Monday, 25 January 2021

Eric Slater & the mystery of Icklesham Mill


As some of you will already know, Eric Slater's colour woodcut Tregenna Castle Hotel (below) is up for sale on ebay with only a couple of days left to go. Only yesterday a reader commented that Cornwall was outside his usual balliewick, a point that is valid in more ways than one. Slater has always been associated with the Sussex coast because he made chalk cliffs and Martello towers part of his stock-in-trade. But Slater was not as solitary as his lonely mills and Martello towers might suggest and was dependant on a number of people, not least his mother and grandmother who he always lived with.

James Trollope who owns the copyright to Slater's woodcuts likes to emphasise the influence of Arthur Rigden Read who he believes showed Slater how to make colour woodcuts after Slater moved to live not far from him at Winchelsea. Though I would not dispute that this is very likely true, there were others who had an effect, especially the Yorkshire artist, George Graham, who moved to Winchelsea in the early twenties and made a couple of colour woodcuts. The other is S.G. Boxsius who also worked in Sussex and in particular made a woodcut of Rottingdean Mill before he began making colour woodcuts. 

Interestingly enough, Boxsius and his wife, Daisy, used to visit Devon and Cornwall and more than once old hotels and inns like the Crown Inn at Shaldon were the subject of his work. What is more to the point is how much better Icklesham Mill is than so much of Slater's work - and it is better for the debt he owes to Boxsius. The delicate use of pink, white and shadow against a cloudless sky is not very Slater, but turns the centre of the print into a little Boxsius rather than the decorative kind of mish-mash we are now well-accustomed to - and I am not denying that Slater doesn't have charm and appeal and I wouldn't buy one but I was never prepared to stump up the kind of money people seem to expect for a Slater.

The question is, though, where has Icklesham Mill been hiding all this time? And why is there no record of Slater exhibiting the print? Could it be that the print was a collaboration? Rottingdean Mill has the same small groups of houses to give the mill extra scale and, if anything, Slater handles light better than he does in Icklesham Mill. The light catching the sails and the depth of shadow at the back of the mill are particularly well done in Slater's naive way. But again it is the sense of calm and of background that is so Boxsius, especially the way the farther cliff is made into a second landscape. The print is subtle in a way so many of his prints never are. It was first exhibited in 1936 so it is quite late in his career  as a print artist. In all, the count I have based on James Trollope's catalogue is 45. This was some going between about 1926 and The stackyard, his final print apparently, in 1938. My feeling is work like Icklesham Mill may be later than that or simply remained. in his studio once he stopped exhibiting.

This doesn't answer the question why so many prints never seem to have been exhibited or why some work was only shown at the Sedon Galleries in Melbourne in 1932. Slater was a successful young printmaker by that point but most other artists exhibited at home and Australia came second. The answer was partly that Slater was taken up by the galleries as a bankable artist in the late twenties and early thirties just as much as he has been taken up by the print trade since the 1980s. One of his skills was to take what worked for other artists and to amalgamate them into his own. Given that his training at art school was limited, it isn't surprising that he had to learn on the job. Which brings me to Alfriston (above). The village is inland from Seaford where Slater lived so it is was on his patch. But is it the Slater we know? Not to me it isn't. The figures and the space are so much better handled than they are elsewhere in his work. The man in the cap creates a social space as he watches the people conversing. The figures also gives the scene greater depth by introducing exact scale. Slater's vases of flowers like his Tulips are sociable too but so far as I am aware this is the only place an everyday social space occurs in Slater's work. Not only that, it is very similar to Boxsius' Corfe Castle where the women on the grass are sketching the inn and the castle beyond them. My guess is that Slater sometimes needed considerable tuition. Beyond that, when his grandmother and then his mother died, the colour woodcuts died too. I find it odd than James had not found these two titles after all the work he had done (although a giclee print is now for sale). But there are others still missing for you to look out for and that he did record in his book, notably Stonehenge at sunrise and An inn by the sea - one of his better titles.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

The gospel according to Walter


Walter Phillips was never slow to give an opinion and often had the opportunity to do so either his newspapers columns in Canada or in books he wrote like The technique of colour woodcut. Amongst  number of other things he had done, Phillips had been a journalist in South Africa and came from a family where literature and the Bible were important. He had also been a tutor in Latin at Great Yarmouth and he  knew how to write well. What was unusual about Phillips and what doesn't doesn't helps to sort out fact from fiction was the publication of a biography by Duncan Campbell Scott in 1947 when Phillips was sixty-three. I have not read the book but it has meant there has been far more of Phillips' biography available than there has been for comparable artists. The problem is that all the information appears to have come directly from the artist and as I read through some of his other writing, I soon became sceptical.

The only training Phillips ever received was the classes he attended at Birmingham School of Art as a schoolboy in Worcestershire. There was nothing unusual about that. Young people who had had to go to work at fourteen or fifteen often put in long hours at evening classes where they studied for national exams. Once he left school Phillips' working life seemed to have little plan. But then his upbringing has been unconventional. As a minister his father would move from one place to another on the preaching circuit and his family would follow and moving to Winnipeg may have been a way of finding a stable life his wife and young family as finding a satisfying way of making a living himself. Either way the most important thing for Phillps was to be self-sufficient in whatever goal he set himself whether it was making prints or writing books and in this respect he was quite a lot like Allen Seaby.

Many of his friends and contemporaries like William Giles and Yoshijiro Urushibara had had very thorough training and both had spent time working in Paris where he said he had always wanted to go himself. Giles had taken Frank Morley Fletcher's class in colour woodcut at Reading (at least for a while) as Seaby had and Urushibara had trained as a carver and printer with the firm of Shimbi Shoin in Tokyo. How Phillips came to make colour woodcuts is another thing and given all that we know about Phillips it has always perplexed me that we know so little about he began. That he learned to make very good colour woodcuts like Mount Rundle (top,1951) and Gloaming (above, 1921) I would not dispute but the story he tells about how he got there doesn't always add up.

He and his wife emigrated to Canada in 1913 and he found a job as art master at St. John's College in Winnipeg. Up until then, he had been a water-colourist but when a friend went to serve in France, he left Phillips with access to his etching press, equipment and paper. Phillips made 29 etchings and then completely stopped in 1917 and suddenly began making colour woodcuts like Winter (above) instead. This was pretty good for a first colour woodcut and presupposes a lot of experiment before he could produce such an attractive print. The American curator and pioneering scholar, Nancy E. Green, said Phillips had had an epiphany; Phillips said he was at heart a colourist and that he was not very interested in line and for those reasons found etching unsatisfactory. But what did happen that was so important to him? Neither Green nor Phillips say but Modern Printmakers believes it has the answer.

Phillips himself confused the issue when he recalled a short piece about colour woodcut technique written by Allen Seaby for The Studio in 1919. He said he went back and looked at this article and it helped him improve his technique but this has never really rung true for me. Green says this was 'his first professional encounter with other woodcuts artists' but I wonder because the Seaby article was accompanied by no less than six of Phillips' woodcuts, including one in full colour. This must have been co-ordinated. Apart from that, you would hardly forget such an important breakthrough and the following year the National Gallery of Canada bought nineteen of his colour woodcuts, possibly as  result. I don't think Phillips was being disingenuous but I do think we have all been guilty of reading too much into what Phillips himself said about the matter. Facts count.

Phillips was not only hard-working, he was also a perfectionist and placed importance on being self-sufficient. Self-improvement was also high on the Victorian value scale and you would expect someone as productive as Phillips to make advances. All the same it is true that after 1919 Phillip's woodcuts became more proficient. By the time Phillips was writing, he and Seaby were friends and exchanged cards every Christmas. Seaby also owned three of Phillips' woodcuts and Phillip's as a friend naturally wanted to acknowledge a debt. What Phillips did acknowledge in 1919 was that Studio articles had already provided 'helpful stimulus'. Possibly the first was a mention of Ethel Kirkpatrick's Mount's Bay in a review in 1917. Colour woodcut was in the news. The previous autumn, John Hogg had published Fletcher's Woodblock printing, the first account in English of the Japanese method and in the next volume The Studio published Malcolm Salaman's article 'The colour print' accompanied by five illustrations including Giles Sand dunes, Denmark (above) and E.A. Verpilleux' Search lights, Trafalgar Square (above). These are the colour woodcuts Phillips saw in 1917.

Other prints included were Ada Collier's Venetian boats and Giles' A pastoral. I have never been able to track either of these down but have included Collier's image of a Venetian trabacola (above) as a useful substitute. These were the cause his epiphany (and I think Nancy Green was correct to place such emphasis on the moment) and puts the remark he made about Seaby into perspective. The Collier print and Gloaming have a good deal in common. The same can be said for the Giles print and Winter, especially in the detail of the background. Perhaps more importantly, Salaman says that Collier 'learned the craft of the woodblock from Mr. Giles.' Some time after this, Phillips began a correspondence with Giles and when Phillips explained that sizing the paper was presenting the most difficulty, Giles bought Urushibara in to give advice. So what happened here?

Phillips admitted he had never seen a Japanese colour woodcut when he began making them himself and it was not until he found a shop selling them on a visit to Chicago that he was able to buy any and start a collection. All he was doing here was following the contemporary art school method of giving the student a teaching example to follow as a model of good practice. But there would have been no need to have taken them home to study. The exceptional surface quality achieved by the Japanese printers would have been apparent to Phillips straightaway. This was so significant to him in 1925 Phillips went to Giles studio on the Kings Road in London to meet Urushibara who turned up with alum and brushes and proceeded to apply the size with the expertise that impressed everyone who was lucky enough to see him at work.

But there was even more to his epiphany than this. England did not have one school of colour woodcut, it had two. Salaman's article listed a number of artists who had studied with Fletcher, including Giles and it might have been as easy for Phillips to have written to Fletcher. At the time he had not heard about Woodblock printing and said he would have saved himself a lot of difficulties if he had. Nevertheless he eventually aligned himself with Giles and later joined in the criticisms that were made of Fletcher and the doctrinaire approach he took to teaching and to colour woodcut method. Salaman (whose sympathies lay with Giles) characterised Fletcher's followers as the Anglo-Japanese. Being more forthright, Phillips described colour woodcut as a cult. At face-value this looks surprising coming from someone who is now famous for colour woodcuts but it only shows how far Phillips was a creature of his time and perceived important differences that no-one today would bother about (unless you were studying the subject that is). But he said it nevertheless and one clue to what he meant is the judicious way Phillips used the key-block. Winter did not have one at all and even as he moved forward, the key-block never played the role that it did in the work of Fletcher, Seaby, Mabel Royds or John Platt. As the son of a non-conformist minister, Phillips would have been all too aware of cults. What I think he was talking about was the cult of the Japanese print followed by the Anglo-Japanese and which Salaman summed up as 'a local fetish'. These divergences of opinion and the coteries that gave rise to are lost on us today. We are all too busy with our own.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Ohara Koson: prints & signatures


Recently I advised readers to mug up on the signature of the Japanese artist and printmaker, Ohara Koson. All very well, but it is not as straightforward as that, but nevertheless well worth the try. Koson in fact used three different signatures at different stages of his career and I am going to include an illustration of the different kinds he used. Even here though it isn't foolproof because script and seal on prints I own diverge from the ones illustrated although not all that much.

Here is a general rule-of-thumb from someone who has been picking up the odd Koson print for many years. Koson worked in the kacho-e genre (or bird and flowers) as Allen Seaby and Hans Frank did. Once you have the bird subject, you only have to look at the signature to get the general idea because it doesn't alter all that much. When I found the eagle (top) in an antiques centre in the 1980s, I showed it to my students from Hong Kong who read it as go-don. What does alter is the manner.The lapwing (below) which I picked up in Caernarfon two or three years ago apparently dates from 1930 and has a noticeably sparer and more modern style than others. As I said, sometimes the tonality of the print is different. a

One thing you will need to accept is that the prints wont always be in good condition. My eagle is not only laid down on thick card, the card (and print) is dented from the back. But then it only cost me a tenner and it is currently on sale in London for £450. What's not to like? Some are scratched, some are stained. I think so long as they aren't faded, it doesn't matter. I also own the pair of geese (second from the top) and the paper is rather burnt, something I try my best to ignore. Koson was a great designer who was consistent and varied. This is what we need to bear in mind. You don't say to yourself, 'Do I like this one?' You just buy it. And on the plus side you can still find them in period frames.

Koson trained as a fine artist and went on to teach at the Tokyo School of Fine Art. In Tokyo he met the American scholar and orientalist, Ernest Fenellosa, who had returned to Japan to work in 1897. He left for good in 1900 and some time before that encouraged Koson to take up traditional forms, including woodblock. Koson worked with his first publisher, Daikokuya, from about 1904 to 1905 but returned to painting in 1912 when he adopted the name Shoson. Inevitably perhaps in 1926 he began working with Shozaburo Wantanabe (and continued to work under the name Shoson, the signature you will most commonly see). This was an important career move for two reasons. Wantanabe had first worked in the print export field and now all his prints were sold in large numbers in the United States and Europe. Wantanabe also believed Japanese woodblock had degenerated because the carvers and printers had stopped working in collaboration with designers, leaving the prints looking stereotyped and lifeless. This approach was borne out by Elizabeth Keith who was dumbfounded to find the carvers reproduced every small mistake she made. But it was no different for the artisans who were appalled by the way Keith broke with tradition.

But Wantanabe knew what he was doing. Not only was his wife the daughter of a carver, he was also a master of publicity and the year Koson went to work for him an account praising the working practices of his studio and written by the Japanese art historian, Jiro Harada, appeared in The Studio magazine. Eventually, Koson made designs for 500 kacho-e prints, all of them exported, which explains why you can still find a pair of them in north Wales for sale at £37 in 2018 - and I thought that was each. Yet it was not only a matter of large numbers. Another reason the prints may have survived in such good basic condition were the standards used in Wantanabe's workshops. Having supplied different kinds of wood to his carvers, he settled on wild cherry, the wood publishers had used in the old days, and his printers worked with good quality inks and fine hosho paper. Workshops had been adapting Western styles and techniques for a long time. While training in Tokyo, Yoshijiro Urushibara had learned to engrave on boxwood to prevent the fine detail from wearing after long print runs. Admittedly there are many prints by Koson that will look cloying to some. There are many more that do not and the ones that diverge subtly from standard practice like the irises (above) and are printed on a square sheet rather than oban, can be some of the most appealing. To ourselves, it still looks very Japanese. I have no doubt to a Japanese collector of the 1930s, it would have seemed a travesty.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

The shin hanga woodcuts of Cyrus Leroy Baldridge

During the twenties, the American illustrator, Cyrus Leroy Baldridge and his wife, Caroline Singer, travelled extensively in the east, arriving in Pekin some time in 1924 or 1925. While there he made various watercolours and drawings of the walls and precincts of the old city. When the couple moved on to Tokyo, they met the print publisher Shozaburo Wantanabe who had already worked with a small number of Western artists as well as artists from Japan. As some of you will already know, I am not a great fan of any of the work Wantanabe did with his Western artists but what they were doing was always interesting and Baldridge in particular is nowhere near as expensive as Elizabeth Keith or Charles Bartlett.

In 1915 Wantanabe had had his first great success with Goyo Hashiguchi's Woman in a bathroom and came up with the term shin hanga, or new print, as a way of marketing his artists. Sadly artists like Hashiguchi were not only talented, they were also disloyal and soon went off, found craftsmen to make their prints and published them themselves. This was not an option for Western artists like Bartlett and Keith and as they arrived in Tokyo, Wantanabe nobbled them and set them to work making prints for him. Keith didn't even like being in Japan and always preferred Korea, China and Moro Island, but Tokyo was where the work was.

Not all that long before Baldridge and Singer arrived Wantanabe's publishing business had been struck by disaster. On 1st September, 1923, Honshu Island was subjected to a devastating earthquake and many of the blocks that Wantanabe's craftsmen had made, including all of Keith's, had been destroyed.  Keith was still working with him when Baldridge arrived and so far as I can see, he was the last of the Westerners to be taken up by Wantanabe. By my reckoning there was a portfolio of six prints only published in 1925. As you can see from Peking Market (above) there were all on japan and I believe came in editions of 200. All were inscribed by Baldridge but not always with the full title. You might just get 'Peking 25' and at least one of them is inscribed no. 204. Many people also credit Singer but I have no idea what she actually did.

Going by the watercolour of Peking South Gate, the studio didn't always do Baldridge's work justice. I assume Wantanabe chose the subjects and Baldridge worked on the designs for the block-cutter. Six was the number of prints he had used when Bartlett worked in Tokyo and all the prints Baldridge made are here, including Evening Peking (top) and Peking - Pailou (second down). As late as autumn 1954, Baldridge had a show of prints at the California State Library at Sacramento when he still had prints for sale. This barely seems credible today but the majority were drypoints and going by the list (above) the six colour woodcuts of Peking were all he ever made. So far as I am aware no one has put this definitive Sacramento catalogue and all the images together in one place before.

But where did the idea come from? The subjects are similar to the ones chosen by the British artist, Katharine Jowett, who began  making colour linocuts of the old city some time during the twenties. Coal Hill (second and third above) was not only common to both artists, the view is identical, with Baldridge's print only deeper in order to conform with the oban sheet. This is very curious and suggests one print was copied from the other. But there is more. Some of my readers are fortunate enough to own a proof of Isabel de B. Lockyer's superior linocut Chateau de Blonay from 1924 (first above) and will note the similarity between Baldridge's Coal Hill and de B. Lockyer's image. Whether Jowett was making linocuts by 1925 no one knows. The choice of the ancient city as a subject may seem an obvious one, but Keith never bothered with this topographical approach. Nor did anyone else, including Bertha Lum, who spent long periods working in the city.  The Hanga Gallery (where a lot of these images come from) in Durham, North Carolina (and, no, they don't have any for sale) give only five titles, but this must be wrong. The other two are Peking Winter (below) and Peking South Gate (bottom).

All were produced in the old oban size and vary in their effectiveness. Peking Winter is the best of the lot for my money, but as I have never seem any of them in front of me, it is wise not to be too judgemental. I am sure all were made to the highest standards but Wantanabe's craftsmen varied their approach between intensive use of keyblock and hardly any. A number I think are flat but will certainly look better once you see them. But that is Baldridge anyway, an illustrator making use of the loquacious, muscular style popular in the U.S. between the wars and it tends to jar. They certainly capture the atmosphere of an oriental city despite that. Take away the style of the architecture and the scenes he depicts could be anywhere in the great cities of northern Morocco and the choice of twilight and different times of year is astute, subtle and telling. You just have to decide whether or not you like them. One thing I will say is, though, you wont be finding any of them at Camden Market or on the Portobello Road.

In a day or two I will be adding a second post about the watercolours and drawings following the comment made below by Scott Williams.

Friday, 1 January 2021

The colour woodcuts of Wilfred Rene Wood


Wilfred Wood is an artist with whom you need to exercise a degree of judgement. He turned out large numbers of chocolate-box watercolours (and a few colour woodcuts) that belie the thorough training he had at Manchester School of Art, the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Slade. He was born in the Cheshire village of Cheadle Hulme in 1888 but the only records of him exhibiting colour woodcuts were in 1938 when he showed Cadaques (below) alongside Cineraria and Ronda Bridge. I have com across only twelve colour woodcuts and have included all the ones I think have real merit. I have never come across either Cineraria or Ronda Bridge and no doubt there are one or two others lying around somewhere.

One interesting aspects of Wood's prints is the influence of the poster designs and colour linocuts of the thirties. Wood produced at last one poster showing Michaelmas  Daisies for London Underground and although he could use the woodblock with great assurance as he did in the view below, it was print like Willows, Cambridge (top) and Cadaques where his mastery of colour and design were most apparent. In Cadaques he relied solely on perspective and shadow to build the print. There was falling back on outline and it is little wonder he was in Arezzo in 1922 to see Piero della Francesca's frescos. His subtle use of pure colour and his sense of harmony were as much as part of Piero's own work as perspective was. Few of the colour woodcut artists of the period showed as much sympathy with the work of the European masters apart from S.G. Boxsius.

His academic concern with architecture and perspective led him in an unusual direction. In 1920 he moved into Rudall Crescent in Hampstead and began recording old buildings in the area. A couple of years afterwards, he began to travel widely, including to Italy. But Tangier got the better of him. The town is celebrated for its disorientating shifts of perspective as the streets and arches change direction on the steep hillside. Wood had a conventional view of place and as he began to travel in England and Wales, recording the old streets of Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich and Tenby he discovered a metier that led on to commissions to record towns like Stamford and Peterborough that were threatened with development. In 1937, he moved to Barnack a couple of miles outside Stamford.


So where did he come across colour woodcut? Going by the feel of his prints, my hunch is he got to know Kenneth Broad while serving in the Artists Rifles during the first war. Cadques is quite a lot like Broad's A Sussex Farm (1925). His street scenes were also close to the views Broad made of Croydon and Hastings in the thirties. Wood was less quirky than Broad and had a better sense of what made a picture The other ghost in the machine is Yoshijiro Urushibara. It is the very subtle way Wood played off shadow and the rich keyblock against shades of pink and ochre that reminds me of the 1919 Bruges portfolio Urushibara made with Brangwyn (immeadiately above). The conventional view should not distract from the elegance of the procedure, particularly his handling of early morning light and colour. As we looked down the street (below), we would be forgiven for thinking the tower towards the end belonged to the Palazzo Medici and that the distinguished town of Oxford has somehow morphed into the far more distinguished city of Florence. Wood took it even further when he gave Olde England (above) the definitive pinks, ochres and volcanic greys of Naples. Wood's travels told on him. Everywhere he went in England, it reminded him of somewhere else, not as nice as Hampstead probably, but more vigorous, more exciting, more youthful.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

The studio at Liboc: Walther Klemm & early colour woodcut


Walther Klemm enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna in 1902. This was the year a number of Austrian artists associated with the Secession began making colour woodcuts. In the spring a colour woodcut workshop had been set up at the Secession exhibition halls where artists worked together making prints and sharing techniques. The most important of them so far as knowledge of technique went was Emil Orlik. He had not only been to London where he had met both Frank Morley Fletcher and William Nicholson, he had also been to Japan and studied colour woodcuts methods there. This had created enough interest for Orlik to have a touring exhibition of the work he had produced during his stay. It also included work by the ukiyo-e artists he had collected (a collection that remained intact until it was sold by Sotheby's in London when the Museum of Fine Art in Prague bought a small selection). This had begun in Berlin and moved on to Dresden, Prague and Brno. 

Orlik was very interested in going to source wherever it happened to be and after his visit to London, made The English woman (1899) one of his first larger woodcuts and a seminal print but using only two colours. (I will illustrate this in another post). But there was always something uneventful about Orlik's colour woodcuts. They could be documentary and unexciting while and the peacocks and turkeys made by Klemm and Hans Frank had verve and vigour. According to Gustav Mahler, Orlik was talkative, a strength when it came to dealing with students and other artists but he was also academic, a side to his character that came out when he included work from his collection in the 1902 exhibition.

The other main participant at the 1902 exhibition was Carl Moll. He was editor of the Secession magazine Ver Sacrum and apparently showed woodcuts that year. His prints were bigger than Orlik's but had a similar understated, documentary feel to them and never made dramatic use of colour. 1902 was also the year that Hans Frank enrolled at  the Kunstgewerbeschule and, as I said in the recent post about him, he had begun to make his peacock prints in 1904. A year later Klemm was back in Prague where he met Carl Thiemann in the street one day. Both were natives of the spa town of Karlsbad (which David Hockney visited in the 1970s) and took a studio together in Liboc on the western side of the city and where Klemm introduced Thiemann to colour woodcut.

Klemm was twenty-two and Thiemann twenty-three and over the three years they spent at Liboc  the two artists worked together on the first great collaboration of modern colour woodcut. Their common starting point should be fairly obvious. Nicholson's The square book of animals (above) published by William Heinemann in London in time for Christmas 1899 was by and large pastiche. The blocks he used were box and he only once printed the colours by hand (for A fisherman in The Dome magazine). Hans Frank's peacocks also appear to be forerunners by a year while it is generally considered that Orlik showed Klemm the technique (though I have yet to come across any documentation in English). Orlik had previously made a series of woodcuts that included views of old Prague. I also believe Klemm and Thieman then worked together on a portfolio of colour woodcuts of the old city which were very different from the work of Orlik. Enhanced by powerful and vigorous cutting and subdued colour, Thiemann's in particular were the work of a sensitive painter while Klemm used the architecture to organise the picture plane (below).


The best collection of these early prints by Klemm is held by the Museum of Fine Art in Budapest where an astute curator acquired prints it seemed almost as soon as Klemm had made them. Notable amongst them is 'Fishing boats on the Spree' (second from the top) made in 1906 presumably after a trip to Berlin. Here like nowhere else you see how original Klemm could be. Thiemann was a greater stylist than Klemm but the huts and wharves and their rough reflections on the Spree are the source for every one of Thiemann's later Venice woodcuts. If Thiemann had feeling, Klemm had ideas. Both needed each other for a time because both were very different but not yet different enough to go their own ways and during 1906 both artists worked on a second collaboration. (I' m assuming Old Prague came first.) This was a calendar for 1907 with twelve colour woodcuts and a black and white image on the front.

To be truthful I had forgottten all about this but to make amends I finally found four colour images including January and October (both above) by Klemm. A facsimile was produced by Thiemann's wife, Ottolie, in 1981 and these are both from that edition and once agaib make it plain what Klemm's strengths were. Thiemann's work was small scale and decorative. For all the small size, Klemm thought big and objective. The girl on the sledge is wonderfully depicted, with a strong sense of light, three dimensions and expression. I am in no doubt that Thiemann's print of a cockeral was the best of all the Liboc period by either artist but I suspect the idea came from Klemm. Thiemann never did a bird before and never did one again.

The two artists left Liboc in 1908 and moved to Dachau near Munich but the collaboration was at an end and some time afterwards Klemm took up a position as head of graphic art at the Weimar School of Art. There had been collaborations before in recent times - for instance between Nicholson and James Pryde as the Beggarstaff brothers and John Dickson Batten and Frank Morley Fletcher in London in the 1890s, but Klemm's introduction of Thiemann to new ideas marked the beginning of one of the best loved of all the series of prints made in central Europe early in the C20th. But it was Kleem who constantly invoked group effort with his wandering turkeys and it is Walther Klemm and myself who wish you a happy and prosperous 1907.

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Road to the isles: Helen G Stevenson & Norma Bassett Hall


On 16th June, 1925, the American artist, Norma Bassett Hall arrived in Glasgow after sailing by ship from the United States with her husband, Arthur William Hall. The Halls immediately travelled on to Edinburgh to meet Mabel Royds and Ernest Lumsden who had respectively distinguished themselves as a colour woodcut artist and an etcher. Lumsden's The art of etching had only just been published in London and Philadelphia and since 1919 Royds was had been working on a series of woodcuts of India that remain unique in modern British printmaking to this day.

It goes without saying the Halls believed they had something to gain by coming so far and that Edinburgh might be an important staging-post in their common journey as artists. During their honeymoon in 1922, the Halls had put together Some prints of Cannon Beach  in book form. (I was under the impression these were linocuts though Jody Patterson in her book about Bassett Hall only describes them as block prints.) While William concentrated on etching after that, Bassett Hall read Frank Morley Fletcher's Woodblock printing and began making colour woodcuts in the way that he described.

This is the story that has been told about the journey, but looking at it with a dash of scepticism and a good deal of hindsight, it is difficult to see what the young artist from Oregon and the unconventional upper class Englishwoman might have in common apart from an interest in colour woodcut. Royds had attended at least three art schools, she had relatives living variously in manor houses in Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire, Allington Hall in West Derby, Liverpool, and a castle in Co. Louth, she had travelled widely, she was on the staff at Edinburgh College of Art, she had lived in Paris, she belonged to a fairly bohemian circle of friends and, more decisively, she had no interest in landscape or in depicting the country she had lived in for nearly twenty years. Hall, on the other hand, came from the backwoods and could tell a mean story by way of mountains, trails and trees. Or at least that is what she began to do once she and Arthur had taken the road to the isles.

In mid-August the Halls spent a week at Portree on the Isle of Skye and going by prints that she made after their return to the United States like A Highland croft (below, 1927 - 28) and Croft at Crianlarich (sixth image down, 1928 -29) they stopped off in Perthshire on the way to Skye. Hall made only four Highland prints, the other two being Portree Bay (seventh image down 1929) and Cottage in Skye (eighth down, 1941 - 42).  All of them prominently feature crofts like the ruined one above in Lochranza (1927) but none of them include a lonely tower. Highland redoubts, like the one in Lochranza, were prominent in the work of Helen Stevenson who understood that a ruin and a castle so often meant clearance of people from the land and emigration.

When the Halls arrived in Scotland, Stevenson had been teaching art for three years and had exhibited probably no more than half a dozen colour woodcuts. During her first year as a student on the applied art section at Edinburgh College of Art, the designer Charles Paine was head of the department, John Platt took over one year later but no two artists could be less alike than Stevenson and Platt, something that makes the common ground between Stevenson and Bassett Hall more intriguing. Only compare Stevenson's frazzled keyblock and over-printing for the thatch in The hen-wife (second from the top) and Bassett Hall's use of the same techniques in Croft at Crianlarich  and you will see what I mean. And it doesn't stop there. The way Stevenson handled the light and shade on the tree behind the croft is repeated by Bassett Hall. It is always possible that the woman looking down at her hens in Croft at Crianlarich is the same person as Stevenson's hen-wife. No one knows. The fact remains Bassett Hall learned more from Stevenson than she did from Royds.

As a reader has only just commented in an email, Bassett Hall's work could be flat, but her Scottish subjects brought out the best in her and I think the Highland prints are the best things she made. They had an intensity and drama that was beyond the means of Stevenson who would not have had the gable-end of the cottage echoed by the mountain peaks. Stevenson was true to what she saw around her; Hall turned the hen-wife into a frontiers-woman and the Highlands into the Rockie Mountains, substituting a feeling for place with an uplifting message. Hall could be samey. There were too many shacks, too many trails, too many mountains and after a while you are not sure whether she is in Oregon or Provence.  There are not just too many different places, there are too many influences, including the engravings of Noel Rooke and the colour woodcut arches of Elizabeth York Brunton.

This is something you could never say about Stevenson. From early on, the Appin Peninsula, Argyll and its islands were the main focus of her work. England appears only once in Bamburgh Castle and Edinburgh twice in Edinburgh Castle  and Braid Burn. The burn was not far from her home in Morningside, but nearness didn't make it into a better print. Both were some of the weakest things she ever did. In this respect, she is the Highland Boxsius, a holiday artist who needed to get away from her job as an art teacher. Boxsius was a Londoner and occasionally depicted London with sensitivity. Stevenson reinvented herself in Argyll. She took what she had learned about poster design, illustration and stained glass from Paine and Platt, and turned it to good advantage. This was exactly the kind of training Hall never had and that no amount of visiting Edinburgh or the Central School or St. Paul de Vence would quite make up for. Her only consolation was the Highlands and her Highland guide.