He could have been the great English Modernist. At 29, ambitious and talented, he had already earned the friendship of Picasso and the respect of the Paris avant garde. Then, in 1930, Christopher Wood threw it all away. By RICHARD INGLEBY

In the Tate Gallery Archive, among the neatly catalogued boxes of letters, diaries and photographs - the usual artefacts of art history - there are five pages of close-typed paper detailing the movements of a man, identified only as W, on the 20 and 21 August, 1930: "W arrived at the Pier Hotel, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight about 11 o'clock on 20 August and was allotted room number nine. He stated he was going to stay for two days. He had with him two suitcases (one of them blue) and three large packets or holders containing, it was understood, pictures. He went to his room with the porter, came down within five minutes and had two whiskies and soda and a sandwich. He then went out. At about 12.40 he came in again, had a whisky and soda at the bar."

The document is a private detective's report compiled from eye-witnesses, and it makes gripping reading. W continues to order whiskies and soda at all times of the day and night, he meets men in cars that are unrecognised by anyone in the vicinity, he stays out all night and then changes his story as to where he spent it, he keeps a six-chamber revolver in his overcoat pocket and he leaves the island by the morning boat on Thursday, 21 August. By mid-afternoon, W is dead.

The report appears among the papers of a woman named Frosca Munster, a Russian emigree who lived in Paris in the Twenties, but it was commissioned by the artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson to help explain the circumstances surrounding the death of their greatest friend, the English painter Christopher Wood - the W who appears in the detective's report. Frosca Munster was Wood's last lover.

The death of Christopher Wood, aged 29, is an unsolved mystery in the story of British painting between the wars, and the findings of the Nicholson's detective only deepen the mystery. It was a sad and muddled end for a man who had set out nine years earlier with a very specific intention. Wood had arrived in Paris in 1921, and soon struck up a friend-ship with Tony Gandarillas, a wealthy, bisexual, opium-smoking dilettante loosely attached to the Chilean Embassy, who supported him financially for most of the decade. In October of that year, six months after his arrival in Paris, Wood wrote to his mother in defence of what she took to be his dissolute lifestyle: "Dearest mother, you ask me what I am going to do: I have decided to try and be the greatest painter that has ever lived". For an ambitious young man on the threshold of his career, this was a natural enough desire: anything less and he would not have been trying hard enough. However, what marked Christopher Wood out from his contemporaries was that, for a few years in the middle of the Twenties, it looked as if something of this extravagant ambition were close to coming true. Not necessarily to be the greatest who had ever lived, but to compete, at the tender age of 25, with the men he had grown up regarding as the greatest English artists of his day. By the time he met Ben Nicholson in 1926, Wood had yet to have an exhibition, or, indeed, to sell more than a handful of pictures, but he had already talked his way to the distinction of being the only English painter ever to design for Diaghilev's Russian Ballet, a commission won in the face of competition from both Wyndham Lewis and Augustus John.

The Twenties were not a high point in the history of British art, but in a quiet way they were crucial years which laid the ground for the advances that followed in the early Thirties. The formation of the Seven & Five Society set the tone. They were a disparate group, originally envisaged as an annual exhibiting society of seven painters and five sculptors, although their first exhibition in April 1920 listed a total of 18 members who had little in common beyond a desire to find shelter from the storm of ideas blowing from Paris. The manifesto which they published in their first catalogue in 1920 reads like a lesson in wilful restraint: "The Seven & Five are grateful to the pioneers but feel that of late there has been too much pioneering along too many lines in altogether too much of a hurry."

Under the leadership of Ben Nicholson in 1926, the mood and membership of the Seven & Five began to change and Christopher Wood was one of his first conscripts. By 1927, they were being hailed by the critic Frank Rutter in the Times as: "the most important group of young artists with advanced ideas". In some respects, the progress of the Seven & Five plots the course of English painting in the Twenties and early Thirties. They were slow starting and yet, in the space of 15 years, their annual exhibition evolved from still life and landscape pictures with titles such as The Woodcutter's Cabin and Where the Thrushes Sing to the sophistication of a Ben Nicholson white abstract relief.

Christopher Wood played an important role in this decade of gentle transformation. At a time of relative cultural isolation on this side of the Channel, Wood brought to his friendship with Ben Nicholson in particular, and to English art in general, the direct experience of the European avant-garde. As his contemporary, the novelist Anthony Powell, has written: "He was the only English artist found acceptable in the Paris monde of Picasso and Cocteau, a convenient bisexuality being no handicap in that particular sphere." Cocteau himself described Wood as the sort of man whom, "if I didn't know already, I would want to, having seen his pictures... Before the canvases you don't think, you live. No subtle problem poses itself here. A bunch of flowers is a bunch of flowers, smell it. A street is a street, walk down it." Cocteau makes the pictures sound deceptively simple, but it was a simplicity born of hard work and careful learning. The effect is, as Wood described it, the appearance of having got there by accident, but in reality his best work and his unique way of looking at the world were the product of a delicate balance between naivety and sophistication. It was this balance, and the quality that sprang from it of finding surprise in ordinary things, that won Wood the friendship and admiration of artists as diverse as Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Ben Nicholson who wrote, shortly after Wood's death: "When you walk in the country with Christopher Wood, the fields become a much more intense green and in London the buses a much more pungent red... I miss him more than I can say. I could have parted with almost anyone but him."

Two days before his tragic death, Wood left the Gare du Nord in Paris on a boat train bound for Le Havre. His plan was to take the night crossing to Southampton and then the train up to London to meet a friend whose gallery was to open in September that year with an exhibition of Wood's recent work. On the boat he seems to have seen someone he recognised, or who recognised him. Someone (according to a version of events which originated from Wood himself) who threatened him. Why and with what is not known, although Wood's opium smoking, a long-standing habit which had by 1930 become an addiction, and his homosexual past make blackmail a likely possibility.

When the boat docked at Southampton, he telephoned his mother and sister and arranged to meet them for lunch in Salisbury the following day. Wood then caught the ferry to Yarmouth, where the detective's report picks up his trail. According to the waiter on duty at the Pier Hotel on Thursday, 21 August, Wood walked into the dining room a few minutes after 6.30am. He asked (predictably) for a whisky and soda, but was told that the bar wasn't open. A little over two hours later, Wood caught the Lymington Ferry and from there took the train to Salisbury, where he lunched with his family before returning to the station to take the train up to London. Wood walked onto the platform, bought a book from a stall and sat down on a bench to read. He opened and shut the book several times but, unable to concentrate on the words, he began to pace up and down the platform. At 2.10, just as the train known as the Atlantic Coast Express was pulling into the station, Wood threw himself onto the tracks. He died instantly.

The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind, and the coroner remarked that in these instances one searches for a motive but that here there appeared to be none - "the man was clearly out of his senses". All that the coroner could discover was that Wood had arrived that morning from the South Coast and had spent an hour or two at the County Hotel before meeting his mother. Witnesses reported his manner as strange, but nothing was said or done that could shed any light on his subsequent suicide. It was left to Ben and Winifred Nicholson to discover more but, unlikely as it seems, having received and read the detective's report, they decided to call off their investigation. For a brief period in the late Twenties, their lives and work had been intricately bound, but Wood's death marked an end to the way things had been. By the autumn of 1930, Ben's work was moving towards a world of cool, clean abstraction where it is hard to imagine Christopher Wood could have followed. Nicholson went on to play a leading role in defining Modernism in this country, but, if it had been him who had died in August 1930, he would be no more than a footnote to our artistic history: the son of Sir William and husband of Winifred. When Wood and Nicholson exhibited together in Paris in May 1930, it was Wood's pictures which sold, albeit to a friend, and Wood who was hailed by the press in both Paris and London while Nicholson was universally ignored.

The picture thought to be Wood's last (painted in the month of his death), Zebra and Parachute, with its echoes of the sort of Surrealism practised by de Chirico, offers a clue to the road he might have taken, but more conclusively it shows something of the way he was feeling. It is a lonely, rather melancholic image that seems to acknowledge its status as an end- picture in its strange iconography. A listless, perhaps dead, figure drops to earth behind the Villa Savoye - Le Corbusier's then unfinished villa on the edge of Paris - his red-and-yellow parachute like a sun setting on a building that was itself a symbol of European Modernism.

`An English Painter' by Richard Ingleby is published by Allison & Busby on 29 May at pounds 25. An exhibition of Christopher Wood's paintings is at the Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1, from Monday



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss