Caroline Walker - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “In a broad sense my work is exploring pre-conceived gender and identity positions in relation to the home, but I paint women because in some ways I am always painting myself, and my own experiences or anxieties.”
    —Caroline Walker

    Executed in seductive washes of turquoise and deep, forest greens, Threshold is a captivating work by Scottish artist Caroline Walker, balancing compositional harmony with a richly atmospheric sense of narrative ambiguity. Framed by dense, overhanging foliage, two women dressed in identical orange swimsuits lie head-to-head at the edge of an outdoor swimming pool, their faces hidden by broad-rimmed, black sunhats. Mirroring each other, both trail an arm languorously in the water, the strange symmetry of their arrangement and attire echoed in the doubled reflection of the pool and enforced by the rigid symmetry of the alternating panels of oak and glass behind the figures.


    As Walker has explained, these architectural elements offer more than an attractive backdrop for her characters, the modernist vernacular that she favours in these works not only performing a narrative function in its expression of a certain kind of kind of wealth and lifestyle, but establishing a pictorial logic in the sharp divisions of her canvases that frame these ‘understated human dramas.’i In this respect, Threshold borrows from a rich history of artists that have made compositional use of such features including Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet, recalling in particular the balance of symmetry and strangeness struck by Augustus Leopold Egg’s 1862 The Travelling Companions.


    Augustus Leopold Egg, The Travelling Companion, 1862, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. Image: Birmingham Museums Trust, Presented by Feeney Charitable Trust, 1956
    Augustus Leopold Egg, The Travelling Companions, 1862, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. Image: Birmingham Museums Trust, Presented by Feeney Charitable Trust, 1956


    Building on its uneasy proximity to the Freudian uncanny, Walker uses the air of strangeness associated with the doubled image to explore certain archetypal notions of femininity. Closely connected to pagan ideas of the triple goddess – Maiden, Mother, Crone – as the embodiment of the three stages of womanhood, Walker used visual repetition across a number of her paintings from this period which, she explains, is why ‘the recurring women in these paintings are seen repeatedly in the matching swimming costumes, as though we are looking at several stages of the same woman.’ii Indeed, almost totally obscured behind the frosted glass, a third, seated women is just discernible, hovering inbetween the two figures, neither inside the scene, nor totally removed from it. 


    Widely regarded as one of the most technically accomplished figurative artists of her generation, Walker’s paintings privilege this female gaze, using domestic environments to pose questions around looking and being looked at, the slippery boundary between public behaviour and private space, and the relationship between the spaces that we occupy and the kind of narratives that unfold there. As Walker herself has described, ‘My main interest has always been about how people relate to architecture, but more particularly for the last few years how we view femininity in the home. About the psychological possibilities of architectural space and how it relates to gender.’iii


    Dream Homes and Heartache


    Painted in 2014, Threshold is a late work from Walker’s In Every Dream Home series, a suite of paintings first presented in the artist’s solo exhibition with Pitzhanger Manor Gallery the year before. Staged in the same, luxurious residential setting, the paintings feature a recurring cast of women who we glimpse in moments of unguarded stillness, the passage of the day carrying them through a set of familiar domestic and leisure activities. Alongside the house and the three women themselves, the oversized hats and orange bathing suits run like a thread through the series, compellingly connecting the individual paintings like fragments of a narrative that always seems to fall just beyond the scope of our comprehension. The arrangement of the two figures here is repeated across the series, with other works such as Recreation Pavillion reprising the composition from a different, elevated and more closely cropped angle. Non-linear and strikingly cinematic, Walker sets up visual clues about the lives of the women without ever being explicit about who they are or what their relationship to one another might be, establishing the central tension between luxury and artifice, appearance and reality that energises these dramas of contemporary domesticity.


    Both the series and the exhibition borrowed their title from the 1973 Roxy Music hit ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’, a catchy meditation on the emptiness of our contemporary obsessions with material wealth and the disquieting gap between fantasy and its everyday lived reality. Having acquired his dream house and it’s ‘penthouse perfection’, the male protagonist needs a picture-perfect wife to occupy it, purchasing an inflatable mail-order doll like some latter-day Pygmalion. An avatar for the figure of the trophy wife, this ‘disposable darling’ is his to dress up and keep, the luxurious home a gilded cage.

    “Like a dream-home lifestyle, the doll itself embodies fantasy and artifice. This struck a chord with me in the way I populate my paintings with alienated, nameless women, often in states of undress, available for our projected fantasies, sexual or otherwise.”
    —Caroline Walker

    Working exclusively with women, Walker developed a very distinct approach to her compositions during this period. Having found the right location, she hired actresses and models to spend time in the space with her, posing and photographing them before returning to her studio to work from these carefully staged images. Tellingly, this approach is not so dissimilar from Yorkshire-born David Hockney’s interest in the relationship between photography and painting, his sun-soaked Californian pool paintings in particular frequently invoked in discussions of Walker’s practice. Communicating a similarly languid sense of luxury, Walker’s pool paintings go further than Hockney’s into a kind of narrative disquiet that is difficult to place, but that undoubtably calls on more cinematic reference points including films such as The Graduate and Jacques Deray's blistering 1969 La Piscine.


    David Hockney, Portrait of An Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, Private Collection. Image: Art Gallery of New South Wales / Jenni Carter, Artwork: © David Hockney
    David Hockney, Portrait of An Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, Private Collection. Image: Art Gallery of New South Wales / Jenni Carter, Artwork: © David Hockney


    Much of this unease stems from the tension maintained in Walker’s compositions between intrusion and intimacy, her sharply cropped or awkwardly elevated compositions granting us stolen glimpses into these women’s lives, blurring the boundaries between public and private and the ways in which we unconsciously arrange ourselves in these spaces. As Marco Livingstone has eloquently identified, that Walker’s figures are exclusively women - and ones who ‘often appear half-clothed or nude, but apparently oblivious to the fact that they are so intimately on display - intensifies the intimations of sinister intrusiveness that cast a shadow over what at first might be taken as a scene of serenity, retreat and relaxation.’iv Although evoking the voyeuristic lens of Eric Fischl’s take on suburban 1980s America – a reference that Walker has herself acknowledged – these exquisitely rendered paintings draw our gaze back from the overtly sexual and exploitative, relying instead on the sensation of discomfort generated by these accidental intrusions to reflect on questions of gender and consent, looking and being looked upon.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Since graduating from her MA with the Royal College of Art in 2009, Scottish artist Caroline Walker has been the subject of several solo exhibitions internationally, including Janet at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh in 2020, Women’s Work at the Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham in 2021, and her most recent exhibition at K11 in Shanghai in November 2022.

    •  Unusual in Walker’s oeuvre in its depiction of two figures rather than a single woman, Threshold belongs to her In Every Dream Home series first exhibited in 2013. One of the works from this series, Consulting the Oracle, was included in the milestone 2014-15 exhibition Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting held at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. 

    • Walker’s works are included in a number of prominent public collections, including the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, The UK Government Art Collection, London, and Kunstmuseum in The Hague.


    i Marco Livingstone, ‘Exchanging Confidences: Marco Livingstone in Conversation with Caroline Walker’, Picture Window, London, 2018, p. 249.

    ii Caroline Walker, quoted in Daisy Woodward, ‘Caroline Walker: In Every Dream Home’, AnOther Magazine, July 19 2013, online.

    iii Caroline Walker, quoted in Martin Newman, ‘Desperate Housewives: Artist Caroline Walker’s paintings of women through the keyhole’, The Mirror, July 15 2013, online.

    iv Marco Livingstone, ‘Sleepwalking’, in Inside Every Dream Home, London, 2013, n.p.

    • Provenance

      ProjectB, Milan
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2014

Property of an Important European collection



signed, titled and dated ''THRESHOLD' CAROLINE WALKER 2014 Caroline Walker’ on the reverse
oil on canvas
200 x 300 cm (78 3/4 x 118 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

£150,000 - 200,000 ‡♠

Sold for £927,100

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 March 2023