities of Nottingham (1961), Birmingham (1962), and London (1984), and from the Council for National Academic Awards (1975).

Coldstream died at the Homoeopathic Hospital in Camden on 18 February 1987.

Access Information


Subject to normal access conditions. Previously closed until 2013.

Other Finding Aids

Collection level description