Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The paintings of Ohara Koson


                                                                      
 
The role that was played by scholars and collectors like Ernest Fennellosa and Edward Morse in the revival of colour woodcut is a fascinating one. In my own view, the revival would not have happened without then, but that is another thing. Fennellosa had taught for a number of years in Japan before he returned to Boston to take up a post as curator at the Museum of Fine Art. About 1890 he met the young artist, Arthur Wesley Dow, and then introduced him to the German printmaker and scholar S.R. Koehler who had posts at both Boston and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and it was not long before Dow was making the first American colour woodcuts in the Japanese manner, which had their first exhibition in a corridor at M.F.A.
                                                                        

Then in 1895, Fennellosa was dismissed from M.F.A. following his re-marriage. (The authorities believed it came too soon after his divorce). Back in Japan, Fennellosa met another young artist called Ohara Koson who he engouraged to make colour woodcuts that would appeal to the western market (and so, presumably help with the revival). Thus began Koson's long career working with at least three different publishers who sold his work widely in the United States and Europe, a publishing campaign that was so successful it is still possible to pick up Koson prints in British antiques centres for a nominal £10 simply because people cannot recognise Japanese signatures.
                                                                                     

The collections of people like Morse and co-enthusiast, William Bigelow, were very large indeed, and eventually formed the basis of entire collections at museums like M.F.A. But these men were also scholars who were principally concerned with recording and conserving the artefacts of Japanese culture. They travelled the country for years, not only acquiring ceramics and picture, but recording archaeological sites, just as aware of the effect of modern life on the arts and crafts in Japan as the followers of William Morris were in relation to British culture.
                                              
 
What I had certainly not come across in any British junk shops were paintings by Koson of the kind you see here. I am indebted to a collector in Washington, D.C. for these. In itself, his own collection, which is destined for the Smithsonian, shows that the tradition of scholarly collecting of Japanese art is still alive and kicking in the States. Frankly, it seems astonishing to me that anyone is still able to acquire so much material like this, but then the assiduousness and erudition of good collectors should never be underestimated.
                                           

Put in this context, the production of colour woodcuts in the west looks almost like a by-product, except perhaps in Koson's case where the production of his prints was so vast you can still pick the odd one up as you as you go along. I still remember finding two in a heap of disregarded papers after a friend had died. Much of Koson's earlier work was painted on fine silk, as you can see here, though he later used paper. The silk sometimes remained unpainted so that the final effect of some of the prints at least is that much more subdued because the backgrounds were printed in grey. But even with the crow, where Koson painted the background (or the lack of it), the blacks and greys are enhanced in printing and the final effect sharper and dramatic.
                                                                                 
                                                  
What also strikes me is the different appeal of painting and woodcut. There is the effect of scale. The paintings were generally postcard size while the woodblocks were considerably larger. The two swallow images are to scale but not actual size, and do give some idea of the wide-screen effect of the woodblocks. Either way, the limited use of colour is consistent and striking. Not that this semi-monochrome approach was unique to Japan; it is widespread though less obvious in western art. The paintings have a subtle delicacy the prints forgo, but the prints gain in drama and clarity that is the essence of good graphic art anywhere.
                                                                                              

Essentially, I wanted the work to speak for itself. What I do want to express is my considerable gratitude to Darrel Karl, not just for the loans of all these images, but for his painstaking correspondence about Koson (and other artists). Please make sure to read any comments by him as they will add considerably to the little I have been able to say here.


 

 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas with George Scott Ingles

                                                                                

Here is an artist who is usually passed over when it comes to his colour woodcuts, mainly because he appeared to make very few of them. He came from Roxburgh in Scotland but spent his working life as a teacher, largely at Leicester School of Art where he eventually became principal. He was an early graduate of the newly formed Royal College in London in 1900.

It was at Leicester that he must have got to know John Platt who was principal himself between 1923 and 1930. The church tower has some of the Platt traits, including a sophisticated use of colour and overlapping planes. It is in fact remarkably modern looking for 1927 and shows just how early the 1930s really began. On the face of it, it also has all the tell-tale signs of the arts and crafts with its depiction of the kind of a sturdy church beloved of so many unbelieving artists. Looking at it, I did think it was a modern arts and crafts church, but I was wrong. The church of St Leonard at Bulford in Wiltshire is one of the oldest in the country (and one of the few to be owned by the Ministry of Defence).
                                                                                  

I assume it also has a personal connection with Ingles, because a Canadian cleric called George Leycester Ingles was buried there during the first war after dying of disease, so the print acts as a momento to him, something so far rare in the jazzed-up world of colour woodcut. It perhaps also helps explain the peculiar dignity and restraint of the image. You will notice that Ingles nevertheless altered the proportions of the tower, which did have a cock on top of it at some point after the photograph was taken. By the time Ingles came to make his print, the cock had disappeared, leaving only the metal support behind.

Interesting too the way he decided to make use of the ivy-clad farm elms around the church, which you can see growing all around the village like weeds. Kenneth Broad, a great one for trees, picked up the same kinds of elms growing around his Sussex farmhouse. (The ancient hybrids were closely linked with habitation). Ingles didn't start making colour woodcuts until he was in his early fifties and sad to say I've only comes across three titles, all exhibited between 1927 and 1930, so if anyone out there has more, please let me know. This is the only one I have ever seen

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of wishing all readers of  Modern Printmakers a very Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year. I will be posting until then, but after that it will be the Koutoubia at Marrakech rather than the snowy wastes of central England for me.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

S.G. Boxsius 'In old Whitby'

                                                                      
                                                                                  

In many ways, In old Whitby is a colour woodcut in search of a subject. It is nowhere near a duff as the last print by Boxsius that I featured, but it is some way short of Boxsius  at his beautiful best nevertheless, and I ask myself why.

I sometimes wonder why it was that Boxsius failed to exhibit prints until the early thirties when he knew enough about linocut to write an article about making them in the mid twenties. It may well be that although he signed prints like this, he was still not entirely happy with them for one reason or another. His stone steps and wooden rails leading down to the water are more of an exercise than a subject. He manfully distinguishes between the grey stonework and the maroon shadows and orange rooftops, but all the same one wonders why he bothered. It's not that he wasn't intelligent or able.
                                                                          
Part of the answer I suspect can be found in a print by William Giles called At eventide. Rothenburg am Tauber which Giles came up with about 1905. Now, the article on linocut I mentioned was written for Giles and in my mind there isn't much doubt that Boxsius learned his woodcut trade from Giles, but where Giles succeeded in At eventide with masterful insouciance, Boxsius comes unstuck, and where Giles transforms his wonky white rails and twisting tree trunks into runic sentences, SGB is literal.

                                                                                     
Boxsius was clearly searching for something of his own here because he attempted this same subject of harbour slipways and steps more successfully in some of his Cornwall prints. Apart from the imaginative independence of Giles, Boxsius also lacked his training. Almost all British artists who went through the State system were trained as teachers. The only fine art course on offer was at the Royal College if  you got on. So far as I am aware Boxsius trained (and taught) exclusively within the State system whereas Giles also studied painting in France. I have no idea about the courses either of them took at the Royal College, but what I am suggesting is that what many artists in the early C20th lacked was formal training as painters. If you add to that the strong influence of the arts and crafts movement which by and large rubbished any distinction between fine art and craft, I think you can see why printmakers as various as Kenneth Broad, Allen Seaby, Sidney Lee and Boxsius often turned to other artists for ideas. As we saw in the post before last, a good look at Seurat transformed Charles Bartlett's rather subectless Indian images into something more spectacular.

Finally, readers now tend to comment when Boxsius images that are new to them turn up on Modern Printmakers. This is because some of the images have only just found their way onto the web. This latest is a good find by William P Carl Fine Prints where it is now for sale at $550. My thanks are due to them.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Seventh International Printmakers Exhibition, Los Angeles Museum, 1926

                                                                       
                                                                               
 
It took a Londoner like Arthur Rigden Read to send a colour woodcut showing the old southern French city of Carcassonne to a great modern city like Los Angeles. But that was what he did when the California Society of Printmakers held their seventh international show. As Rigden Read images go, it was one his most accomplished (unfortunately the picture above was the best I could do) and I can understand why he was asking $25. Market day, Languedoc was even more at $30. By comparison, you could buy a good Seaby for $12 and John Platt's Siesta (below) for $18.
                                                                    

The image, with its detailing, use of shadow and warm colour, and dramatic perspective, shows Read considerably in debt to William Giles' Ponte Vecchio from 1908. By the time he sent his three images off to L.A., Read had only been making colour woodcuts for about four years, but was already confident enough to be asking a lot more than well-established colour woodcut artists like Seaby. For a long time, I found it difficult to understand exactly why Read was rated so highly and was always considered one of the leading British colour woodcut artists. The prices may help to explain the problem. He was prolific, and like Eric Hesketh Hubbard, he published prints with a range of prices, but his very best work rarely turns up and there is very little of it national collections. The fact that Ponte Vecchio was a better and more ground-breaking piece of work with its use of bravura perspective of the kind that Read used in his print, is perhaps beside the point. Carcassonne remains a very nice print, and one I would like to possess.
                                                                                       

To my frustration, I have always been unable to find an image of Seaby's print Redwings Calling (or, at least, what I believe is the print by that name). I shall have to content myself with Shetland Ponies, which he also showed at the exhibition, but which I think has a lot less about it. Redwings Calling is Seaby at his most daring and poetic whereas I actually sold Shetland Ponies to a friend many years ago (mainly because it was laid down). But again, just like Read, his own selection showed Seaby showing both more conventional and more original work. Personally, I much prefer Seaby's birds to anything else he did, but I'm aware that not everyone would share my taste.
                                                              

You will notice I am limiting myself to British colour woodcut for this first look at the exhibition. After the Americans, the British showed the largest number of prints. This shows by how much the colour woodcut scene had taken off, with artists like Read, Kenneth Broad (below) and Eric Slater (above) all showing work that was part of the great revival of interest in colour woodcut at the time. I think this is the right Sussex windmill by Slater. In some respects, it hardly matters; many of Slater's landscapes are very little more than designs, with little sense of place, light, interest, or anything else.
                                                        

Kenneth Broad's subtle A Sussex Farm is another matter altogether. It comes from the short period in the mid 1920s when Broad's colour woodcuts were at their very best and I am surprised he didn't send more work like his masterly New Fair, Mitcham to California. The taste for landscape, I suppose, was something both the British and the Americans had in common and it certainly strikes me that the British were presenting a rather restricted image of themselves.
                                                                      

Apart from Mabel Royds, that is, who by 1926 was embarked on her great project of turning her Indian sketch books into colour woodcut. As her Lamas Harvest (above) dates from 1924 and is the only thing that seems to fit the bill 'Musicians' which was the tile used in L.A., this is the one I'm going to use. It's a fine and original conception of people working through the rhythms of the agricultural year with actual music to accompany them. There were other women artists exhibiting, but it hs been impossible to turn up any other images by them that were on show apart from Frances Blair's Cornish Cream Shop, which of course  I have used before. Even the three Helen Stevenson prints have defeated me. But that just goes to show you all that there are still plenty of discoveries to be made.


I also need to add that a reader has pointed out there is a woodcut by Royds called 'Musicians' and here it is.
                                                                                                                                
                                                                                 

Friday, 22 November 2013

John Hall Thorpe

                                                                                 

I am not going to deny that the Australian printmaker, John Hall Thorpe, hasn't received short shrift on Modern Printmakers; nor am I going to promise to make amends with this postm the first one I have given over to him. What I will say is this: he was the first of the London printmakers to understand the new commercial conditions after the first war. Whether he made the best of them is another thing. But, so far as I know, he was the first colour print artist to have a one-man show in London. And it was not just one; he had two in one year alone.
                                                               

The year was 1919. Unfortunately, I have no idea which prints he exhibited and in many ways, it hardly matters. Hall Thorpe is not the kind of artist you go to for innovation. You go to him for only one thing: lots of flowers in very simple vases. The only serious book about him offers no dates for any of his prints, but he had certainly begun to turn out his famous series of colourful flower prints by the early 1920s. Three wise men had appeared by 1919 and found him shamelessly exploiting the work of Robert Gibbings (specifically Evening at Gaza) but he had trained as a copyist at home in Sydney, where he had worked as an illustrator and staff artist on two newspapers in the 1890s, so that should come as no real surprise.
                                                                

But once he had done with variations on the work of Gibbings and E.A. Verpilleux, he set his own very successful trend with his flower studies that actually derive from the height of the Vienna Secession almost twenty years before. And very jolly they are. Hall Thorpe was the very first colour woodcut artists I ever bought, way back in the summer of 1976, when you could pick them up for very little. As I've said before, the one I had was Marigolds, but it was left with friends who became unobtainable. (And I would still like it back, Maureen, if you're reading this.) But why anyone who should want more than one Hall Thorpe, I have to admit, is beyond me. My mother, who is now very ancient, took to Sweet Peas on a birthday card I once gave her, so I shall include that rather insipid image as well. And I think this all sums up the appeal of Hall Thorpe. The prints have little intrinsic value and what you end up doing is associating them with people and places. They have that kind of bold intensity that enables you to do that.
                                                                           

Anyway, Hall Thorpe turned his studio, marooned somewhere between Earl's Court and Fulham Road, into the Hall Thorpe Studio, then opened the Hall Thorpe Gallery somewhat nearer to the West End, the real innovation being that he was the first artist to both make and publish his own colour prints. Almost everyone else depended on society exhibitions and, if they were lucky, a one-man show or, if they were more fortunate still, a permanent dealer like Colnaghi or Bromhead Cutts. Hall Thorpe dispensed with all that, and for almost twenty years was very much his own man, right until the end, in fact, when he refused any medication for the pneumonia he was suffering from (he was a Christian Scientist) and died.
                                                                              

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Looks familar? The art of borrowing

                                                   

Oscar Wilde once famously said to J.M. Whistler, 'I wish that I'd said that, Jimmie,' to which Whistler replied, 'You will, Oscar, you will.' Wilde knew a good idea when he saw one, as many other artists and writers have done, (and many could improve on them). Where borrowing stops and plagiarism begins is another thing. Hiroshi Yoshida (above) just about gets away with it with his witty addition of a tent and campfire. I just cannot believe he didn't know that William Giles wasn't an avid camper. Hence the mountain campsite. William and Ada Giles presumably went to Corsica
before the first war and Giles came up with his 'venturesome' The last glow, central Corsica in 1915, some while before Yoshida would have been busy with his brush.


I suppose with Japan's unique reproductive system of making prints, anyone's work was regarded as fair game. Even so, Yoshida's borrowing is so blatant, it takes your breath away, and I can well understand why Giles became so indignant about European artists like Elizabeth Keith co-operating with Tokyo publishers. He might have had a point when it came to Charles Bartlett, who worked for Wantanabe from 1915 (Yoshida also provided designs for Wantanabe later on) and a couple of years afterwards came up with his little masterpiece, Silk merchants, India which owes quite alot to a great masterpiece - I mean, Georges Seurat's A Sunday afternoon on the island of the Grand Jatte.
                                                                      

Surprising, I know, but nevertheless true. You only need to compare the seated turbanned figures to see what I mean. But what Bartlett really nicked from Seurat was the theme and tone of the work. Bartlett, no doubt, had the excuse that colour woodcut wasn't his main work and it certainly makes you wonder about those people who pay so much for them now. But then, I also think that's printmaking for you, and in many ways adapting Seurat to an Indian setting was in itself an original thing to do.
                                                                             

Nor was he alone in making good use of Seurat. S.G. Boxsius had such a habit of using other people's work, whether prints, paintings or photographs, it really just became a part of what he did. I think partly in his case he must have learned the habit early on as the youngest brother of six. Imitation just becomes second nature, as I know, being the youngest myself.
                                                                   

You might find some of this a bit tenuous, but there is circumstantial evidence, as they say, to kind of back this up. So, I am sure that Boxsius was well-acquainted with Seurat's other masterpiece, Bathers, Asnieres when he came to make his marvellous little print, Seaside. I have talked before about a photograph of Boxsius teaching at Bolt Court surrounded by the casts of classical statuary the students had to draw. Copying was a standard part of the system, to the extent that Frank Brangwyn complained that the art schools only turned out 'clever imitators' (instead of brazen polymaths like him).
                                                                        

Even more than Bartlett, I think Boxsius made exceptional use of Seurat. Seaside is not great art, but I love it all the same, and it is fascinating to see an art teacher taking his own lessons to heart by looking hard at other artist's pictures and learning something from them. Personally, it is no surprise to me that Boxsius fell for Bathers, Asnieres. I have been gazing at it in the National Gallery in London ever since I was eighteen. Boxsius, for me, is an affordable Seurat, basically.
                                                                               

S.G.B. was also very deft when it came to Sidney Lee, but Lee himself was no slouch when it came to nicking stuff. Unaccountably, he turned Hokusai's image around, losing the crucial oban shape and sometimes even more unaccountably leaving the moon out altogether when he made his daytime versions. The moon and the separation of the principal  figures was the whole point of the picture, but never mind, I admire old Sidney for having a go. Hokusai's print reads from bottom  to top, but Lee's lacks focus and reads all over the show.


Lee had a collection of Japanese prints and was, in fact, the first British printmaker to make such direct use of Japanese colour woodcut. Unfortunately, Lee rather spoiled it all by attempting to put himself above all that by insisting artists looked too much at the Old Masters. Perhaps Lee didn't include Hokusai amongst them. But then, Lee is easy to mock, partly because he is in some ways, an unsympathetic artist. But if he took ideas from other artists, at his best he was full of good ideas himself, and other artists recognised that. He certainly believed in himself.
                                                                                   

                                                        


I

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

William Lee Hankey's deserted village

                                                                  
                                                                         

In 1909 a new edition of Oliver Goldsmith's poem The Deserted Village was published with illustrations by the British artist, William Lee Hankey, using the new four-colour offset process to reproduce Lee Hankey's watercolours. By that time Lee Hankey had been experimenting with colour printing for about five years, using a basic combination of etching and aquatint to produce a wide variety of images that were in many ways new to British graphic art. Yet, it was the way that he seems to have worked alongside another artist who was using a quite different medium that I find just as fascinating.
                                                                          

Unlike Lee Hankey, Elizabeth Christie Austen Brown is no newcomer to Modern Printmakers. The pair were both members of the art colony that centred on the town of Etaples in the Pas-de-Calais, with Lee Hankey working in his studio in the town, and Lizzie Brown (if I am not mistaken) at the village you see in these two etchings by Lee Hankey, The full moon and Marie of the fields. The Austen Browns had probably lived at Camiers, a few miles from Etaples, for three or four years before Lee Hankey began to make prints. In the image at the top, you see the chateau beside the Etang du Roy, one of the a series of large ponds to the south of the village; behind Marie I think what you can see is the main street from the ridge, roughly to the north.
                                                                      

The area was small but astonishingly varied, with sand dunes along the coast and sheep pastures on the ridge, and must have seen at the time like a small world unto itself - certainly one that offered more than enough scope to double as a deserted village in C18th England. Although Lee Hankey's work for The Deserted Village has been praised elsewhere on the web, you will see straightaway how far popular illustration led him into conventional ways. Basically, the man in the illustration, above, looks liked he has just been beamed up by Scottie, and the scale of the figure and the arrangement of the houses are far less dramatic than the image of Marie with her rosary out in the fields.
                                                                     

In fact, it was Lee Hankey's wife, Mabel, who I think had developed a nice line in C18th pastiche some years before her husband, so it's interesting to see him working so intently in a village his friend, Lizzie Brown, had virtually made her own. You find exactly the same locations in his work, sometimes from the same angle, and certainly the same activities like haymaking, but seen in completely different ways. Above, we have Lee Hankey brimming with masculine vigour, below, Brown, picking out Lee Hankey's women you can see gathering the hay, but showing one carrying it away beneath the most tenuous of moons in By the lake.
                                                             

It shows exactly why, I think, etching suited Lee Hankey and colour woodcut was the right medium for Brown. Lee Hankey's early colour etchings are certainly atmospheric and often bravura, and while his Harvest Moon is imaginative and powerful, I think Oliver Goldsmith would have also recognised a fellow poet in Lizzie Brown. She started with a basic grey and brought her colour up in stages, true to the essential monochrome nature of great graphic art, but using colour with a sure and selective touch. While Lee Hankey produced editions with a smaller (and cheaper) number in black and white, and then adding colour by means of a muslin wash, with Brown colour is always intrinsic. Both artists often began with monochrome and experimented with colour thereafter, but the end results are quite different. What the Irish protestant, Goldsmith, would have made of the Catholic imagery in Lee Hankey, is another matter altogether, but it does make me wonder whether his own deserted village was a deserted village of the Faith.