Saturday, 22 November 2014

Paul Leschhorn: borderland


It is now almost four years since  I last posted on the Franco-German artist, Paul Leschhorn. Since then, quite a few new images of his colour woodcuts have been made available online and it's always good to see more of this still rather neglected printmaker's work. So, that is the first reason for another post.

Secondly, the work of the British photographer, James Ravilious, featured in the last post, made me think over the way Leschhorn used snow in his work. He was the snowiest of all the pre-war printmakers; just like James Ravilious, he gives us the feel of snow. It was not just a matter of using snow to provide areas of white (as it was with quite a few of his contemporaries); Leschhorn was also a skier and mountaineer who knew the Vosges Mountains well. Yet his work showed some of the most unidentifiable places in by any of the German-speaking printmakers.

Both artists also suffered considerably as a result of war. The plane that James Ravolious' father, Eric, was in was lost over the Atlantic near Iceland when James was only two years old, whilst the Alsatian countryside and mountains where Leschhorn grew up became a part of France again after its loss to Germany following the Franco-Prussian war. Snow allowed them both to build things up again from nothing, the way many other artists do, but in their own special and peculiar way.


What I said in the previous post was there were many kinds of borders, many f them subtle, unacknowledged borders lost to the modern world but still affecting the way we act. I think the Vosges was one of them, much more than the Rhein and while not all Leschhorn's prints have the feeling of remoteness, these are the ones that I prefer.

But even then, there are differences between them. For all their apparent similarities, Leshchhorn distinguished with care between one type of countryside and another and I think it's interesting that the closer he seems to get to regular human life, the more conventional he seemed to become. But then, I still don't know enough about the artist and his work to make very definite judgments about it.

But the one thing I do like about the work of both Ravilious and Leschhorn is the way they take the photographic print and the woodcut back to their basics of black-and-white. It's paradoxical that the more monochrome they become, the more feeling enters into their work. It is the way they use shape that is so particular, both stark and blurred and, of course, it is snow that allows them to do that, to lose, freeze and to recover, all at one and the same moment.


Friday, 31 October 2014

James Ravilious: hunters in the snow

When Seamus Heaney was about to describe his potato seed-cutters, he invoked Breughel, saying, 'You'll know them if I can get them true'. I lived in Devon at the time James Ravilious took these photographs of north Devon farmers working with their sheep and dogs during a blizzard. I remember my own road being full of snow and I think Ravilious got his farmers true.

Ravilious is one of those artists who start people off talking about Englishness as though he were expressing some peculiar quality about us. What I like about these photographs is the way he could put all that behind him while he was working alongside these men. The harsh conditions provided him with the best opportunity he had to show that he could do more than just show how people lived in rural England.


The snow provided large areas of white but alongside them he has a tremendous range of tones. It's one of those paradoxical things about monochrome - in the right hands, it can be used to get the feel of things of themselves. In the 1920s Arthur Rigden Read was masterly in the way he got the sense of silk or sacking or feathers by using what was more or less black-and-white. Being a photographer Ravilious could work directly with the light to render those extraordinary armfuls of hay. These photographs are not about who we are, they are about what we are.

The Beaford Archive hold all the negatives for the photographs taken between 1972 and 1989 and all of them can be viewed online. All I have done here is to look at one aspect of his work, but I think there is something profound about the ones here. His father, Eric, never achieved anything like this. James found a way of retrieving something, much the way his farmers did.

The photographs are a record of events and of a way of life and he never lost touch with very ordinary things, but some of these also go well beyond that. You can see the sense of rhythm he achieved (especially in the photograph above) and the way he could build on it, and sometimes get somewhere very unusual. There are political borders and real borders, often within countries themselves. Modern life doesn't recognise such things by and large but Devon is a borderland and I think Ravilious picked that up.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

James Ravilious, Paul Leschhorn & snow

The next two posts will be about the British photographer, James Ravilious, who did the work he is best known for in north Devon and the Franco-German printmaker, Paul Leschhorn, who often depicted the Vosges Mountains in France under a heavy cover of snow.
Ravilious didn't have the great interest in snowy mountains and forests that Leschhorn had but I think he did some of his most compelling work when showing the winter conditions that Devon farmers worked in when looking after their sheep. But really what these two posts are about is this: black and white, even for artists who work in colour, is a sort of weather for them, basic and unavoidable.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Eric Slater's ebay


Following the recent  sale of Eric Slater's well-known  The coastguard station (below) for £720, we now have A Sussex Mill (above) with a starting-bid of £250 from the same seller. Time was (and it was not so long ago) Slaters sold for £250. Not any more. Readers with an interest in Slater will have noticed that some prints have fetched a lot more - if I remember rightly one went not so long ago for around £1200.

The print on offer varies quite a lot from the version in James Trollope's book, Slater's Sussex. Generally, I think it's livelier and presumably Slater felt the same way about it. The blues are brighter and there is more green so the contrasts are greater but that only increases the colour-by-numbers effect that Slater undoubtedly has. They have period charm, yes. Are they worth £750? Most certainly not. Why are people prepared to pay so much? I really have no idea.

The prints certainly appear to be in good condition and how many are left to come out on the market is anybody's guess. The woodcuts with an edition given in the book are in 50s and so it surprises me they keep on turning up. I also wonder what will happen if something rare is being held back in reserve because I am quite certain that a market is being created here for those who seem willing to pay.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Edna Boies Hopkins


I never appreciated just how good Edna Boies Hopkins was until the postman handed over a book about her this morning. It says a lot about the kind of images we see online to start with and the way they don't always do an artist' work justice. An exception would be the old post on 'Japonisme' but in Dominique Vasseur's book, print after print holds its own, and it was worth every penny, nickel and cent.

She is one of the few artists I find hard to decide which images to choose (when I have a choice). She was not just prolific, she was consistent. I may not like everything she did quite as much but nothing gets the thumbs down, which is saying quite a lot.


But here is what they call a personal selection. It's heavy on the famous flower prints but those are the ones I like most. From the more obvious Japanese imbued ones of her early years to the art deco images of the twenties, I think they are all like her, terrific.


Less was obviously more with Hopkins. What she was doing was essentially simple but done with great style and imagination. She was one of the generation of American artists who spent a lot of time in Paris as well as training with Arthur Wesley Dow and in Japan and it's that wealth of backgrounds that show up so well in all the prints here. She is full of nuance, like a spring day.


She spent ten years in Paris between 1904 and 1914 then with war looking imminent, he got a job teaching in Cincinnati and they moved back home. But Cincinatti didn't hold her and independent woman that she was, she taught in New York and set up with printmakers like Blanche Lazell in Provincetown and from 1915 began to use what's been called the white-line method.


I'm not going to go into details, partly because it doesn't appeal to me so much and partly because I just think it gave many of the prints a fake modernity and for Boies Hopkins something was lost in the mix. B.J.O. Nordfeldt was one of the artists to take this method to its logical extreme but I'm not convinced by a lot of his work anyway. But Boies Hopkins is another matter.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Hans Neumann's 'Neuschnee'


I've heard today from a reader in Germany who recently bought a proof of Hans Neumann's woodcut Neuschnee. It differs quite a lot from the one I used to illustrate the recent post on Neumann's work. To start with, unlike my own, it is signed (but then mine has a strange fine scratch on it). More importantly, it is inscribed sonderdruck. I think this means it is from a fine edition and was printed using a water-based medium rather than printer's ink. As you can see, the tone is different and my reader says the blue is stronger than in the photograph he sent.

You will also notice that the paper is wrinkled (below) where the block was printed and that it is cockled at the top. Generally, this suggests a woodcut has been printed on japan although I have seen nothing more of my reader's print than you have. Mine is on a stiffer, laid paper which is pale beige. I also need to say the second image does have a keyblock border but it was missed off the image I found. You will also see that in close-up the finer image is stippled while the brown image is not. I would certainly think the change of colour is intentional. It makes the difference between the two images obvious and would possibly encourage collectors to buy both. I know that given the chance, I would.

Many thanks to Markus in Germany for sending in the image. I suspected there was something odd about this print and know we all know.


Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Allen W Seaby, Art and Nature: Martin Andrews & Robert Gillmor

Anyone who sets out to produce a small book about the British artist, author and educationalist, Allen Seaby, will be faced with a large predicament: what to make of it all, the bird illustrations, the pony stories, the colour woodcuts, the art history, the ornithology, the animal carvings? He died in 1953 but was essentially a late Victorian, erudite, thorough, encyclopaedic and are any of us a match for that?
Martin Andrews and Robert Gillmor have sensibly shared the task. This was the option taken for recent books about Lucien Pissarro (2011) and Walter Phillips (2013). The specialist can deal with history and technique while a descendant of the artist can write a memoir and appreciation, as happened with Phillips. In Robert Gillmor, Seaby is fortunate enough to have a grandson who is also a distinguished linocut artist and writer and who has already given talks about the life and work of his grandfather. The task of writing about British colour woodcut given to Martin Andrews was in many ways far more complex. The history of the subject, and the part that Seaby played in it, has not so far been written and nor, as it turns out, was this the occasion to do so.

There is a good deal to admire here. The first part of the book takes the scrap-book approach, giving a strong flavour of the varied life that Seaby led and the final section takes an all-round approach to Seaby's work as an artist. To readers of this blog, much of this will be new. Illustrations from his sketch-books are very rewarding. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more of them and fewer of the later work on linen. The watercolour sketches takes us back to the days of John Ruskin, William Holman Hunt and Edward Lear, with Seaby himself achieving the balance of description and form his work is noted for. Unfortunately, the key document that shows just how he developed his approach is missing from the book. It is certainly all helped by the high standard of reproduction and the scanned images you see here are unworthy of the book but the best I could do.

This is not a book about Seaby's colour prints and producing a scholarly catalogue, useful as it would be, would have been a long and very difficult task. High standards have recently set by James Trollope for Eric Slater (2012), Timothy Dickson for Leonard Beaumont (2013) and most remarkably Robert Meyrick for Sydney Lee (2013). Seaby produced more prints than any of them, around 100 full-size colour woodcuts over his long career, many without titles, and none that I can think of with dates. Yet a check-list for many of his woodcuts, with titles and dates, has been in existence for many years (and I have a copy) and what mars this book are the mistakes with both dates and titles that could have been avoided. Unaccountably, the authors also give descriptive ie invented titles without placing them in brackets to make clear the titles are unknown. So, Twins (1936) becomes 'Goats and kids' early 1930s, Tutankhamen's burial place (1925)  becomes 'Valley of the Kings' Egypt, early 1920s, Rotherfield Mill, Sussex (1935) is relocated to Brill in Oxfordshire during the 1940s, and what must be Black, white and grey (1936), showing a hutchful of rabbits, becomes the delightful 'Happy family'!

I could go on but should now deal with the tricky topic of early colour woodcut in Britain. No one should approach this minefield without considerable preparation and absolute caution. Robert Meyrick did a concise and informed job as part of his essay on Sydney Lee (and there was perhaps only one mistake) and James Trollope, not being a specialist, wisely left his remarks about colour woodcut to the final section. What made Martin Andrews attempt the write a five page summary of  'The colour woodcut movement' and where did the material come from? There are no notes, and I wonder how any of this will strike readers new to the subject. 'Artist and teacher' and 'The colour woodcut movement' are riddled with errors and what I can only take to be assumptions.

It would be easy (and unkind) to go through everything, but I was bemused to learn for instance that John Dickson Batten was studying at Reading School of Art  in 1876 (and perhaps he was) when he was still at Amersham Hall School, but then the notes are lacking. But the worst is reserved for Walter Crane who is made to give up an important post as principal of the Royal College of Art to take up a part-time position as director of an art department at a provincial extension college of Christchurch, Oxford. Crane left Reading for the Royal College when it was set up in 1898 and, frankly, it would have been sensible to have left Reading and the Royal College well alone. Suffice to say, more research was needed, or a lighter touch. It wouldn't have broken the bank if the history had been left to another day. Or to someone else.

Allen W Seaby, art and nature is published by Two Rivers Press at £12.99 and is available directly from them.