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Patrick Caulfield, ‘Reserved Table’

by James Thompson

Having joined the Royal College of Art in 1960, the year after David Hockney and a number of pioneers of British Pop Art, Patrick Caulfield's work has often been associated with the movement. At Pallant House Gallery, Caulfield's paintings are shown in good Pop Art company, yet it is a classification he never accepted. Caulfield had an eye turned back to the imagery and formalism of the Cubists and the early 20th century French avant-garde. There are often humorous references to the art of an earlier generation in his paintings which, at the same time, always look fresh and modern and in a style quite unlike any of his contemporaries.

What interested me about ‘Reserved Table’ when I was looking for a subject for my research for Outside In's Step Up programme was its mysterious atmosphere. The strange feeling generated by the painting is heightened by the presence of the lobster, an object associated with Surrealist art, particularly in the work of Salvador Dali and his Lobster Telephone.

The painting also displays a formal concern with contrasting elements; a dark alcove on the right is balanced with a similar shaped doorway on the left through which light streams from the main restaurant or kitchen beyond. The immaculate white of the tablecloth contrasts with the perfect blackness behind the lobster in an oval mirror. Unlike in that most famous of paintings with a mirror, Velásquez' ‘Las Meninas’, this one reflects not the royal family or the artist but beyond a seafood meal, a void.

The viewer is confronted with a puzzle; who is this table reserved for and what is their story? Caulfield was a fan of film noir cinema and the crime fiction of writers such as Raymond Chandler, and in ‘Reserved Table’ there is a sense of far more going on than just an observed every-day scene. Sitting in front of the painting I can imagine the sound of this place, a hushed, darkened corner where noise is dampened by plush furnishings, punctured by the stark light and clamour of a noisy kitchen.

The size of the work, the empty mirror and the absence of the human form within the composition seems to suggest the table is reserved for us, the viewer, if only we could walk into the painting and complete the narrative.

Then again, with the lobster sitting on what could be a small telephone shelf, the table may be awaiting the return of Dali to receive the cooked telephone he wondered why he was never served, in place of a lobster in his book, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.