Friday, 22 September 2023

The unusual case of Carl Rotky


If you have always had the impression that Carl Rotky was predictable, you may have to readjust for more than one reason. He is best known for his views of the Styrian mountain countryside in southern Austria where he lived for many years, a pity because there is more to Rotky. His prints are varied and often display the same sense of style as many of his Austrian contemporaries but for some reason his best and most interesting prints still do not come up all that often online and it is not easy to see why.

Rotky's father was an official in the Austro-Hungarian government and disapproved of his son's ambition to become an artist and like so many young men and women of his background, Carl acceded to his father's wish and went to train in medicine in Graz and then at the Charles University in Prague where he graduated in 1914 and soon found himself working as a military surgeon on the eastern front. Despite coming out of the service with a reputation as a good doctor, he returned to his old ambition and took lessons is art in Graz and then Munich. Finally in 1928 he returned to the Kogelberg where his family had lived during the summer months.

So far so good. Or at least that was the case until one day I decided to take one of the two linocuts I own out of their frame. The two prints had come from the collection of someone called Mrs Hockey in Richmond, Surrey, but had not been bought by myself. I was disconcerted to find Rotky had printed the Styrian landscape on heavy card and it looked better in the frame than it did out of it. The mountain landscape was a much better print and I had never intended to remove it from Mrs Hockey's gilded frame but it was obvious that too had been printed on card.

It is not hard to find work printed on paper by Rotky. In fact Bonham's in London mention that one print they were selling was on paper. One one other the paper has cockled and the National Gallery of Australia have a collection of eighty printed on paper though even here it is not easy to tell whether those prints are laid on the back card. I have never come across this before and wonder why an artist like Rotky ever adopted the method because it does not make for a happy outcome. It also will leave anyone wondering how many are on paper and how many are on card. I have not looked at any other museum collections but as prices continue to rise into four figures in Austria and Germany I assume collectors there are content. It is different here in Britain where we have limited access. His work appears in exhibitions advertised by British dealers and like my own were still available in the 1980s and I have been asked to identify his work by dealers in the US.

So it is hard to understand why an artist who was selling his work abroad was using a rather crude method. It may be that he only used card for a time but would help to explain the bold simplicity of the images he is famous for. Printing with any degree of subtly on the heavy card would be a challenge. It would also deter an artist from employing detail. There is also the issue of whether or not he was using both wood or lino. It has always been accepted his made use of lino. The artist himself went as far as to describe his work on his portfolio Salome (above and below) as Farbschnitte or colour-cuts, a term I have never come across until now.

Judge for yourself. Here is Rotky's Hiawatha version of the wanton princess carrying the head of John the Baptist on a dish. As an image it is not unusual in itself for the period but would we have expected it from Rotky? It remains at an extreme but shows that Rotky knew all about contemporary styles. I have already written about the history of linocut in Austria but it makes you wonder what medium Rotky was using and why he chose to describe the work as a colour-cut. There was nothing unusal about lino in Austria after all. Norbertine Bresslern Roth was making a career out of it in nearby Graz.

All this only means there is more to come, including an image of my own mountain scene. He made at least one bookplate for Leo Adler and some of the work above and below does not look like full scale prints. All the same it is intriguing to see Rotky working in this attractive way. There is certainly a lot more available online than there was ten years ago in terms of both images and biography but you will probably guess where this is all heading. Rotky more than anyone needs a proper catalogue and there may well be one in German though somehow I think this is unlikely. 


Rotky visited Italy, France and elsewhere but I have found few images that obviously record his travels. The one above of the lagoon at Venice is identifiable only because the topo he depicts was only used in the shallow waters. Otherwise the location would be impossible to guess. Then compare the approach taken by Ethel Kirkpatrick. When she made a colour woodcut showing the lagoon with a topo and wooden mooring posts, you will find an artist sympathetic to her subject but able to employ considerable powers of suggestion. I am not saying you get literal depiction with Rotky but true to Austrian aesthetics of the period, colour and design comes first. Try and imagine a British contemporary of Rotky's printing on heavy card. It isn't possible. Behind Kirkpatrick there is Hiroshige and an understanding of the way images work. (See The boats of Venice )

You only have to look at the British artists who were exhibiting in Vienna at the beginning of the C20th to understand how little interest the Austrians had in the British idea of an original print. Neither William Nicholson nor Frank Brangwyn printed their own work. Even worse, Nicolson engraved on box the way a newspaper illustrator would but made his prints appear to be woodcuts. This was the artifice the Austrians admired and which formed the basis of so much modern design.

Wednesday, 13 September 2023

The week on ebay plus arts & crafts in California



I have to lead with the S.G. Boxsius woodcut Winter because it is so unusual to have a print begin with a low starting bid. This is in overall good condition apart from some foxing in the margin and into the image. Any white flecks you can see are intentional, there was never a pencil signature on any of this series and the hand-made japan he used here makes the print something special. The black is printer's ink but the rest of the water-based inks shimmer. Not typical of him but all in all Boxsius at his magical best.

From Germany we have Ilsa Koch Amberg's vibrant Zinnia's. Stylish, eloquent and original, it  has a lot more impact than Walter Phillip's depiction of the same flowers (above). Popular in the 1920s an 1930s as garden plants but not seen very much today, both prints of zinnias are good examples of the way a well-chosen subject helps make a colour woodcut work. The Phillips is one of a group of British, American and Canadian colour woodcuts at the California Historical Design auction of Arts and Crafts on 16th and 17th September and the catalogue is well worth browsing through even if you don't intend to buy

Also included is Dean Babcock's nicely-handled mountain scene Tamina Peak  The faux naif touch and all-over rugged values give it away as American rather than Austrian or German. I have no doubt it will not be cheap even though it will have less actual interest as a print than the Boxsius snow scene. By comparison, I think that will be better value but as a reader suggested American prints are going to attract American buyers.

It may be the same situation for Alfred Peter's colour woodcut bookplates. They are no longer the bargains they used to be. I bought this ex libris for O Bertschi when they only cost a few pounds. They are a bit more now but remain still well worth having if you like small works to put in portfolios. This one makes great use of only three colours and his trademark sense of design.

Nearer to home is the Birmingham artist Ivy Anne Ellis. Strangely enough two people have recently mentioned either Ellis or the Birmingham group of artists she belonged to. She was the most prolific but was not always as successful as she is here in Columbines. The other woodcut currently for sale on British ebay is not as good How she ended up for sale in California is another thing.

A well-made woodcut by Wilfred Rene Wood (above) of an English town at dawn has been been languishing on British ebay for some while now. At £150 it is not all that expensive but Wood was a late-comer to the roller-coaster colour woodcut scene and does not have a fan-base (and never will). The trade never learn that a colour woodcut is not going to sell simply because it is a colour woodcut. He was fond of architectural prints which made them long like this one. Unfortunately architecture does not have the same appeal it had in the twenties and thirties. I might buy it at half the price but other than that I suspect it is dead in the water.

The same goes for John Platt's The Vltava at Prague. £950 is a lot to ask for a print that is all skill and no content. Completed in May, 1930, it came at the end of a long series of meticulous prints depicting boats and water that began with The jetty, Sennen Cove in 1921 and came to a dead-end with Mullion Cove early in 1931. As such it is only for die-hard fans, which counts most of us out. It is no more than another detailed and clever work by John Platt. Frankly, I could not care less and if I remember rightly none of us could when this print came up for auction on ebay some years ago. All we were interested in was the price it would fetch and since then we have all moved on.

As I was singing the praises of Dagmar Hooch not all that long ago I should not miss her out this jolly but stylish print of nasturtiums. The different tones she used suggest it was a decorating piece intended to match a variety of colour schemes in the manner of John Hall Thorpe. The fussy vase lets it down but I suppose you can't have everything.

This brings me to  Hans Figura's evocation of boats with coloured sails moored along the Grand Canal at Venice. What this has is intelligence and panache. No colour woodcut artist in their right mind could resist such craft and they became almost a sub-genre to themselves with the most perceptive colour woodcutters. Ethel Kirkpatrick, Carl Thiemann and Ada Collier made prints as full of admiration of the Italian scene as this one. Nowhere ever had a better waterfront than Venice and no waterfront ever had more glorious boats than these. This is the heartland of our culture, a factor never found in John Platt.

Monday, 11 September 2023

Update on SG Boxsius 'Ruins at Walberswick' at Dallas


I thought about calling this update 'Ruins at Dallas' because I am told SG Boxsius' Ruins at Walberswick sold for only $150 yesterday. The only interest came from a reader who assumed it would go higher and tells me he had not intended to bid. I say all this only because there is no certainty about the way a print of even this standard will go and it is always worth watching a lot as my reader did. I can understand why such a dark print might not have general appeal but sooner or later there will be none to buy at all. Finally, I am always pleased when readers do well and in this case the longer the reader owns 'Ruins at Dallas' the more it will prove to have been a great opportunity he did not miss.

In his own view a print by an American artist would have created more interest. As it was the Boxsius was lost amongst the furniture and jewellery.

Wednesday, 6 September 2023

Ian Cheyne's 'The breakwater' at auction in Chicago


The great city of Chicago is many things but one thing it is not; it is not the Centre for Ian Cheyne Studies. A reader in Scotland told me on Monday about the current sale of Ian Cheyne's colour woodcut The breakwater in the city. Unfortunately, Hindman Auctions have chosen to use a handwritten description on the back of the picture that says the work is a colour linocut called 'The Great Wave'. Why it is hard to say. It is easy enough to discover the facts about Cheyne's print. Both the British Museum (above) and the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers (below) have correct description of Cheyne's print although the approach taken by the two institutions is different. The British Museum provide details of the inscriptions and of the work's provenance as well as giving the correct date for the first time it was exhibited. All we get from the Zimmerli is the title and a useful photograph of the complete proof. The British Museum's print was bought from them by the Contemporary Art Society in 1941 but we are given no clues about the Cheyne print at Rutgers which lacks the artist's signature as you can probably make out.

It may go without saying you will not find a signature on the Chicago proof either. It hails from the estate of the distinguished American photographer and philanthropist Lucia Woods Lindley and against all the conventions of framing an original print, 'The Great Wave' is mounted to the edge of the image, leaving everyone to conclude Cheyne never signed it. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with the print. All I know is in the early 1980s, Alan Guest tracked down Cheyne's widow, Jessie Garrow, by the straightforward expedient of going through the Glasgow telephone directory. One result of his diligence was the London dealer Robin Garton visiting Garrow and buying a number of proofs. The artist died in 1983 and in the spring of 1986 twelve Cheyne prints went up for sale at the Alpine Gallery in Mayfair with seven bearing a violet studio stamp.  All the others were signed - and I am not suggesting they necessarily came from the studio. My own proof of Summer picnic came from Manou Sharma Levy on Portobello Road.

The curious thing is The breakwater was not one of them, leading me to wonder where these two unsigned proofs came from (and I admit I cannot be certain the Chicago print isn't signed). The only place Cheyne prints normally come up for sale now is in Scotland. Even by the standard of his contemporaries, Cheyne's editions were small and of the edition of only 20 for The breakwater, all were sold. Cheyne kept meticulous records of all the sales he made from 1925 onwards, though even here there are discrepancies because I have recently discovered there are at least two other colour woodcuts that do not appear on the definitive list. You may also ask yourself where I came upon one of the actual blocks for the print (above). I always believed all the surviving blocks were still in Glasgow but I was wrong. The four blocks made for what I want to call A bigger splash are all at Rutgers University.

I have to leave you to draw your own conclusions because I am not finished with Chicago. To give an idea of what was happening, I am going to quote from my own book. 'In December, 1929, Glen Cluanie (1929) and The fisherman's church (1929) were selected for the Art Institute of Chicago's Third International Exhibition of Lithography and Wood Engraving and yet again Cheyne's talent proved irresistible. Glen Cluanie was awarded the Brewster Prize as a meritorious print, with Cheyne selling eight proofs as the exhibition toured the U.S. As with Read at Los Angeles, originality had won out and it was soon apparent that the lowered blocks and graduated areas of colour first used in Summer picnic were to be the most original features of an unsurpassed series of Highland prints.'

The proof illustrated here is the Art Institute's own. As it is marked '6 proofs available for sale price $10' and the Institute's is 12/20, it appears Cheyne had already sold a further two at Chicago. This suggests Alans Guest's version (which appears in an unpublished essay about Cheyne) was misleading. It all goes to show once more that what we need is a full and proper catalogue of Cheyne's prints. Unlike Seaby, this is not a daunting task. The notebooks should still be in Scotland and there are new prints by Cheyne appearing online, including the etching owned by a fortunate reader, that present a different picture from the one in Cheyne's own well-kept accounts. 

The accounts are all very well but the fact is it is Ian Cheyne we know too little about not collectors, not least the ones in the United States, who were after all the people helping to support Cheyne. Following his success there, Cheyne and Garrow were able to marry and spent their honeymoon travelling in France and Spain. On their return to Glasgow, Cheyne then made Mediterranean bar, the best and most audacious art deco print ever made in Britain and one that has found a good home in a city famed for its art deco seafront. No, this time I mean Miami.

The post also includes Jessie Garrow's The wave and Eric Slater's Rough seas. Lots for the timed auction at Hindman end on 11th September, 2023.

Sunday, 3 September 2023

Results of the sale at Banbury (and what you did not see there)


I would like to say that any one of the colour prints you see here came up for sale at Banbury rather than the ones that did, but all of them are as rare as anything is going to be and would attract any serious collector. But I have brought them up from my records and thought it was a good idea to let readers see some of the work that does not come up for sale at all often. This is not to disparage the prints that were sold. I would have bought any of them but I needed to a bookcase and fridge instead.

I have been warned to let you know that online buyers needed to pay 40% more than the hammer price. The buyers premium of 31.2% includes VAT and on top of that online sales are subject to a further fee of  8.2%, also including VAT. The effect was to depress prices and meant that once the vendor had paid their own fee, they would not be getting very much. Overall it probably means you would be better off selling on ebay if you did not have to pack up all the stuff you have sold.

I was surprised Allen Seaby's woodcut Pewits was the most expensive at £500 (and altogether you would almost pay £700 which is not all that cheap for a piece of work that I personally think falls flat). The barn owl print was much better value at £240 and more attractive than a fridge. It would end up costing you about £330 and as I could have got to Banbury on the train I could have picked it up.

The Phillips went cheap at £420 although the auctioneers did themselves and their vendors no favours by putting up poor photographs. Considering the photos have to be paid for by the vendor, it makes the whole situation even worse. It's all a bit of a stunt but there you are, and going by what you can pay for a Phillips from a dealer, someone will be pleased.

As predicted, John Hall Thorpe's prices are going nowhere and are well below what they were in their heyday ten years ago. We all knew he was overpriced then and scoffed but I would have gladly paid £130 for this pair of prints. The fuss over Hall Thorpe tended to obscure the fact that his work is well-made indeed. He had been a professional block-cutter in Australian before he came to Britain and had a good eye for colour. What he did not do was print the work himself, something the labels make clear. This never seemed to put buyers off in the past and for that type of decorative work it hardly matters.

The Urushibara was another reasonable buy at £250. Read's Venetian shawl was even better at £270 given the poor condition of so many of the proofs I have seen and the place the woodcut has in British colour woodcut history. Read was the only British colour woodcut artists to pull portraiture off. Not only that, he singlehandedly reinvented the medium for a post-war audience who no longer wanted the earnest work of the pre-war arts and crafts movement.

I have no doubt you will also want to know what the prints are that did not come up for sale at Banbury (and which will probably not come up for sale anywhere soon). First of all comes S. G. Boxsius' diminutive masterpiece Bowsprits. Despite the poor quality of the reproduction, the work stands out as Boxsius at his most Boxsius, with all that that means. Far more rare is Phyllis Platt's stylish portrait of her daughter, Una, lying reading on a sofa. This has never appeared online until today and very few people  have ever seen it. I found the illustration in a catalogue that was sent to me. I probably don't need to say she was the wife of John Platt but typically we know very little about her. The third print is Seaby's Karnack from 1925, followed by a more interesting early colour woodcut of a St Ives shop window by the Scottish artist, Frances Blair. Below that is Edward Ashendens's Old Icelander. He is best known as a designer of dioramas but here is making a creditable colour woodcut. Continuing the theme of ships and the sea, there is Hugo Henneberg's important colour linocut Dalmatia and then Kenneth Broad with all his originality and sense of style to the fore in a subtle and sensitive colour woodcut he simply called Hastings.

Friday, 1 September 2023

A catalogue of the colour woodcuts of Allen Seaby

I once tried to get hold of the exhibition catalogues owned by the writer on colour woodcut, Alan Guest, but was unsuccessful. I was told they were 'only lists' even though such catalogues are invaluable to anyone putting together a detailed catalogue of an artist's work. They form the basis for any scholarship and are no less important for the collectors who preserve the work itself. A number of catalogues for both American and British colour print artists have been published over the past ten years or so. Robert Meyrick's work on Sydney Lee was a model of its kind and of the books published in the U.S., Dominique Vasseur's Edna Boise Hopkins from 2008 is the most attractive and useable. A catalogue was beyond the scope of Martin Andrews and Robert Gillmor's 2014 book Allen W Seaby, art and nature but it was a missed opportunity nevertheless. To my knowledge there are at least eighty colour woodcuts made between 1900 and circa 1940. Mabel Royds was the only other artist making colour prints over that same period. She started out only about a year before Seaby and continued to work up until long before her death in 1941. Unlike Seaby we know what all of Royds' prints look like (though one or two may not have appeared online).

The main resource I have for Seaby is Alan's list of prints exhibited with the Society of Graver Printers in Colour between 1910 and 1938. Alan could be circumspect and how he came to see the exhibition catalogues he based the list on, I do not know. What the National Art Library in London have, I don't remember offhand. All I possess are photocopies of the six or seven catalogues owned by Seaby himself but from what I see on the internet, about eight exist which cannot be found on the main list by Alan Guest. None have titles and some of them would only appeal to a serious collector of Seaby's work. But they are all interesting. What is more you only need to look at Old English pheasants at the top to see what has been missed. If the image above can be identified as Porta Pinciana, at least we have a date. The pheasants find Seaby in the unfamiliar territory of the Scottish wildlife artist Archibald Thorburn who was old seven years older. As a general rule, Seaby appealed to the naturalist rather than the sportsman but here we have him giving the sporting print a go. It is a good print and one i would like to own but it may have been too genre for Seaby to exhibit. Without a catalogue with the relevant details, we can only make guesses about what his intentions were.

It was not until I began to try and sort out sundry lapwing woodcuts this week that I realised how much work still remained unaccounted for. It is not enough to say that Seaby was prolific; he was obsessively hard-working. Even so, it surprised me how little we knew. But judge for yourself. How many of you have seen these cows before? And does anyone know the title? I am sure this must be a very early work made before Seaby was competent with the keyblock. So far as I can make out, he has used silhouette and black-and-white instead and though few of us would rush out and buy it, it is very informative about the progress the artist was making with the medium But where exactly does it fit in? 1900, 1901?Without the catalogue, we just have no real idea. It has to be said, Seaby never made it easy for us. Few prints have titles and so far as I know none have dates. Nor was he beyond selling unsigned prints if he believed the standard of printing was inferior. This is why he took care to sign them in the block and again a catalogue would contain all the relevant information and it would be possible to say when the habit of signing in the block began.

Now you may be saying to yourself, why is he going on about Seaby when he could be telling us more about Helen Stevenson or Sylvan Boxsius? Good question. And I have an answer. If Seaby had made exceptional colour woodcuts for ten or fifteen years, it still would not have mattered so very much. The truth is Seaby is everyone's idea of a colour woodcut artist and is archetypal in a way no other artist could be. He was already forming his ideas about design by the late 1890s, a process that only came to an end when war broke out in 1939. This means his output lies at the dead centre of the story of British colour woodcut and that a full catalogue of his prints would be of much greater use than any of the ones we have including for John Platt, Yoshijiro Urushibara and Arthur Rigden Read. It does not matter how good those catalogues are, Seaby should have come first and the prints you see here tell us why. 

If this is the kind of work he did on an off-day or for some reason decided not to exhibit, how much does it say about the colour woodcuts he did put on show? What is important about Seaby is not only the standard of his work; the influence he had has not been assessed at all properly. It is easy enough to detect the influence of Hokusai or Koson on his own work. What is harder to ascertain is how far he set an example. I have to convince myself the beach scene actually is by Seaby at all, but for my money, it is where John Platt's famous The giant stride begins but again, without details, how can we say? The kingfisher was first exhibited in 1910 but by then Seaby had found his own way with the intractable keyblock. The kingfisher finds him struggling to make the bird stand clear of the confusing marks behind it. By the time he made the pheasants he had perfected the technique of experimental cutting where he kept taking trial proofs as he removed more wood from the background. By anyone's standards, The kingfisher is an expressive print but the background remains unresolved.

Many artists have been praised by Modern Printmakers but how many of them produced a body work you could follow through as I have just tried to do with Seaby? Seaby is all about identification. He was less concerned to encourage us to look at animals from the outside as Thorburn did; he wanted them to live in front of us. This exceptional gift is not found everywhere in his work. This does not make prints like Bay of Salamis from 1929 unimportant only less crucial. It has come up online recently but if you want to find Assisi (1928) The Parthenon (1928) Acropolis, Athens (1932) or Crossing the Nile at Luxor (1932) you will search in vain. I know surmise is often foolish but all I can say is he sold so few of them, none has have as yet come up for sale again. Bay of Salamis was itself bought up from the vaults by an academic from the University of Reading but has not as yet stood the money test like an unattractive print of The Adoration I remember going fairly cheap on ebay. Kings of Orient is much better but you will need to ignore the hackneyed figures if you buy it. Whether we like these prints or not, they help to suggest what his real strengths were.

No one could fault Seaby for not trying even if Lake Lucerne from the end of his woodcut career in 1937 is more of a watercolour than it should be. Taking a broader view, two remarks made about Seaby by his contemporaries come to mind. A reviewer of one of his books noted signs of deterioration in his drawing and wondered whether Seaby 'had drawn too much'. Another critic who went to see his second one-man show may have been the first person to say what we tend to take for granted, namely Seaby was at his best with birds. I have tried to suggest what it was about birds and their habits that meant so much. All the same we are still in need of perspective about his work and in the end a catalogue will be the only way we can find it.

Tuesday, 29 August 2023

Four new linocuts by Laurence Bell

I know there is more than one reader who collects the colour linocuts made by Laurence Bell. These images may not be new to them but they are new to me so I decided to put them up to augment the examples that have already been posted on the blog.  The windmill above reminds me of the work of E.C.A, Brown and the clogs worn by the woman in the print below means the subject is French. (For readers who are not British, clogs were only worn in England in the 1920s by northern mill workers and I don't believe they were all wood like those in the picture).

The photos are not all square but the colours look right and the one above has a title The shepherdess. Sometimes it is not easy to work out what Bell was intending but the more we see of his work, the more it all starts to make sense. The titles do not always give very much away and the tones he uses are deceiving and make everywhere look like the veldt (though admittedly some prints are of South African subjects)

Russet and blue (above) is better known but is included here because for the first time we have a title for it. The one below I have never seen before and despite the high colour, I assume the subject is Sussex (in common with the one at the top) as the trees are English elm. His use of strong colour has the effect of making the places he depicts look generic but I have come to the conclusion Bell usually worked from the subject as he did with 'The Mermaid' tavern at Rye.

There are a number of tree prints that have a samey feel, including the one below sent to me only today by another contributing reader from Chicago and who did not hang around. If you only have one or two things by Belll, it hardly makes any difference how many elegant trees there are, though note the difference between the elms and the French poplars. This is a particularly good one and a good photograph as well. It presumably shows Chateau Gaillard and may have been online before but these things come and go, so it always a good idea to replace them when they do.