Born in Northumberland, northern England, the son of a country doctor, he grew up in London and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London where he met and married Nancy Sharp. He co-founded the Euston Road School with Graham Bell Victor Pasmore, and Claude Rogers in 1937. He enlisted in the Royal Artillery at the start of the war but he was appointed a War Artist in 1943, working in Egypt and Italy.1 His earlier years were characterized by a dedicated engagement with socialist ideals, and by the pursuit of a non-elitist form of art. At this period he was close friends with the composer Britten, and the writers Auden and Isherwood.
In November 1945, he became a visiting teacher at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, and later its Professor. In 1949 he returned to lead the Slade School as Principal, and Professor of Fine Art. Under his direction the Slade achieved an international reputation for excellence.2 In 1952 he became a CBE3 In the Queen's Birthday Honours 1956 Coldstream was appointed as a Knight Bachelor.4 In 1960 he married his model, Monica Hoyer, his first marriage having broken down many years earlier. Between 1958 and 1971 he was Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education, which published its first report in 1960—called the "Coldstream Report"—outlining the requirements for a new Diploma in Art and Design (Dip.A.D.). Other administrative posts he held were as Vice Chairman of the Arts Council, and as a director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and as a trustee of the National Gallery. He was also Chairman of the British Film Institute from 1964 to 1971 (he had worked with John Grierson in the GPO Film Unit for a few years in the 1930s).
He retired from the Slade School in 1975, and continued to paint until 1984, when his health was in marked decline. He died in the Royal Homeopathic Hospital in London on 18 February 1987. He had five children in total, two girls by his first marriage, and a boy and two girls by his second, and was much loved and admired both as a family man and as a charismatic figure in the London art world of the mid twentieth century. Known for his wit, kindness, and breadth of sympathies, he was an inspiration to many.
Coldstream was committed to painting directly from life; he once remarked, "I lose interest unless I let myself be ruled by what I see".5 His type of realism had its basis in careful measurement, carried out by the following method: standing before the subject to be painted, a brush is held upright at arm's length. With one eye closed, the artist can, by sliding a thumb up or down the brush handle, take the measure of an object or interval. This finding is compared against other objects or intervals, with the brush still kept at arm's length. Informed by such measurements, the artist can paint what the eye sees without the use of conventional perspective. The surfaces of Coldstream's paintings carry many small horizontal and vertical markings, where he recorded these coordinates so that they could be verified against reality.
As a result of his painstaking methods, Coldstream worked slowly, often taking scores of sittings over several months to complete a work. His subjects include still-life, landscapes (usually centered on architecture), portraits, and the female nude.
The Tate Gallery has several of his paintings.
- Gowing, Lawrence; Sylvester, David (1990). The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908–1987. London: Tate Gallery. ISBN 1-85437-048-0.
- Wilcox, Tim, et al. (1990). The Pursuit of the Real: British figurative painting from Sickert to Bacon. London: Lund Humphries. ISBN 0-85331-571-X.
- Laughton, Bruce (2004), William Coldstream. New Haven: Paul Mellon Center for British Art. ISBN 0-300-10243-7.
- Wilson, Colin St.John. (1999) The Artist at Work: On the Working Methods of William Coldstream and Michael Andrews. London: Lund Humphries. ISBN 0-85331-759-3