Friday, 31 July 2015

'Laurence Binyon' a colour woodcut by Edmund Dulac


In the spring of 1910 the Tokyo firm of Shimbi Shoin sent two young craftsmen called Sugizaki Hideaki and Yoshijiro Urushibara to give demonstrations of woodblock cutting and printing at the great Japan-British exhibition at White City in London. If the intention was also to demonstrate just how fine their workmanship was, Shimbi Shoin were perhaps too successful because staff from the Department of Prints at the British Museum were so impressed, they offered to employ the two men themselves.

The wheeze was quite a simple one. Since 1903 the department had owned an early copy of an ancient Chinese scroll painting ascribed to the C4th artist Ku Kai-chih, which had been looted from the Imperial collection during the Boxer Rebellion and then offered to head curator Sidney Colvin and his oriental specialist, Laurence Binyon. The two men immediately paid £25 for it. Seven years later they decided tempt the craftsmen with the job of cutting and printing reproductions of the great Chinese scroll, which eventually went up for sale between 1912 and 1913 with a text by Binyon.


All the portraits by the Toulouse artist, Edmund Dulac, seen here you date from about 1913 and after and all the individuals belonged to a circle of artists and writers that included Ezra Pound, William Rothenstein and Dulac himself who would meet at the Vienna CafĂ© on New Oxford St not far from the museum. The portrait of Binyon's assistant, Arthur Waley (above) imitates a brush drawing but I think is pen and wash while the witty and unforgettable portrait of Charles Ricketts (below, right) alongside his other half, Charles Shannon, dressed as Dominican saints, is in watercolour. But the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge describes the superb portrait of Binyon himself as 'woodcut, colour printing'.

Binyon's face bought out the best in artists. William Strang produced one portrait of him (below) that stands out against all of his many, many portrait etchings. Likewise Dulac was able to combine the unusual face and another aspect of Binyon's personality and interests in one masterful little woodcut. And wonderful draughtsman he may have been but was Dulac - or was any English artist - capable of reproducing their own design with such refinement in colour woodcut? I think the answer has to be no. Surely, only Hideaki and Urushibara could have done anything so sophisticated as that.


Friday, 24 July 2015

Three Scottish artists: Jessie Garrow's 'The wave'


I am starting to think that 'The wave' was the only colour woodcut that Jessie Garrow ever made. Like most people, I only know it from the illustration published by The Studio in 1924 but just on that evidence I would say here is the most professional and stylish colour woodcut made by any young Scottish artist at the time.

Born in Bearsden, East Dunbarton in 1899, she studied at Glasgow School of Art where she met a fellow stylist who she married in about 1920. This was Ian Cheyne. Garrow claimed that they had taught themselves to make colour woodcut. Certainly she had made The wave before Chica MacNab's woodcut classes began at the School of Art. Whether or not she had recourse to Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock Printing is another matter but she has little in common with Fletcher and keyblock outline, which he used freely, only appears along two of the women's arms. It was highly unusual to depend on so much white and on contrasting colours to create an image at the time. My first impression was how peculiar the figures looked with their white stockings and shoes but she was bowing to no conventions here, especially in the way she made figures central to a colour woodcut.

It will not surprise you to hear that Garrow made her living as a fashion illustrator and writer and also illustrated books with the same spare line. But how could it be that such an original artist could leave so little work behind her? In her interests she is closest to Arthur Rigden Read who began making his own stylish woodcuts in 1922. But Read was a generation older. Like her, he didn't make a fetish of the keyblock, was mainly interested in figure subjects, and often used black, white and grey around this time (and just so you know what I mean I've included on of his own 1924-ish prints) but Garrow's sense of style was more acute than Read's. Just look at those overlapping feet on the pier - nothing if not ambitious for a one and only woodcut (and I would like someone to prove me wrong about that).


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Three Scottish artists: Helen Stevenson's postcard from Arran

I know this is a rather duff image of Helen Stevenson's woodcut 'Goatfell' but it is the best I can do right now. It is also a bit larger than actual size which makes it remarkable for a British colour woodcut and shows exactly how well Stevenson could handle scale. The only other contemporary artist I can think of who made successful small colour prints was Sylvan Boxsius. More typical of Stevenson is the fine handling of colour and the consummate way she prints on japan. Perhaps less well known is how closely Stevenson followed the contours of the landscape she described. She took liberties, sometimes by foreshortening, but that only went to show what an informed eye she had in the first place. She knew a good view when she saw one but almost always organised the image in a superior way to photographers who show the same view.

Stevenson is less hard to come by than many of her contemporaries, especially the Scottish ones and I suppose I was lucky with this one. This is why two more women artists will be following on in this short series. Their work is almost impossible to find even in reproduction.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Rachel Whiteread: disappearing act


At the time that Rachel Whiteread's sculpture was in position on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, a shockingly stupid remark (repeated by people who should have known better) was doing the rounds that it resembled the famous design of a polar bear on an iceberg for Fox's Glacier Mints. Better informed people would have known that this design was by another sculptor, the British artist Elsie Henderson, who also made colour woodcuts of animal subjects in the 1930s.


For a long time I have thought there was a subtle and intriguing relationship between sculpture and printmaking. It would be easy enough to make lists and just as easy to start talking in an abstract fashion about art but nevertheless I think it's worth saying - and, also, it surprises me that Whiteread herself has made so few prints. Interestingly, Eric Gill, both carver and printmaker, began his professional life as a monumental mason. Like relief prints, cutting letters in stone works not because something is there but because it isn't. Gill also once said he was interested in 'interstices' and I don't think you have to look hard at Whiteread's sublime New York sculpture, above, surrounded by roof-top water tanks, to see what she and Gill might have in common. It's not just physical intersection that interests her, ideas are always there. She is too poetic to be merely conceptual and too referential. It is not just a matter of 'only connect' with Whiteread  but it helps. Being ignorant certainly doesn't.


There is so much in poetic alliance in Whiteread's work: light, memory, thought, loss. Viewed properly she connects us up in all kinds of ways and at her easiest to understand (as the photograph of Trafalgar Square makes plain), her sculpture directs us back to our own environment, physical and then mental, by filling empty spaces. This was why she was always the perfect sculptor for the unused fourth plinth.


Steven Hutchins update


Quite a long time ago there was a post about the British woodcut artist, Steven Hutchins.  I believe he made only three colour woodcuts, all of them in the early 1980s. I think the Venetian scene must be the third one. Also included is his masterly Eggleston Abbey. Both different in style, you see that Hutchins wasn't a hard-and-fast traditionalist but was capable of accomplished work with and without the keyblock. In fact, the Venice image may even be a linocut.


I still find it odd that there seems to be no trace of Hutchins nowadays. But even stranger is the fact that someone with such printmaking ability could have disappeared leaving no more than three fine prints to his name.

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.